Astronomy Research STEP Reflection

My STEP project involved learning about quasars and working to understand a program which analyses quasars. The physical properties of quasars are not well understood, therefore my advisor and his collaborators created a program named SimBAL to estimate the physical properties of quasars. My involvement in the research is mainly in a computer science aspect. I have learned about quasars and studied the program so that we can optimize its use and cut down the time it takes to run it.

Being involved in the research project improved my programming skills greatly. I am relatively fluent in Java but this project involved programming in Python, the language which is becoming the most commonly used programming language in a variety of fields. SimBAL is a data analysis program in that it takes in data, spectra from quasars, and analyses them to produce a result, the physical parameters of the quasar. Thus, I have gained further knowledge about data analysis and how programs work to produce the desired results. Since my involvement in the project focuses on speeding up the program I have gained skills in algorithmic analysis, finding the components of a program which slow it down.

The biggest transformation came in the form of my confidence though. Just being asked to join this project increased my confidence in my astronomy and computer science skills. Then, through working on the project, I have gained confidence in my ability to explain my research, and greater confidence in my understanding of astronomy and computer science.

My advisor was the one who reached out to me about this project. He thought of me because he remembered my interest in computer science and desire to go into data analytics. Simply the fact that I was the person he thought of for this project made me more confident because it showed that I stood out to him and he remembered where my interests were. Our weekly meetings helped me feel more confident in talking about and explaining my research as we spent some time just learning about quasars so I had a strong scientific understanding of the objects we are analyzing.

I also gained confidence in asking questions between our weekly meetings and the information and tasks I was sent. Without asking questions I would have gotten stuck many times, so I had to increase my confidence in asking questions in order to complete the tasks I was given and to better understand both the program and science behind the program. Since most of my tasks involved manipulating the program to produce different plots and diagrams I developed computer science skills. Perhaps one of my proudest moments was when I was able to create a filled contour plot using some of our data, mostly because the result was a pretty graph.

Concurrently with my research this past semester, I was in a CSE class about algorithmic analysis. This class along with my research provided me with a better understanding of what makes a good program and the changes that can be made to optimize a program. In my research we looked at several aspects of SimBAL that can be changed to decrease the running time. These solutions include things from writing it in a different programming language to running it on graphical processing units instead of central processing units. These changes would change nothing about how the program works, they would just speed it up, and we thought of these changes through algorithmic analysis.

Confidence is helpful in every aspect of life. This past semester I found it easier to contact professors when I ran into issues and I have found that I do not have as much anxiety around making phone calls anymore. These skills are both communication based and communication is important in any career, so increased confidence in communication definitely gives me a boost.

My desire is to go into the field of data analytics after graduating so all the programming, data analysis, and algorithmic analysis skills I have built during this project will certainly help in a potential career in data analytics. My project is similar to what I would be doing as a data analyst, just with astronomy data.

This image shows the spectrum of a quasar along with two spectra created by SimBAL which estimate the physical properties of the quasar.

This image shows the spectrum of a quasar along with two spectra created by SimBAL which estimate the physical properties of the quasar.

This image shows a color contour plot describing properties of a quasar.