Texas Tech University

Physics Student's Internship Leads to Increased National Presence for Texas Tech

Glenys Young

September 17, 2019

Texas Tech will be the first U.S. mainland hub for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s National and International Non-Traditional Exchange program.

It's not every day that the stars align, even for astrophysicists. But that's how junior physics major Heather Harbin describes her summer internship at the headquarters of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia – and for good reason.

From left, NINE participant Alejandro Saravia, who is establishing a NINE Hub in Honduras; Anja Fourie, the project management mentor; Heather Harbin; and technical mentor Brian Kent pose outside the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Now that she's back in Lubbock, Harbin is in charge of establishing Texas Tech University as the U.S. mainland's first hub for the NRAO's National and International Non-Traditional Exchange (NINE) Program.

The NINE Program accepts only two trainees each year. Over the course of 10 weeks during the summer, it teaches them to use radio astronomy-related software and provides project-management training and mentoring. Participants leave the program with a fully developed NINE Hub plan to enact when they return home.

"The program's intention is to further the reaches of radio astronomy, especially to underrepresented groups," Harbin explained. "The main goal is to help establish hubs at certain institutions in order to achieve this and provide underrepresented groups training they need in order to get involved in the field."

During her internship, Harbin visited the Green Bank Telescope, the largest single dish, maneuverable telescope in the world!.

The NINE Program is part of the NRAO's Office of Diversity and InclusionAlessandra Corsi, an associate professor in the Texas Tech Department of Physics & Astronomy and the eventual Texas Tech hub leader, believes Texas Tech was chosen because of its commitment to diversity.

"I think the diversity of Texas Tech's student body, particularly with respect to first-generation college students coming from rural areas and as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, has played an important role in making us competitive for becoming a NINE Hub," Corsi said. "In addition, Texas Tech hosts a relatively young astrophysics group that is very active in the field of radio astronomy and eager to expand both course offerings and research opportunities for our students."

During her internship, Harbin learned the skills she'll need to coordinate a hub at Texas Tech. She was trained in project management – part of which involves planning and preparing documents for the hub's establishment – and data science. Harbin learned to create programs that operate on a computer about the size of a sandwich, called a Raspberry Pi module.

"The intention is to extend this to underrepresented groups," Harbin said. "This often means a lack of financial capability to buy equipment and stuff, so the modules are very inexpensive."

Harbin's summer project involved programming information and images from the NRAO's seven-year Very Large Array Sky Survey into the Raspberry Pi modules so they can become invaluable tools for astrophysical research.

With the knowledge she acquired over the summer, Harbin is now back at Texas Tech and starting to establish the NINE Hub. Part of her goal, she said, is bringing astrophysics out of the stratosphere and into the classroom.

"One of the problems we have in the physics department is that a lot of students aren't getting that hands-on experience with research that they need to actually go into research as a career," Harbin said. "We're trying to fill that gap.

"We're introducing an actual class for astrophysics students, which is a new, more hands-on course, where students do a lot of data science and programming and things like that. We're offering that in the spring for the first time, so I'll be helping develop the curriculum for that, as well as other details for the class."

The plans extended outside of Texas Tech, too. Harbin intends to offer a data science workshop next summer featuring an NRAO faculty member. And because Texas Tech will now be part of the growing network of NINE Hubs around the world, Harbin is working to establish an exchange program.

Harbin poses with the Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia.

"As of now, we're the only hub actually in the U.S. mainland," she said. "There are hubs in South Africa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Trinidad and Tobago, and there's one currently being constructed in Honduras. We're hoping to establish some kind of exchange program to help facilitate that undergraduate research experience and different connections."

Starting a program from the ground up that would make Texas Tech a world leader in radio astronomy research may seem like an insurmountable task to put on the shoulders of an undergraduate student, but Harbin doesn't think so.

"It's not so much pressure; it's more of an honor that I am entrusted with this kind of thing," she said. "Definitely, the physics department at Texas Tech is very small, and it needs to grow a lot, so I'm very excited that I have been granted the opportunity to help it grow."

While acknowledging the weightiness of the tasks ahead, Corsi believes they can achieve their goals.

"I am extremely thrilled to have this opportunity," Corsi said. "I also feel a big responsibility for making sure we develop a successful NINE Hub, but I have great confidence that, thanks to brilliant students like Heather, things will go well."