University students get to do original scientific research just two years out of high school

March 6, 2018 by Eric Geringas - A&S Office of Advancement

At U of T Astronomy, this happens more often than you’d think…

Emily Deibert was doing an overnight shift monitoring the Algonquin Radio Observatory, the giant 46-metre telescope located at the north end of Algonquin Park.

“It was just me, sitting at the telescope, making sure that everything was running properly,” she recalls. “If something had gone wrong, it would have been on me to fix it.”

There’s nothing really unusual about this until you realize that Deibert was between her second and third year of undergrad, just a year removed from taking Astronomy 101 for fun while planning to major in English.

Having fallen hard for the stars, Deibert made a radical switch in her studies. And within a year – as a still-green undergraduate – she was doing original research at the U of T-based Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, studying radio pulses coming from the Crab Nebula Pulsar. That’s what brought her to the Algonquin observatory in the summer of 2015.

Deibert’s experience is not unusual at U of T Astronomy, where the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) hires students to do original science supervised by faculty.

“SURP is designed to give students the opportunity to figure out what research is like, and if it’s something that excites them,” says astrophysics professor Renée Hložek. “The earlier they get exposed to research, the more excited they get, and the more it gets them ready for a career in science.

“No one is doing derivative projects – they’re all doing original research. I didn’t get that opportunity until my final year of undergrad; we have students here who get to do this in second year.”

Another SURP veteran is Ariel Amaral, now, like Deibert, enrolled in the Astronomy PhD program.

I remember sitting there with my very first project,” she recalls, “being like, ‘Oh my God, this data that I’m looking at is from space, and I’ve been waiting for this my entire life.’ At U of T, they really take an inclusive approach. People were actually interested in what I was researching. You are treated like an actual scientist.”

That approach is by design, says Hložek. It gives students a sense of what a career in research would be like, and the ones who thrive in the program grow up fast.

“It’s amazing – it’s the most extreme transformation they will ever undergo,” she says. “In 16 weeks they go from being green to being fully competent scientists. They look different, they carry themselves differently – it’s really incredible.”

Amaral’s most recent SURP project, working under Canada Research Chair Bryan Gaensler, led her to the Midwest Magnetic Field Conference at the University of Wisconsin, where she gave a 10-minute talk on her research – a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.

“Being in a room full of experts who are all studying something that you are also studying, that’s an amazing experience. I got feedback and advice from people who were the top experts in the field – that’s an experience you can only get going to conferences.”

But these opportunities to travel and do original research, so crucial to the undergraduate experience at U of T Astronomy, are limited – paid for mainly out of already stretched faculty research budgets.

More funding for SURP would make it much easier for us to support students,” says Hložek. “We pay them to do science, to be creative, to be professional. We want to pay them well. We want to treat it as a job, so that they are actually rewarded as scientists.”

That’s why U of T Astronomy is asking for your support for undergraduate research – to give promising students a transformative gift at just the right time in their lives.

Deibert’s SURP experience led her to study exoplanets, now the topic of her PhD research.

And Amaral’s SURP work on magnetic fields is the topic of her PhD.

“I feel like a space explorer almost,” says Amaral. “Even though it’s sometimes just number crunching and doing math, you’re still learning about space and doing something that people haven’t done before, and that’s really amazing. To think that I can do that as a 23-year-old person and still make a huge impact, I think that’s awesome.”