The CASSI program goes digital

Student interns have been an important part of the Carnegie Observatories community for more than a decade, enriching campus life and expanding a network of alumni around the country and even the world. This year due to the ongoing COVID-19 response, many astronomy summer internship programs were canceled. However, the scientists at the Observatories were committed to continue bringing students into the Carnegie community. And so, Director John Mulchaey and Staff Scientist Gwen Rudie, who facilitates the summer student program, scrambled to develop a digital version that would replicate a typical summer as closely as possible under the circumstances. 

The 10-week Carnegie Astronomy Summer Student (CASSI) program matches each accepted undergraduate student with a mentor on the Observatories’ scientific team. Mentors design projects for the students with their individual skills and interests in mind. Each project allows students to perform original research by making new simulations, using a unique data set, or building scientific instruments. One hallmark of CASSI is the additional focus on developing scientific communication skills. A typical summer includes weekly meetings, scientific talks, and other events—more than 60 in total. This year, all of these professional development sessions were converted to virtual Zoom meetings.

There were obvious challenges with moving a traditionally physical program online, mainly adjusting how connections with Carnegie staff occured. One of the major advantages of students being physically located on the Observatories’ campus is that they are able to meet people organically in the hallways. In order for the students to still have a variety of points of contact this year, Rudie worked with each student to identify a group of well-matched mentors.  These mentoring teams—composed of former interns as well as Carnegie scientists—gave CASSI interns the ability to find a variety of people with common experiences, interests, and points of view. Rudie had been considering adding mentoring teams to the CASSI program for a while, and given the success of the program this year, she intends to continue this aspect of the program in future summers, whether in person or virtual. 

Rudie says her biggest takeaway from this year’s program is that it is still possible to form meaningful connections with students through digital platforms. “We have this false idea of science as scientists working alone at their instruments or with their data, but learning is a communal process and a network of other researchers is important. Every year, we really enjoy having students collaborate on our research and this year’s class is no exception. They still feel like part of the community even though they may never physically set foot in our building.” 

One of our returning students, Pei Qin of Pomona College, worked on an instrumentation project with Postdoctoral Fellow Alicia Lanz in 2019 and this year completed an observational project on stellar globular clusters with astronomy Staff Scientist Josh Simon. Comparing the program from last year to this year, Qin stated that the biggest difference was that the connections formed with Observatories staff and other students are much more professional than personal, because there were fewer student events and no shared study spaces. However, since the professional development sessions were recorded, she stated it was easier to review important information and get clarification for any questions students may have. Since casual hallway conversations with staff scientists aren’t available this year, Qin stated that a major insight she gained this summer is the importance of being proactive and remembering that it’s not a burden to reach out directly for help or advice. 

Our second returning student, Linnea Dahmen, also from Pomona, spent the previous two summers studying the origins of tidal disruption events and past active galactic nuclei activity in a post-starburst galaxy with Postdoctoral Hubble Fellow Decker French. Reflecting on her experiences at the Observatories, Dahmen said:

“If I’ve learned one thing from the digital program, it’s not to take Carnegie’s hallowed halls for granted. The past two summers, I worked in the library every day, and I was surrounded by hundreds of volumes documenting the scientific progress within the last century. It’s the same library that Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble discussed their science in. The proximity to such history motivates me, in a way, to uphold a certain level of rigor within my own work. If that wasn’t enough, you’re also steps away from a handful of the most brilliant scientists in the field, who happen to be really great people, willing to discuss their research with you and answer your questions. That last part hasn’t changed—most of the scientists are still more than willing to talk with interns via video chat. But you lose the casual, hallway discussions that spark ideas and excitement when that mid-afternoon sleepiness hits. I think being so far from Carnegie has helped me realize how impactful an inspiring and collaborative workspace can be.”

The fundamental goal of the CASSI program is to ensure students have an enriching environment where they can learn about astronomy and astronomy research. The Observatories is focused on helping diversify representation in astronomy and has a goal of recruiting one-third of our summer undergraduates from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields—minorities and women. As part of this effort, the summer internship is a paid position, since without summer income many underprivileged students would not be able to participate in the program. Over the course of the summer, students do a variety of presentations, including an “elevator pitch” of their research project and explanations of scientific figures. They submit several written and visual materials, such as an abstract  and a draft of the scientific poster they will use to present their work to the scientific community at the January 2021 meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). At the end of the program, students make a live presentation of the results of their projects. Videos of CASSI student presentations from this year as well as those from 2017 through 2019 can be viewed here.

Our program provides students with basic training to test out a research career and focuses on improving scientific communication skills. Despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic created, the Observatories remained committed to enhancing science education through hands-on research this year. Although our students were still successful in 2020’s digital CASSI program, our hope is that we will be able to welcome a new class of students to our Pasadena campus in 2021.