Student Spotlight- Sarah Blunt

Sarah B_Student spotlight

  • Name: Sarah Blunt
  • Year: 2017
  • Concentration: Physics

1. What type of research experiences have you been involved with during your time in college?

Over my time in college, I’ve participated in two Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs. REU programs are ~10 week immersive research experiences funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by various universities, national labs, and other research locations around the US (there are also a few outside of the US). I participated in my first REU at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) the summer after my freshman year, and my second at the SETI Institute after my sophomore year. During my time at NSO, I lived on a remote mountain top in a ~50 person town called Sunspot, New Mexico. There was only one other person in my program, and we had to drive about an hour on the weekends to get to the closest grocery store. The resident scientists warned me that it would be “difficult to adjust to Sunspot life,” but I ended up loving the experience. I enjoyed going on hikes and runs in the mountains, and I was very interested in the research I was doing on magnetic solar surface features. And nothing beats a 10 minute walking commute to work through pine tree forests! My second REU was quite different– the SETI Institute is located in Silicon Valley, and there were about 16 other students in my program. The experience was also different in that I joined a large inter-institutional team to accomplish my project, so I ended up doing a lot of commuting to meet with collaborators all over the Bay Area (at Sunspot, I only collaborated with my mentor and 2 other people, while at SETI, I directly worked with about 10 people and indirectly worked with about a hundred). I worked on a completely different area of astrophysics as well– exoplanet direct imaging, which I fell head over heels for. It was awesome to be in the Bay Area with a large group of peers as well– we got to march in San Francisco’s Pride Parade, see a Giants game, go hiking at Volcano National Park, etc.

2. How did you find out about these opportunities?
I found out about the NSO REU program from Professor Dell’Antonio in the physics department. I just asked him what he thought I should do that summer, and he gave me a list of 5 REU programs to apply for. The next summer, I had a better idea of what an REU program was, and I applied for a bunch that I found out about online. (For physics and astronomy in particular, this site is an excellent place to find out about summer research internships, but for other STEM subjects, the NSF site is a good place to look).
3. What is your favorite part about the research process?
It’s always exciting to me when I get results that make sense. I love coding, and if I had another life I’d probably be a CS major, but there’s something special about looking at the results of my research codes, checking them against the physics of whatever phenomenon I’m investigating, and realizing that my simulation actually means something. It’s thrilling to be able to discover something new, even something small, during your workday!
4. What has it been like presenting your work?
Presenting my work has always seemed like a natural extension of the work I’ve done as a teacher. I get very excited when I’m talking about my research, and it’s fun to see that excitement rub off on other people, especially younger students. Teaching forced me to understand how important enthusiasm is in explaining a concept. Presenting is nerve-racking for sure, but I love seeing the “aha moments” people have when they finally understand what I’m talking about. It’s helpful for me to think about presenting as sharing what I’ve done rather than showing off what I’ve done– it keeps me grounded in why I’m presenting, and what I want other people to take away from my presentation.
5. Any advice for students looking to find out what research interests them?
If you know for sure that you’re a research fanatic, I suggest trying out as many different types of research (for a month or more) as you can– it’s impossible to realize that you love a certain research experience without first realizing that you didn’t like another research experience. Talk to your professors, apply for REU/other internship programs, talk to other students who have done different types of research, etc. And don’t stop looking until you’ve developed a research question that keeps you up at night and wiggles its way into your mind at inconvenient times. Passion for something builds up slowly over time– I’ve always been wary of people who say that you shouldn’t stop looking until you “find your passion.” You probably won’t fall in love with some specific type of research at first sight, but it’s usually possible to tell after a few weeks of doing something whether you like it or not. If you do, try to build your interest and gauge whether you become more or less passionate about it over time. If after a few months you absolutely adore your work, you’ve “found” your passion! If not, go back to the drawing board. Developing your interests takes time and hard work, so don’t wait for your passion to hit you over the head– go out and build it for yourself.
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