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REU Physical Sciences Program

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Physical Science Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

The Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Physical Sciences (Earth and Planetary Sciences and Astrophysics) is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Museum's Division of Physical Sciences—in collaboration with the City University of New York (CUNY)—is pleased to offer summer undergraduate research opportunities in Astrophysics, and Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Our program brings approximately eight students to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City each summer for a ten-week experience working with our curators, faculty, and post-doctoral fellows. Students receive a $5000 traineeship stipend, as well as per diem costs for housing and meals, relocation expenses, and transportation subsidies. Housing is made available at nearby Columbia University.

In addition to conducting original research projects throughout the summer, students participate in a series of weekly meetings at which they discuss their research, present informal progress reports, and engage in discussions and seminars regarding scientific research, graduate school, and research career opportunities. At the conclusion, they deliver oral presentations of their work and prepare publication quality research papers. The program is open to all students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, in any two or four year undergraduate degree program, who will not have completed a bachelor's degree before September 1, 2020.  

Who Should Apply

All students in the program must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or permanent residents of the United States. Students must be entering or continuing in an Associates or Baccalaureate degree program following their summer internship. As part of the National Science Foundation's commitment to broadening participation in STEM fields, we especially encourage students who come from community colleges, undergraduate-only institutions, and minority-serving institutions to apply.  Apply Now!

For assistance with application process, contact [email protected]

*Application deadline has been extended through Feb. 7

2020 Project Titles 

Calibrating Corals for North Atlantic Oscillation Reconstructions

Calibrating Corals for North Atlantic Oscillation Reconstructions

Mentor: Nathalie Goodkin (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences)

Marine carbonates record chemical changes based on the environment in which they form. In corals this includes the ratio of strontium to calcium (Sr/Ca) and oxygen isotopes (δ18O). Sr/Ca changes in coral skeleton based on the temperature of the water and δ18O changes with both sea surface temperature and salinity. By examining these chemical records back through time we are able to unlock earth’s climate variability including systems like the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The NAO is an atmospheric oscillation that drives surface temperature, storm tracks and wave heights for example from the United States to Europe leaving a clear imprint on sea surface temperature (Fig. 1a). Many reconstructions exist from trees and corals, but no records exist from the negative focal point in the southern Caribbean Sea.

In this project, the student will study the chemical proxies of a coral from Tobago (Fig. 1b) to calibrate the key environmental proxies using gridded instrumental data of sea surface temperature and salinity and self-generated chemical proxy data. Work will be conducted in collaboration with Dr. Nathalie Goodkin and graduate student, Ross Ong.


Merging Black Holes in Dwarf Galaxies

Burst of light as black holes in dwarf galaxies merge in space.

Mentor: Jillian Bellovary (Astrophysics, Division of Physical Sciences)

Merging black holes produce gravitational waves, giving us clues to their mass, spin, and distance. Massive black holes probably exist in dwarf galaxies, but discovering them is difficult. If we can discover merging black holes in dwarf galaxies, we will have the answers we seek! My student will analyze cosmological simulations of galaxies which include dwarf galaxies and massive black holes. The student will use python to determine when black hole mergers happen, where they occur, and if they will be detectable with the upcoming LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission.


Petrology and Petrography of Chesapeake Bay Impact Ejecta

Example of a typical Georgia tektite, from Albin, 1996.

Mentors: Denton Ebel (Curator, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences) and Steven Jaret (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences)

Approximately 35 million years ago, a large asteroid collided with the eastern seaboard of North America, near what is now Chesapeake Bay. This impact created an ~85 km diameter impact structure and imparted irresolvable shock damage to the target lithologies. This includes major structural deformation, individual mineral deformation (i.e., shocked quartz, and formation of high-pressure, high-temperature silicate phases), and the formation of impact melt.

The Chesapeake Bay Impact Structure is also one of only 5 impact structures on Earth to have produced ejecta strewn fields that include macro-scale tektites. These tektites, which are high grade impact glass, occur in two locations: East-Central Georgia near the town of Bleckley, GA and East Texas near the towns of Bedias, TX outside of College Station. We will explore the Georgia tektites from a petrologic and petrographic standpoint, with particular attention to their connection to shocked minerals found within the glass and in a discrete ejecta horizon outcrop.

This project will utilize microscopy techniques including standard petrographic analysis with optical microscopy, backscatter electron imaging and quantitative electron microprobe analyses as well as shock petrography on quartz and zircon inclusions with the glass and associated ejecta. We will also explore statistical aspects of macro-tektite occurrences within the reworked sedimentary units in Georgia. This will shed light on the true extent of tektite production as well as preservation and collection biases.


Starburst and Post-Starburst Galaxies at Multiple Wavelengths


Mentor: Charles Liu (Astrophysics, Division of Physical Sciences)

Research projects are available to students who will work with images and spectra—mostly from the SDSS-IV MaNGA dataset—of nearby starburst and post-starburst galaxies, at wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet and visible to infrared and radio. Each part of the electromagnetic spectrum reveals a different facet of the evolution of these galaxies, from the birth of new stars to the feeding of supermassive black holes to the quenching of star formation; with these studies, we will seek to assemble an integrated view of the stellar populations and star formation histories of these galaxies as they transform over billions of years.


Low-mass Stars, Brown Dwarfs and Exoplanet Analogs

Kelle Cruz REU Pic

Mentors:  Jackie Faherty, Kelle Cruz, Emily Rice, Johanna Vos, Daniella Bardalez-Gagliuffi, and the BDNYC group (Astrophysics, Division of Physical Sciences)

In the Brown Dwarfs in NYC (BDNYC) research group we study the intersection of properties of low mass stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets using observations and model comparison. Brown dwarfs are the lowest mass stars and can have masses, temperatures, and atmospheres very similar to giant exoplanets. A variety of projects are available on these topics including how they move in space (kinematics), spectra and chemical compositions, binary properties, and magnetic activity.


Are Binary Stars Born the Same Everywhere?

Left: Graph displaying light versus phase of binary stars. Right: Binary stars in space.

Mentor: Michael Shara  (Astrophysics, Division of Physical Sciences)

For the past 20 years astronomers have believed the results of two major surveys (Latham et al 2002, and Carney et al 2005) which claimed that the fraction of binary stars is about 2/3 of all stars, and that it is constant throughout our Milky Way Galaxy. (Our Sun, as a single star, thus appears to be somewhat exceptional!). The binary fraction is one of the most basic things we can know about stars. It has profound consequences for the rates of supernovae and nova explosions in galaxies, the rate of expulsion of gas from galaxies, the enrichment in heavy elements of successive generations of stars and the rates of neutron star mergers.  

A major reanalysis of these and other surveys has recently led to the revolutionary claim that "The Close Binary Fraction of Solar-type Stars Is Strongly Anticorrelated with Metallicity” (Moe et al, The Astrophysical Journal  vol. 875, page 61 (2019). If this extraordinary claim is correct, then much of the modeling of stellar explosions and mergers is wrong, or at least incomplete. Fortunately there is a rigorous observational test of the Moe et al (2019) claim that is straightforward to carry out. That test, which the REU student will carry out, is to measure the relative fractions of contact binary stars in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Moe et al’s work predicts twice as many CBs in the SMC as in the LMC. Either they are right, or they are wrong…the best kind of astronomical prediction.

Contact binaries (CBs) are strongly interacting binaries, with orbital periods of 5-24 hours, in which both components share a common envelope…the stars “touch” (see the artists’ image). 0.2% of stars in the solar neighborhood are CBs. Their smooth, ellipsoidal light curves and large amplitudes (up to 0.9 mags) make them easy to discover (see the light curve of a typical CV). We have several nights of continuous CCD observations  in each of the LMC and SMC which each resolve about 1 Million stars including hundreds of CBs  with orbital periods of 6–8 hours. The REU student will search for the variable stars that are contact binaries in each galaxy, and determine whether or not there are 2X more strongly interacting binaries in the SMC than in the LMC. If there ARE twice as many close binaries in the SMC as in the LMC then the Moe et al (2019) claim is strongly supported, overturning two decades of orthodoxy regarding binarity, which is one of the most fundamental aspects of star formation. 


Determining Star and Planet Parameters with TESS

Determining Star and Planet Parameters with TESS

Mentor: Samuel Grunblatt (Astrophysics,Division of Physical Sciences)

The newly launched NASA TESS telescope is designed to find hundreds of Earth-like planets around nearby stars in our Galaxy. However, it will also provide light curves for hundreds of thousands of stars without transiting planets, and those light curves can also be used to measure stellar rotation and activity, and understand stars across our Galaxy as well. A wide variety of projects are available to characterize planetary systems, study stellar populations, and measure star and planet properties using the data available from TESS.


Confirmation of Hot Jupiter Re-Inflation with NASA Spitzer Data

Confirmation of Hot Jupiter Re-Inflation with NASA Spitzer Data

Mentor: Samuel Grunblatt (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences)

We now know of over 4000 planets orbiting stars outside of our Solar System. However, many mysteries about these planets remain. How did they form? What are their atmospheres like? Are they anything like our Earth?

For this project, a student will be investigating the atmospheres of hot Jupiters orbiting red giant stars, some of the most exotic planetary systems we know of. By analyzing light curve data from both the NASA Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes, the planetary atmosphere can be measured more precisely than ever before, giving new insights into how the planet formed and evolved over time.


The Origin of Opaque Nodules in Ordinary Chondrites

X-ray area map (left) and close-up (right) of sulfide, metal, and oxide nodules among chondrules and matrix in the Semarkona chondrite.

MentorDenton Ebel and Samuel Alpert (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences)

Chondritic meteorites are central to our understanding of the formation and accretion of the earliest solids formed in the solar system, the precursors to planets. The chondrules, amoeboid olivine aggregates and Ca-, Al-rich inclusions in them represent clasts that were free-floating in the nebula prior to accretion with fine grained matrix. But there are also nodular aggregates of metal, sulfide and oxide minerals that are opaque in transmitted light. The origin of these nodules, their relationship to chondrules, and the fractionation of metal from silicate are all open questions.

The student will receive a crash course in solar system origins and meteorite petrology. We will use optical and electron microscopy to study opaque nodules in L and H ordinary chondrites. The goal is to relate these nodules to those in LL chondrites (Alpert et al.,2019, LPSC XLIX, Abs. #2920), and propose answers to open questions.


Serpentinite polysome determination by FTIR measurements

Left: Chart of sample names categorized as Lizardite, Chrysotile, Antigorite. Right: Expoxy mounts of serpentinite.

Mentors: Céline Martin and Steven Jaret (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Division of Physical Sciences)

Serpentine minerals are common in suture zones. They result from the alteration of the mantle by aqueous fluid(s), derived either from seawater or from the slab dehydration. Serpentine minerals are represented by three different species (lizardite, chrysotile, and antigorite), called polysomes, which have the same chemical formula Mg3Si2O5(OH)4. Identifying the serpentine polysome gave information of their temperature of formation (lizardite and chrysotile form below 350 – 400ºC, while antigorite forms above 400 ºC), and therefore allow inferring in which environment they formed (mid-oceanic ridge, seafloor, subduction forearc, mantle wedge…).

However, in addition to have identical chemistry, serpentine minerals often present micrometric crystals, making impossible to determine their nature under the microscope. The identification of serpentine polysome is based on crystallographic parameters, and they can therefore be determined either by X-Ray diffraction, or by vibrational spectroscopy, such as Raman spectroscopy. Similar to Raman spectroscopy, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is another vibrational spectroscopic tool that senses bond interactions within crystal lattices. FTIR, however, is much more sensitive to orientation effects, and has therefore previously been used primarily on powders or bulk samples. We seek to explore whether the crystallographic vibrational differences among the serpentine species are more distinct than the orientation effects. If such is the case, then FTIR mapping in thin section could be combined with high spatial resolution in-situ chemical analyses (such as LA-MC-ICP-MS) and allow for correlative structural and chemical studies.

This project will be conducted on well-characterized serpentinite samples from Guatemala, Corsica, and the East Coast of the US (~ 12 samples from each location). Their polysome has already be identified by X-Ray diffraction or by Raman spectroscopy. The REU student will learn preparing samples for FTIR analyses, then perform the analyses on the new FTIR machine of the EPS department at AMNH. He/she will finally compare the FTIR results with the polysomes determined by conventional X-Ray diffraction or by Raman spectroscopy.