Imagine finishing your freshman year of college and then going to spend a month observing at an astronomy center with the world’s most powerful interferometer, Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA), with a world-renowned LSU astronomer. Sophomore Ian Sager doesn’t have to imagine it, he lived it!
Ian is an undergraduate majoring in Physics with a concentration in Astronomy. He had the opportunity to go to CHARA in Los Angeles, California with Dr. Tabby Boyajian, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and discoverer of Tabby’s Star, and her team of graduate students, this past August.
We asked Ian to tell us about his interest in astronomy and his experience observing at CHARA over the summer.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what motivated you to go into science?
Ian: I am an honors student studying physics with a concentration in astronomy. My hobbies include video games, listening to podcasts, fixing iPhones and computers, playing with animals (mainly my dog Molly) and being involved in on-campus clubs. I recently became the VP of Finance for the LSU Bee Allies club.
I’ve been interested in science my whole life, but in many different ways. When I was around 5 years old, after wanting to be a police officer or a fireman, I decided I wanted to be a paleontologist. A few years later, I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be an entomologist. A few years after that, I decided on physics and astronomy. I think I like this field because it feels like the work and concepts are more compelling. Astronomy and physics are the study of our universe and everything regarding how it works; you can’t get more important than that.
I think the other influences that pushed me toward physics and astronomy include the books I read and movies I watched as a kid; mainly Contact by Carl Sagan, Deep Impact, and even silly movies like the animated children movies Planet 51 and Space Chimps. In high school I kept this trend going by reading multiple books by renowned physicists Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and Lisa Randall. I just kept going and going, and it got so interesting that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
College of Science: What brought you to Tabby's lab group?
Ian: When Tabby’s Star was announced, I was instantly hooked. I don't know anyone in astronomy that isn’t in awe of such a strange star. The announcement came a few years ago, when I was still in high school, but it flooded my science news feed and always lingered in my head.
When touring LSU my junior year, I overheard that Tabby worked at LSU. This blew me away, and actually was a major reason why I decided to come to LSU rather than other schools that accepted me.
Dr. Boyajian gave a talk about her star at the honors college, and I just knew that I had to introduce myself and ask for an internship right on the spot, not even having finished a semester of freshman physics. Much to my surprise, she said yes for the summer, and the rest just fell into place. She took me under her wing, and she, along with her grad students, have already taught me so much more than I could have imagined.
Because there’s already so much work being done on Tabby’s Star, Ian also has interests in researching exoplanets, planets that orbit another star.
College of Science: What interests you about research on exoplanets?
Ian: Exoplanet research in general is especially exciting to me because it’s one step closer to finding life in the universe. If you couldn’t tell from my movie science-motivators, I’m really passionate about the idea of finding life in our universe. Finding out more regarding other planets similar to our own only inches us closer and closer to answering this question, and that’s my biggest driving factor.
I imagine it as what if I were an astronomer a few light years away just casually taking observations of our sun and earth. To that astronomer it might be all in a day's work, but to us it’s our everything, all we have and all we’ve ever had. Having the power to observe entire systems of stars and planets just feels so powerful and important, even if there is no other life out there. We wouldn’t be doing the universe justice if we weren’t curious enough to explore it.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit more about your undergraduate research? What research questions are you trying to answer?
Ian: My undergrad research has been a little unconventional so far, at least from what I was expecting. I haven't graduated to doing much astronomy work yet, but I did build a technological backbone to support everything Dr. Tabby and her grad students have done over the last 10+ years. Over 100 nights of observing have been made, but all of the data have been sitting on servers across the country and in bits and pieces in a massive messy spreadsheet. I spent most of my internship creating an SQL database to house all of the information we’d ever record or need, pull all related data from the CHARA servers for each night, link all of the stars to every night they were observed, create a database of stars and all their related measurements, and make everything easily searchable, sortable and clean. This not only means we now have a complete record of stars and observations for the first time in a decade, but also finding correlation in the stars observed after analyzing data is as simple as plugging in a search rather than possibly hours of looking up stuff online and grabbing data from other servers.
The database I made really will change the way we look at and record all of our data going into the future. However, I am continuing my research with Dr. Tabby and will soon learn how to analyze the data I took while at CHARA, so now that the database is complete I’ll be focusing on more astro-related topics. I did do some astro work over the summer though, like compute optimal integration ranges for star fringes and find correlations and oddities with the information from the Gaia 2 release relative to the Hipparchus release.
College of Science: Can you tell us more about observing at CHARA this summer? What did you do? What did you learn?
Ian: Observing at CHARA was the most thrilling academic experience I’ve ever had. On the surface it was actually pretty boring, sitting there from sunset to sunrise staring at six screens, constantly calibrating mirrors, shifting stars and finding fringes. In actuality though, it was the first real astronomy work I’ve done my whole life.
I’m just now taking my first astronomy class, but before then, everything I had learned had been self-taught and on a page or a screen. At CHARA, I got to work with real telescopes, do real science, and meet real people; it was surreal. The systems are actually much simpler than I had expected, but in touring the facility, asking questions, and talking to the people that worked there, I really learned a lot about the processes we use to make observations at CHARA and how the equipment functions. It's one thing to read in a book how an interferometer works, but seeing one in action and going into the labs with the mirrors and cameras and millions of dollars of equipment really puts it into perspective. Without going, I would have no idea how complex what it is I did really was.
College of Science: What were you expecting from your summer field experience with Tabby?
Ian: I didn’t really know what to expect working with Dr. Tabby this summer. I knew I’d be doing “astronomy,” but because I never took a real class on the topic or had physical experience with it, I was lost. What I got out of it was much more than expected. Not only did I learn a lot about the concepts and how research is done, but honestly my favorite and most surprising thing I experienced during my internship was the people. Above being talented and outgoing, they were extremely kind, understanding, fun, supportive and welcoming. Even though the work I did coding and building a database was often frustrating and laborious, I looked forward to going to work every day just to talk to everyone in the office. It felt like I was at home, and now that I’m back in classes and not in that office every day it doesn’t feel the same — like I moved away from a new family.
Academically, I also was very surprised. Not knowing what astro work I’d be doing, I assumed it was something to do with observing or math, but I never imagined it was almost entirely coding. Before this internship I had taken a C++ class, but it was years ago and I remembered almost nothing. My first assignment was working 8 hours a day for 2 weeks learning Python entirely from scratch using free tutorial websites. It was really tough learning like that, but I caught on and after learning I coded every day I went into work. Looking at the grad students I was working with, they coded every day too. This is great news because I’ve always had an interest in coding, but it really caught me off guard. Nobody tells you when you decide to major in physics and astronomy to learn to code, you just assume it’s physics. In addition to Python, I also had to learn SQL to build the database as well as how to use many dozens of command line controls fluidly. The whole thing was so far from anything I’ve ever done, and I’ve learned so much through it.
College of Science: What is significant about observing at CHARA? What can you observe there that you can't at other places?
Ian: CHARA is the most powerful interferometer in the world, meaning it can see the farthest and faintest stars. This is good because it gives us the ability to observe stars you literally couldn't observe anywhere else on earth. Because astronomy using interferometry is such a niche thing, this is a huge upper hand, so CHARA really is the best place we could ever hope to do research. Plus, Mount Wilson has the most amazing views of L.A. and the mountains.
College of Science: Do observing trips mean staying up all night collecting data? What is that like?
Ian: Yep, all night. One of the hardest things about the trip really, hah. The two hour time gain coupled with not being able to sleep until around 6:00 a.m. and being conditioned to wake up at around 8:00 a.m. every morning made for a tough job. I hardly got any sleep the entire trip. Also, because we were on top of a mountain away from everything and it was the dead of night, there was essentially no noise other than the computers. The most exciting moments were taking quick two minute breaks to play PokemonGo in the areas with wifi while the system was taking two minutes of data on its own (there was no cell service so when you were too far from a building nothing worked). Other than that, we would occasionally vocalize how difficult the clouds were being or how tired we were, but we powered through it and made it through both nights. The second night was a lot easier to stay awake during, not only because there was an earthquake shortly after we started, but also because the data was coming a lot easier making the whole job a lot more fun.
Skyline views from CHARA. Credit Ian Sager.
College of Science: If you could work on any research question in the world without restrictions, what would it be?
Ian: For sure it would be if there was life in the universe. My dream is to work for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) doing this type of research. Sadly there isn’t much interest in searching for aliens at LSU, but exoplanet and star research is pretty close so I’d say I’m basically doing what I’d want to do given free roam to research anything. As an alternate answer, beyond working for SETI I want to be an astronaut. Going into space and possibly going to other planets is the pinnacle of everything I’ve ever wanted and dreamed, and given no restrictions I’d choose to explore space myself in a heartbeat. I can’t really bet my career on the tiny chance of getting such a prestigious and exclusive job though, so I’ll stick to astronomy in the meantime.
College of Science: What's the craziest thing you've ever done "for science”?
Ian: I wouldn’t classify it as crazy really, but when I was 13, I downloaded a program called BOINC, which essentially linked my computer to a number of institutions and used it as a remote way to compute their data. So, over the course of a few years, I basically ran my cheap middle school laptop into the grave by letting it sift through and analyze data for SETI, as well as cancer research. The bottom plastic of my computer even started to melt a little because it ran so hot all the time (I left it plugged in 24/7). Everyone that saw my screen thought I was some type of computer wiz or evil genius. It was fun.
You can read more about Ian’s experience and watch a short video he put together of his time at CHARA on his website.