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Astrophysics Students Have Their Eyes on the Sky in Rural India

Putting theory into practice with the Science Abroad Program

U of T students, Joshua Albert and Mark Kuiack and Professor Ue Li Pen (Photo by P. Adasare)

This summer five undergraduate students had the opportunity to put theory into practice, when they spent two months north of Pune, India living at the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) facility, the world’s largest array of radio telescopes at metre wavelengths.

The students were participants in Science Abroad, a program run through Woodsworth College that enables students to earn a full-year credit while getting hands-on research experience overseas. 

While at GMRT the students learned to operate the telescope and to detect, seek out and eliminate sources of interference.  “This hands-on learning in a real, front-line scientific environment couldn't be done in Toronto,” said Professor Ue-Li Pen of the Astronomy and Astrophysics department, who travelled with the group to GMRT.   “Here, the labs are necessarily set up in a controlled environment, where the answer is always known in advance.”

Their research at GMRT consisted of two parts, making observations and analyzing data related to an experiment already underway and eliminating radio frequency interference (RFI), which affects data collection, from the environment. 

“We would use the telescope to take a near-field image of GMRT,” explained Connie Lien, a fourth year physics and philosophy student.  “Potential RFI would appear as bright spots on the map; if there was a particularly bright spot we would access a jeep and driver and go with an antenna and a radio to look for the RFI.”

Mitigating the RFI was a challenge, said Josh Albert, a fourth year physics student. “There is RFI everywhere in India. People have wires crisscrossing all over the place.  These would generate sparks, which create high broadband radiation. That is, they muck up radio astronomers' observations. This job required ingenious thinking and technical abilities, which we developed while we were at GMRT.”

In addition to being able to experience the research process first-hand, one of the most rewarding aspects of the program was “being in another country, removed from comforts,” said Lien.  “It makes you reflect on how to react to things.”

Professor Pen agreed that through their experience of living on the GMRT campus, where many of the other researchers and staff did not speak English, students developed some essential skills:  “I think the adjustment to a very foreign culture was a good learning experience for them,” he said.  “They learned to communicate across cultural and language differences.”

Science Abroad has received funding assistance from the Arts &Science Curriculum Renewal Initiatives Fund.