Projects

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 provide 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.


RESEARCH PROJECT DESCRIPTIONS

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.


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.


Dr. Claude-André Faucher-Giguère
Using supercomputer simulations to understand the formation of galaxies

Our group develops 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 evolved 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, the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes, and the interaction of galaxies with their cosmological environment. A summer project in our group would typically consist of analyzing simulations to investigate some of these questions. Another possible emphasis would be on the development of effective scientific 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.


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 data of a class of particularly energetic explosions, gamma-ray bursts. Depending on the skills and interests of the student, they may also have the option to perform a more programming-oriented and computationally-intensive project that will need knowledge of Python and basic command-line skills.


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.


Dr. Vicky Kalogera and Dr. Christopher Berry
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.


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.


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 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 applying advanced mapmaking algorithms on high performance clusters to data collected during the 2019 flight of BLAST.


Dr. Magdalena Osburn
Lipid Biomarkers in Subsurface Environments

Biological molecules record information about both their formation environment and the organisms that produce them.  Dr. Osburn uses research tools from organic geochemistry, microbiology, and stratigraphy to investigate microbial and biogeochemical cycling in both modern and ancient environments.  The student will work with Dr. Osburn and her group to study a class of molecules called lipids, found in microbes on Earth, and s/he will focus particularly on microbes from subsurface environments on Earth.  Our understanding of these subsurface Earth microbes will allow us to prepare for future experiments in Mars landers and to hypothesize about conditions necessary for life to exist on (or inside of) asteroids and exoplanets.   Students with a background in biology and/or chemistry are particularly encouraged to apply.


Dr. Fred Rasio and Dr. Mario Spera
Black holes, stellar dynamics, and high performance computing

Globular clusters (GCs) are very crowded stellar environments where dynamical interactions frequently trigger the formation of many exotic objects. In particular, GCs may form many merging compact-object binaries during their life, making them unique gravitational-wave source factories. Thanks to ground-based and (soon) space-based gravitational-wave interferometers, we can literally “hear” the coalescence and merger of many compact-object binaries in the Universe, but what we still do not know is how such fascinating systems formed and evolved. Understanding in more detail the evolution of stars and compact objects in  GCs may be the key to answer these open questions and to ultimately provide an astrophysical interpretation to present and forthcoming gravitational-wave detections.  The student will work closely with Dr. Rasio and the other members of his research group,  who will provide training in the area of stellar dynamics, stellar evolution and high-performance computing.  Specifically, the student will work with state-of-the-art computer simulations of globular clusters to study the formation and evolutionary pathways of different exotic objects, including merging compact-object binaries. Many different projects, focusing on different specific aspects, are available and easily accessible to undergraduates. Many of these projects require only a basic knowledge of classical mechanics and some computing experience.


 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.


Dr. Alexander Tchekhovskoy
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.


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. Or, the student will also analyze Hubble Space Telescope or X-ray Chandra/XMM images, all related to clusters of galaxies or the search for transient events that are rare/galaxy but each cluster has 1,000 galaxies.


Dr. Suzan van der Lee
Planets Earth, Mars, and Moon

Dr. van der Lee and her research group analyze waveform data (time series) of ground motion, called seismograms. Seismograms can contain seismic-wave signals from earthquakes, but also contain signals from many other processes and events, such as icequakes, atmospheric circulation, solid tides, explosions, ocean currents, storms,  etc.  A consortium of universities with seismology researchers has established a global, open data archive for seismograms recorded on Earth, Mars, and Moon, with the caveat that data volumes for each planet reach from 6 months of data from one detector on Mars, to several decades of data from thousands of detectors on Earth. Student research would be exploratory and focus on using and writing Python programs to compare subsets of this data between planets and draw conclusions about similarities, which could point to common processes or events, and differences, which could lead to new research questions.  Alternatively, research projects that focus on one of the planets can be identified in collaboration with Dr. van der Lee.

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