Research Experience for Underg...

Research Experience for Undergraduates in Solar and Space Physics: Taking Education to Stratospheric Heights (and Beyond)

An undergraduate academic experience is designed to provide the essential educational elements that set the stage for the next step in a student’s professional or educational life. Equally important in this process are the mentors and experiences encountered during a student’s college career. Recognizing the benefits of future scientists participating directly in scientific projects, the National Science Foundation funds a number of university-led research programs, called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The REUs pair students with science mentors to work over the summer on finding answers to research questions. The REU programs span the range of scientific topics falling within NSF’s purview. Among these programs is an REU in Solar and Space Physics led by the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in partnership with the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s (NCAR) High Altitude Observatory (HAO).

“LASP has run the REU Program in Solar and Space Physics since 2006, and NSF recently funded us for another five years,” says Martin Snow, a Research Scientist III at LASP. “However, members of Boulder’s Solar Alliance – which includes most of the solar and space physics research institutions in Boulder – also participate, providing additional program funding and/or mentoring for one or more students during their 8-week visit to Boulder.”

Members of Boulder’s Solar Alliance (BSA) include LASP, NCAR’s HAO, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the Southwest Research Institute, North West Research Associates, and the Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates. In addition to providing scientific expertise that the students benefit from, the additional funding provided by the institutions means that LASP’s REU supports more students than might otherwise be brought in to the program.

For example, HAO’s annual Visitor Program budget includes support for two undergraduates. In addition to these dedicated spaces, HAO also hosts several more students – six in total for 2012. Funds pay for a portion of a student’s airfare to Boulder, a weekly salary of $500, housing, and a meal stipend. With about 170 applicants for 16 spots, competition is stiff, but the payoff is worthwhile from the perspective of both students and mentors.

The LASP REU teams the undergraduates with at least two mentors, usually a senior and an early career scientist; this approach provides some scheduling flexibility for the scientists and expands the depth of expertise provided to the students. Projects have ranged from development of research instrumentation to advancing understanding of high-energy physics, or interpreting data from missions such as the Kepler project, which is run by NASA to discover other Earth-sized planets in our galaxy.

“The students have an opportunity to use the math, physics, and analytical skills developed in their first two or three years of college to address real-world research problems,” says Hanli Liu, a senior scientist in HAO. “In turn, HAO and institutions in the BSA benefit from the energy and ideas that the students bring, and often new and different ways of approaching research questions.”

To be considered for the program, REU applicants must apply online, and provide transcripts and letters of recommendation. The selection committee uses this background information to identify the finalists, with choices often coming down to finding the best match for the projects put forward by the research organizations for the summer.

“Making the final selection is always difficult. Often students that are not accepted would be perfect candidates for the program, but we don’t have a good research project match for them and space is always limited,” explains Erin Wood, LASP’s Educational Coordinator.

Like most of the other NSF-funded REU programs, LASP strives to include students from underrepresented populations, as well as those attending smaller schools that might not be able to provide undergraduates with an equivalent hands-on research opportunity during the summer.

“Our REU is probably unique because Boulder’s entire space and solar physics research community gets involved in the program,” says Wood. “A result of this effort is that, as a scientific community, we are brought closer together through everyone’s work to make the program a successful experience for the students.”

Additional Program Details

For more information or to apply to the REU program in Solar and Space Physics, see Students may apply to the REU program beginning November 5, 2012; the application window closes on February 1, 2013. For additional information on HAO’s Visitor Program, go to