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CIERA Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU):
Research Project Descriptions

In the online application form, accessible from the applications page, you will list your top 5 choices for your summer research project from the options described below.

Please note: these descriptions detail the general research area of each faculty mentor. Each year, our REU students pursue unique, timely and important projects with the faculty mentors. Specific projects will be decided upon through discussions between students and mentors.

For all questions, please contact ciera-reu@northwestern.edu.

Bayliss research image

Dr. Alvin Bayliss
Astrobiology, applied math, and high performance computing

Astrobiologists study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This includes research into the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space. This project will involve studying the evolution of two competing species with nonlocal competition. The two species will be modeled by a system of two coupled partial differential equations for the populations which will account for species diffusion, natural birth rates for each species and intraspecies and interspecies competition, reflecting a competition for a scarce resource. In many real-life ecosystems the competition terms are nonlocal. This means that at each point in space they depend on a weighted average of the populations in a neighborhood of that point, rather than the populations only at that point. One way to visualize this is that if the competition involves water in a stream as a scarce resource, the effect of the competition depends on the average of the animals drinking from the stream not just the population at any fixed point along the stream. This nonlocality makes the equations of the model integro-differential equations, i.e., the equations have both derivative terms and integral terms. Nonlocality can have a very significant effect on the evolution of the populations of the two species. In this project the role of nonlocality will be studied both by analytic methods and by computational methods.

Abrams research image

Mike Cronin and Frank Elavsky
Interactive, Data Intensive, Astronomy Visualizations

Cronin and Elavsky are data visualization experts working within the Research Computer division of NUIT. In collaboration with Dr. Faucher-Giguère, Cronin and Elavsky (and Dr. Geller), are developing a versatile interactive visualization tool for exploring multi-dimensional particle data, called Firefly. Currently Firefly is being developed for analyzing and exploring the galaxy evolution models from Dr. Faucher-Giguère's group, with future broader uses in mind. The student would work on developing the visualization tool, and analyzing the results from the galaxy simulations using this tool. From this project, the student will gain an understanding of visualization techniques and best practices from experts in this field, and will help to develop a state-of-the-art visualization tool to analyze cutting edge astrophysics simulations.

de Gouvea research image

Dr. André de Gouvêa
Cosmological, astrophysical and laboratory neutrinos: theoretical physics

Dr. de Gouvêa's research group uses neutrinos as probes of the standard model of particle physics. Experiments have found evidence for new physics, first manifested in the leptonic sector in the form of neutrino masses. What does that tell us about the physics at very short distance scales? Are neutrinos like the quarks and charged leptons, or are they special? The student will investigate the properties of laboratory, astrophysical and cosmological neutrinos in the context of these questions.

Faucher-Giguere research image

Dr. Claude-André Faucher-Gigučre
Mining, analyzing, and visualizing large-scale cosmological simulations of galaxy formation

Our group develops and produces large-scale simulations that follow, in unprecedented detail, the formation of galaxies from the Big Bang all the way to the present time. These cosmological simulations are run on massively parallel supercomputers and produce extremely rich data sets that we use to address a wide variety of key scientific questions in astrophysics and cosmology, including the processes that regulate star formation and galaxy growth, the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes, and the nature of dark matter. A summer project in our group would consist of analyzing recently produced, state-of-the-art simulations. One particular emphasis would be on the development of effective visualization techniques to enable new discoveries using the complex simulation data. Due to the computational nature of the research, prior programming experience (especially in Python) and familiarity with Linux will be an asset to hit the ground running, but is not essential for students eager to learn those tools as part of the project.

Dahl research image

Dr. Wen-Fai Fong
Observing Explosive Transients

Dr. Fong and her group utilize observations across the electromagnetic spectrum to study explosive transients and their host galaxy environments. These transients include gamma-ray bursts, electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources, compact object binaries, supernovae, and anything that collides or explodes. To aid these efforts, Dr. Fong's group uses a large variety of telescopes, including the Very Large Array, MMT and Keck located in New Mexico, Chile, Hawaii and Arizona. In space, they use the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory. The student will work with data from these observatories to analyze the host galaxies of a class of particularly energetic explosions, short gamma-ray bursts. They will also have the option to perform a more programming-oriented and computationally-intensive project that will help prepare for Advanced LIGO/Virgo's next observing run, depending on the skills and interests of the student.

Dahl research image

Dr. Daniel Horton
Climate Change and Planet Habitability

Dr. Horton's Climate Change Research Group studies climate systems across diverse spatiotemporal scales using numerical models, observational datasets, statistical analyses, and machine learning techniques. Topics explored include the detection and attribution of recent climatic change, the near-term meteorological, societal, and public health impacts, of anthropogenic climate change, the evolution of Earth's climate system through geologic time, and the sensitivity of planetary habitable zones to atmospheric and orbital parameters. Students will be trained to test hypotheses using General Circulation Models, obtain observational and model data from international community research repositories, and analyze data using NCL, python, and/or Matlab scripting languages

Jacobsen research image

Dr. Seth Jacobson
Planetary Interiors and Matter at Extreme Conditions

Dr. Jacobson's group studies the history of solar system bodies as well as the formation of planetary systems in general including those around other stars. His group tests origin hypotheses by matching computational results to both astrophysical observations and laboratory measurements. Their models typically combine dynamics with chemistry to obtain novel constraints such as a new clock for dating the formation of Moon, a new hypothesis to explain the lack of a geodynamo on Venus, and a genetic connection between Mars and nearby asteroids. The students will be trained to understand the astrophysical observations and cosmochemical measurements that underpin the models they will be developing, as well as the necessary high performance computing methods.

Low research image

Dr. Vicky Kalogera
Astrophysics with gravitational waves and high-performance computing

As part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, Dr. Kalogera works on the development of methods for the extraction of astrophysical information from gravitational-wave signals. The detection of several such events has led to questions about how compact objects form and merge through gravitational waves. These methods involve large-scale computations including Markov Chain Monte Carlo sampling (especially focusing on measuring masses, spin, sky location and distance) and sophisticated hierarchical statistical models to obtain information about their populations. The student will be trained in the astrophysics of binary compact objects as well as in high-performance computing and applied mathematics. Other projects related to time-domain astronomy, supernova progenitors, and X-ray binaries are available in Kalogera’s group.

Larson research image

Dr. Shane Larson
Low-Frequency Gravitational Wave Astrophysics and Space-based Interferometers

The era of gravitational wave astronomy has begun with the first detections by the LIGO observatories. Like light, gravitational waves cover an entire spectrum. The space-based gravitational wave observatory LISA will launch late in the 2020s, and will see systems that are much larger than those observed by LIGO. Our group studies how LISA will reveal the astrophysics of massive black holes at the centers of galaxies, the evolution of millions of compact binary stars in the graveyard of the Milky Way, and the capture of small compact objects by massive black holes. We use computer simulations to understand the gravitational wave signals created by single systems, but also by all the systems that are simultaneously generating gravitational waves in a single galaxy. Students in our group simulate gravitational wave sources and assess how LISA will detect and characterize them in an effort to better understand the history of galaxies. Our group also has a strong interest in science communication and outreach in all branches of astronomy and physics.

Margutti research image

Dr. Raffaella Margutti
Eruptions, Disruptions and Stellar Explosions: the biggest fireworks in our Universe

Dr. Margutti's research group focuses on multi-wavelength observations (including Gamma-rays, X-rays, UV, Optical, NIR and radio observations) of the most dramatic outcomes from massive stars at the end of their lives: eruptions, supernova explosions (SNe) and compact stellar mergers that are sources of gravitational waves. Current projects include the study of the most luminous stellar explosions (i.e. the Super-Luminous SNe), Gamma-Ray bursts (i.e. relativistic blastwaves at cosmological distances), the new class of strongly interacting SNe, as well as the electromagnetic sources that accompany gravitational waves. The immediate goals are to shed light on the energy sources powering the explosions and constrain the peculiar properties of their progenitor stars. The student will have the opportunity to join the quest for stellar explosions in real time, while familiarizing with data across the electromagnetic spectrum and with the physics of the events that create the most extreme objects in our Universe (like Black Holes and Neutron Stars).

Motter research image

Dr. Yoram Lithwick
Exoplanet dynamics, applied math, and high-performance computing

Dr. Lithwick's research area is the dynamics of planets in planetary systems. The student will first learn to simulate a system of interacting planets with an N-body code. S/he will then use this to investigate the chaotic dynamics in a real exo-planetary system that was discovered by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. The goal is to understand the dynamical stability of the planetary system, and to see what that can teach us about the history of the system.

Novak research image

Dr. Giles Novak
Interstellar medium, instrumentation, and observation

Dr. Novak's research group specializes in the development of astronomical instrumentation used to study the interstellar medium and processes related to star/planet formation. Instruments are operated from mountaintop and stratospheric observatories scattered across the globe. Students in Novak's group build instrumentation, analyze data, and work on science results. Available student projects include construction and testing of pointing sensors for the BLAST balloon-borne telescope that is scheduled to fly over Antarctica in late 2018, calibration of the rapid-spinning polarization modulator for the TolTEC camera that will operate on the world's largest millimeter telescope which sits atop a 15,000 foot mountain in central Mexico, and running advanced mapmaking algorithms on high performance computing clusters.

Rasio research image

Dr. Fred Rasio
Exoplanets or black holes and high performance computing

One of the hottest areas today in astrophysics research is exoplanets, the study of planetary systems around other stars. We now know several thousands of these planets, and their properties have puzzled astronomers for many years, opening up many new research opportunities for theorists trying to understand them. Dr. Rasio has many projects available and easily accessible to undergraduates in the area of dynamics and formation of exoplanets. Many of these projects require only a basic knowledge of classical mechanics, and some computing experience. Current projects focus on tidal interactions between close-in planets and their star, and on the long-term stability and dynamical evolution of the compact, multi-planet systems discovered by NASA’s Kepler satellite. For students with an interest in high-performance computing and prior experience in computer simulations, projects are also available in stellar dynamics, with a current focus on the modeling of black holes in dense star clusters.

Schmitt research image

Dr. Michael Schmitt
Supernovae, Dark Energy, and statistics

The Schmitt group applies statistical techniques to understanding physical phenomena related to dark energy and particle collider physics. In this project, the student will learn about Type Ia supernovae that provide the means for measuring the accelerating expansion of the universe. The modeling of light curves serves as a primary focus for this research, but the longer term goal is reducing key systematic uncertainties and understanding the impact of new data on the dark matter equation of state.

Shahriar research image

Dr. Selim Shahriar
Gravitational waves , instrumentation, and high-performance computing

The Shahriar group is exploring the feasibility of realizing a table-top gravitational wave detector (GWD) using two orthogonal, square-shaped ring lasers. Each has its mirror displacement sensitivity drastically enhanced - by a factor as large as a million - by the use of the superluminal effect produced via anomalous dispersion. In this project, the student will work closely with one of the graduate students in Dr. Shahriar's research group to model the basic behavior of the GWD under various conditions. This theoretical modeling requires basic familiarity with atom-field interaction, suitable for an advanced undergraduate student.

Ulmer research image

Dr. Alexander Tcheckhovskoy
Black holes, neutron stars, accretion, jets, and outflows

Dr. Tchekhovskoy's group works on computational astrophysics, including large-scale numerical simulations as well as algorithm and code development. Dr. Tchekhovskoy's research focuses on black holes, neutron stars, accretion, jets, and outflows, ranging from investigating the basic physics of astrophysical jets and disks to applying the physics results to interpreting observations and directly predicting electromagnetic emission from simulations for comparison to observations. The methods include the numerical codes, which have been co-developed by students within the group, capable of massively parallel simulations of magnetized fluid dynamics around black holes and neutron stars. The students will be trained in the code development, massively parallel computing, and the analysis and interpretation of the simulation results in a wide range of astrophysical contexts.

Ulmer research image

Dr. Mel Ulmer
X-ray detectors and instrumentation

The success of future X-ray missions depends on improving the optics to better focus X-ray photons onto the detector. The student will work with Dr. Ulmer in his instrumentation lab to apply magnetic smart material to X-ray optics in an effort to improve the consistency of their shape and reflectivity. The student will also analyze Hubble Space Telescope or X-ray Chandra/XMM images, all related to clusters of galaxies.

Wu research image

Dr. Suzan van der Lee
Connecting planetary interiors and surface processes

Dr. van der Lee's group works on connections between the dynamics of planetary interiors with planetary surface processes. As a geophysicist, her favorite planet is Earth, including its earthquakes and natural disasters. Her group primarily uses large amounts of seismological data to make seismic ultra-sound ťand CAT-scan images of Earth's interior structures on multiple scales. They then analyze these structures to infer past, present, and future planetary dynamics, including how plate tectonic sustains itself, the fates of subducted Mesozoic ocean floors, how continents form, mechanisms of continental rifting, and the thickness and viscosity of continental portions of tectonic plates, among other things.