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213th AAS Meeting Long Beach, CA

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A remarkable group of high school students from Oil City High School, Oil City, PA, accompanied their teacher Tim Spuck to the AAS (American Astronomical Society) 213th Meeting in Long Beach, CA, January 4-8, 2009.  The students, pictured at right with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the center, have done research projects using data from the Spitzer instrument, and they presented that research at the meeting.  SPS is pleased to present their meeting journals and photos here.

Oil City High School students pose with Dr. Neil Tyson (center) at the AAS 213th Meeting.

Oil City High School Student Journals

Jennifer Butchart | Alix Holcomb | Shana Kennedy | Rachele Siegel | Matt Walentosky | Samantha Wheeler

Free 1-Year Membership in AAS
When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Working with other astronomy partners, the AAS will help organize and carry out a dynamic program of activities for the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

SPS Reporter Program
SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

SPS Travel Awards
A limited number of grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.


Jennifer Butchart – Oil City High School

The American Astronomical Society Meeting from A Slightly Different Perspective


Rachele Siegel, Shana Kennedy and Jennifer Butchart explain their poster.


As a student at Oil City Area Senior High School in the rural town of Oil City, Pennsylvania, momentous opportunities are rare to come by. Being given a chance to attend the American Astronomical Society conference is one of those opportunities that can’t be ignored. On top of that, being able to contribute to the astronomical community through research is a privilege like no other.

When I was presented with the idea of starting a research project in conglomeration with other high school students from around the country, I was intimidated. I wasn’t sure how working with them would turn out. Looking back, working with the other students every step of the way is one of the best experiences I will ever have.  We all participated in the research by conducting literature searches, reducing data, generating spectral energy distributions and color-color diagrams, and familiarizing ourselves with articles from the Astrophysical Journal. We also held Skype video conferences with the other schools in order to keep updated with what they were doing; by doing so we were able to make a schedule for the completion of the project. In the end, all of our hard work paid off with two successful presentations at the conference.

However, at first, I was nervous by the thought of presenting in front of hundreds of astronomers, even though I attended the January 2008 conference in Austin, Texas. But, when I walked through the doors to the convention center in Long Beach, I felt right at home. All of my doubts and fears melted away when I saw that we were not seen as insignificant high school students, but as individuals working towards a universal objective.

Being considered an equal at conferences like these is one of the most amazing things that can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter what age you are or grade you’re in, it doesn’t matter whether you have your Ph. D. or if you are a student or a teacher.  All of our efforts are going towards one common goal: discovery. And that is exactly how I felt when I was inside of that convention center. I felt like I was a part of something bigger and better than a high school football game. I actually felt like what I was doing was worthwhile and my efforts were not in vain, that I was helping make a contribution for generations to come.

Being able to participate in a real research project and then go on to participate in the conference has shown me so much about myself. I am going to be an astrophysicist so I can study the heavens, and just like those stars, my future is bright, and I owe it all to every single scientist present at the American Astronomical Society meeting.

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Alix Holcomb – Oil City High School

Saturday 01/03
Last night seemed to last forever. I felt like I was never going to get off that airplane. But today was much better. We took a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. It was amazing. We climbed rocks and took a million pictures of cactus. Well I did. I’m glad we got to go. It was a nice way to relax before the real work begins. I’m so anxious for tomorrow. I keep wondering if it will be like Austin last year. I’m so excited to see my old friends like Luisa and Varoujan, but I also want to meet new people. And this year, I plan on paying attention to what peoples’ badges say. That way I can talk to people from prospective colleges.  The anticipation is too much! I had so much fun last year. I hope this year lives up to my expectations.

Sunday 01/04
Well tonight was the welcoming receptions and such. Sam and I went to the undergrad reception. I talked to some one from Boston University and someone from Grove City College (which is cool because it’s about forty five minutes from Oil City and I have friends who go there). Then we headed over to the big reception. I met some kids from lower New York City. Berkley paid for their trip. Hearing that made me appreciate our trip even more. We sold candy bars to get here. We worked hard on our research and then worked hard to pay for the trip. I know that may sound silly but it really isn’t if you could understand. I also got to meet a professor at Florida Tech, which is my number one school and I just got accepted. He said I could stop by and see the new telescope whenever I wanted and said he knew the head of the oceanography department pretty well so I can email him and he’d hook me up. Tomorrow is the big day. We present our research poster on the possible star formations in LDN 425 and 981. After weeks and months of looking at pictures and picking candidates and working on SED’s, we finally get to show off our skills. Last year some people couldn’t believe that we were only high school students. I’m hoping we get the same reaction this year. It just makes you light up to hear that from someone who’s been in this field of work for 20+ years. It really gives you this feeling of accomplishment knowing you’re helping the scientific community. It’s especially great for those of us who are going into a science field.

Monday 01/05
Today was presentation day at the convention. WOW! It’s ten times better than last year. I wasn’t as afraid to talk to people and meet people. I met a student from Florida Tech and we talked about the school and everything. Most people I talked to had no clue what a Lyndes Dark Nebula was, except one guy. He said he had done something very similar with a LDN in his junior year of college.  The only big difference between this year and last year is the breakfast. I know it’s silly that that’s the one thing I noticed but it’s the most important meal of the day.

Tuesday 01/06
Today was AMAZING!! All of us high school students walked around Long Beach. We went to lunch then the beach. It was great. Those kids have become some of my best friends. They are smart and talented and amazing people. Then we went to the aquarium. Since I want to be an oceanographer and I’ve taken marine biology and oceanography classes, I was in all my glory. I’m sure the others wanted to hit me by the end because I was blurting out all sorts of facts for every tank or exhibit we went to. My favorite part was the jelly fish exhibit. It may be lame but something about the simplicity (yet complexity) of those creatures astounds me. They’re a two membrane creature without a brain and without a real way to maneuver themselves. It’s astounding to me.

Wednesday 01/07
Today was the second day of presenting. We presented our educational poster today. It was a little less exciting. I ran into the student from Florida Tech. We continued our discussion about the school. That was the highlight of my presenting day. I went to a session on the evolution of galaxy in order to answer some questions for my science fair project. But it left me with more questions. Not to mention the fact that no one even mentioned NED. Since tonight was our last night we decided to go out to a fancy dinner. We went to L’Opera. It was so good but we were just too tired. I think we may have embarrassed Spuck due to our exhaustion. Then Shana and I went to go say good bye to our new best friends. I didn’t want to leave. They really are amazing people. We’re planning a trip to see some of them. So watch out New York and Minnesota! The Oil City Spitzer crew is coming!

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Shana Kennedy – Oil City High School


The Oil City High School team meets with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson.


Sitting on the plane to Pennsylvania from California looking back on my experience, I realized it has been a really great one.  Besides the obvious fact that being in California in January is amazing, the science aspect was also good. As a high school student at the American Astronomical Society Conference, there is a lot to take in. There are thousands of astronomers there, each with separate projects that they are presenting. You can go to talks and sessions given by scientists about all kinds of different subjects, walk around and view everyone’s posters describing their research, or just go to all the booths hosted by different organizations such as Hubble and Spitzer. While presenting our poster, many people come up to us and ask questions to try to challenge us. It’s just so interesting to meet these brilliant people and hear their ideas. There are so many famous scientists and astronomers that you can speak with. For example, our group had the opportunity to meet and talk with Neil Tyson, who is one of the most recognized astronomers in the country and the host of Nova Science Now on PBS. He answered our questions and did a radio interview with us for our local radio station. Another person came up to me and told me to apply for The Summer Science Program, which is a summer program only about 30 kids throughout the country get picked to go to, and an opportunity I wouldn’t have even known about without talking with him. There are so many chances to network with people and colleges and create relationships that could be vital to the future of our careers.

Aside from meeting people, you also learn so much with a project like this. We had to vigorously prepare ourselves for the trip by reviewing our project and information over and over. In doing that I learned more than I realized I had. Being able to go to the conference and talk with very intelligent astronomers is a feat that any high school student would be proud of. I now have a basic understanding of most astronomy terms and can grasp the ideas that are presented to me. I’ve also learned what it’s like to be an actual scientist. It doesn’t matter how many times a teacher tells you in a classroom, you’re never going to know what it’s like to be working in a science field unless you have the firsthand experience. Even if I would decide not to go into astronomy, I know what it’s like and can have a reasonable explanation and understanding of why I don’t want to. That kind of experience is very valuable to have when you’re at the point when you’re deciding what to do for your career.

The travel portion of the trip was also amazing. Our group got to go to Joshua Tree National Park, which was a beautiful thing to see. We went to Long Beach a couple times, visited an aquarium, and just walked around the town and took in the sights of California. Just being in the city instead of a small town in Pennsylvania was a remarkable thing, and something I wouldn’t have experienced without being a part of this group. So I just want to thank all of the teachers, especially Tim Spuck, my fellow students, NASA, the NOAO, and the Spitzer Science Center for giving me this rare opportunity.

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Rachele Siegel – Oil City High School

January 2/Day One “Fly Out”
Every time I’ve been on an airplane in the past year, it has been with my Advanced Topics Science Teacher, Tim Spuck, and other science students like me.  This trip to the American Astronomical Society’s 213th Meeting in Long Beach is no exception as six students including myself, two teachers, and over three hundred fifty pounds of luggage set out on an expedition.  This may not seem unusual to some, but given our demographics (my peers and I are from a public school in rural Pennsylvania), having six students on this trip is a rarity.  As we embark on our day of traveling, I’m not actually sure what to expect.  I am familiar with going through the motions at the airport, but beyond this flight everything is sure to seem vast and foreign.  I’m not sure any advice from students who previously attended AAS or our teacher’s groundwork could prepare us for the experience.  As we settle into our hotel for the night, the atmosphere in California is chaotic yet comforting.   

January 3/Day Two “Exploration”
The conference doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so we are fortunate enough to be driving back to our hotel from an adventurous day.  As we drove out to the Mojave Desert, all we could think about was the Windows Vista campaign jingle, “Oh Mojave.”  We reached Joshua Tree State park and got out to explore and take pictures of a landscape previously unbeknownst to us.   We actually climbed up massive rocks formed from wind erosion.  The view from the top was more than breathtaking as desert and sky melted together into perpetual vastness.  All I could think about was how fortunate we were to be experiencing the view and that moment in time.  Today was a day I realized that our familiar small town is so far away- yet I didn’t mind.   

January 4/Day Three “Registration”
The hustle and bustle of all the scientists arriving to Long Beach for the conference today was exciting.  Everyone headed over to the Long Beach Conference center at three for registration.  Registering over 3,000 people for the event is not an easy feat, but everything was organized in AAS fashion.  We later attended the Undergraduate Orientation and Reception exclusively for college undergraduates.  As a high school student, I was shocked.  There were so many science professors, students, and council members to sift through.  I was surprised that all the members were so open and out on the floor talking and mingling.  It seemed surreal that we were face to face and shaking hands with the AAS President Craig Wheeler.  It was at this point that I realized that this convention would be more than a presentation of posters.  This was an intimate gathering of people all sharing the same common interests and aspirations.  I was thrilled to be a part of it.  After the first reception, my peers and I went to the much larger Opening Reception.  Everyone at the conference assembled in the same room for the very first time.  There was so much anticipation for the week’s events among the scientists, it was amazing.  The veteran attendees of the conference told me that the receptions are for one thing and one thing only: networking.  I followed their lead and was amazed at how friendly and warm everyone was.  It seemed like everyone wanted to meet everyone else that they didn’t previously know.  All of this networking was sure to make for a lively meeting and week.

January 5/Day Four “Presentations”
There are only a few rules but many goals for today, the first full day of the meeting.  We must present our science poster, look for information as well as inspiration for future posters, and last, network.  We arrive to the Conference Center dressed for success to meet up with our counterparts.  More than a dozen high school students worked on our science poster, Star Formation in Lynds 981 and 425.  I’m sure that anyone presenting a poster can relate to the thrill of meeting up with fellow collaborators for the first time.  I never thought about how strange it is to an average person that we have worked on a project with people we have never met.  Contrarily, it’s surprisingly common for this to be the case in the world of astronomy.  I got a real taste of an authentic AAS Meeting when I attended a 2:00pm session entitled “Young Stellar Objects, Circumstellar Disks, and Friends”.  I found it ironic that many people explored such tiny facets of astronomy, yet had such broad based knowledge.  I know that you never understand something without seeing the whole picture, and this is especially the case in astronomy.  Those attending the meeting follow this mantra.  If this is only the first day of the conference, I cannot even imagine all that I will learn in the days ahead.

January 6/Day Five “Networking”
Today was a different type of day, as we did not have any posters to present.  It was more or less a time for networking and further exploring the numerous poster and oral sessions for the day.  The sight of the hundreds of posters in the exhibit hall never ceased to amaze me as long as I was there.  I was a little anxious to actually get into a thorough conversation with anyone about research for a supplementary project I am doing, but I decided to take the plunge.  After talking to a couple of graduate students, my fears were officially eased by their eagerness to discuss their work and discoveries.  At the conference, the playing field was so even.  Everyone is considered a scientist regardless of age or the number of degrees held in science.  After collecting poster samples on projects similar to mine and speaking with a few college students, I was even able to talk with a few experts in my focused area: star formation.  Even if I didn’t have a poster to present, I still felt like I was hard at work at the conference.

January 7/Day Six “Sessions, Sessions, Sessions”
The last day we would be presented at the conference was today.  Our poster on the educational aspect of our study was up.  As I glanced at the manual for the oral sessions, a few on Star Formation caught my eye.  I knew that I would be able to attend all the talks I desired because the organization of the conference was phenomenal.  There were specific days for each of the poster and oral sessions.  There were two manuals in which one could reference at all times of the meeting with detailed descriptions of events and people to reference.  The conference flowed smoothly because the organizers made it clear that it was okay to “session hop” so one could attend as many talks during one time period as desired.  I found this approach unique, yet practical.  Seeking out other talks heightened the commotion of the meeting as everyone stirred around the AAS community.  Today, I felt like an official American Astronomical Society Conference attendee.  I accomplished all my goals and more by the time the end of the day was upon us.  Exhausted from walking in heels all day, we returned to our hotel to reflect upon all that is AAS.

January 8/Day Seven “In Retrospect…”
Jumping into the van that will wisk us away from Long Beach to the airport is bittersweet.  Today is the last day of the conference however; our flight leaves this morning from Orange County.  I watch the city shops and the conference center fade into nothingness in the rearview mirror and think of our success.  This could not have been a better experience.  We learned more in a few days at AAS than we could learn a week in any classroom.  It’s important to show that school is not all about gathering information to take the next test, but about true life experience and reality.  I owe everything to my teachers and all the teachers on this project, scientists at the Spitzer Science Center, NASA, RBSE, NOAO, and my peers.  Without their help and support, this trip and all projects would not have been possible.  The meeting was comparable to climbing the rock mountain in Joshua Tree- truly once in a lifetime.

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Matt Walentosky – Oil City High School


The Oil City High School team meets with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

January 4th
~Today Mr. Spuck and I went to a few presentations on the IYA (International Year of Astronomy). We heard some interesting talks from people on how to promote astronomy within our local community.
~I got a chance to talk with Sue Anne Heatherly who is a public outreach coordinator for NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatories) we talked about various things… one of which was a possible internship this summer at the NRAO’s facility in Greenbank, WV.
~We went to the opening ceremony for the AAS meeting! It was exciting going around and meeting different astronomers. I got a chance to meet Kevin Marvel who is the Executive Director of Finances for the AAS. He was the man who coordinated the funding for my trip.
~I met a professor from Oberlin College! He was extremely interested in my research! He and I talked about me possibly attending Oberlin with a big time scholarship.

January 5th
~I walked around the convention a lot today. I talked some more with Dan Stinebring who was the professor at Oberlin I mentioned today. We talked a little more in depth about me possibly going to Oberlin (I think it seems like a really neat place).
~I also met a man named Ron Palitano. He is a scientist at Marquette University Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
~I talked with Don Hoard who was my mentor scientist on my research project that I took 2nd place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

January 6th
~We went to the convention again today. I spent a lot of time viewing other people’s research projects.
~I confirmed my internship at the NRAO (pending funding). Hopefully I will be going down for 4 weeks this summer to work on a research project.

January 7th
~I presented my research project  “New Components in Accretion Disks: Evolution of the Lightcurve WZ Sge”
~I got to meet with Neil DeGrasse Tyson who is the director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium.
~We got to do an interview with a local radio show host in Oil City, we were honored to be joined by Neil Tyson, Varujian Gordgio, and Luisa Rebull (I think it was a huge success)
~I presented my poster to some professors from Oberlin (they seemed really interested).
~I was introduced to Ed Sion who is a professor at Villanova University! I have applied to Villanova and would definitely be interested in going their if I had the opportunity.
~I had lunch with Ron Palitano who was the scientist from Marquette that I mentioned earlier… I think that I am going to apply to Marquette because he seemed really nice

January 8th
~We are going home today!
~I had a great experience, going to the AAS’s meeting has really re-energized me to go back to school and work really hard. Being able to meet and interact with scientists has reminded me what I truly want to do with my life. I think that it is important for students to be able to go out and get a first hand experience on how their field of interest actually works. This trip has reminded me what I want to do with my life and why I am working so hard to reach the point these professional scientists are at.

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Samantha Wheeler - Oil City High School

The week leading up to our departure from Oil City was an emotional one. Not just emotional in a sense that there was crying and goodbyes. We were only going to be gone for a week. It was my first time that I was going to fly on an airplane and be far away from home. I was nervous about the presentation of our poster and the reaction we would receive from the astronomers and students due to the fact that we were in high school. But in the end, I was going to the AAS meeting in Long Beach California.

Our first day in California was spent on a trip to Joshua Tree National Forest. The desert was dry and hot. There were hardly any trees, besides the Joshua trees of course, and miles around all that could be seen were rocks and dead looking plants.

Throughout the week, we ate at many different restaurants that had unique and delicious foods. Being a vegetarian, I was not disappointed with the variety of food to choose from. One piece of useful information that we all learned is that it is a wise decision to not eat in a big group. First an extra fee is added on for the large group, and the wait for not only the food, but also the check is not a pleasant one.

Monday and Wednesday were our presenting days. On Monday, we presented our scientific poster which was about our research on the formation of YSO’s (Young Stellar Objects) in Lynd’s clouds (Which are made of gas and dust) 425 and 981. A lot of people were actually surprised and impressed that we were in high school. The meetings usually involve professional astronomers and college students, so this was a great opportunity to talk to people about college opportunities and different jobs that will be available. On Wednesday we presented our educational poster which explains the software and data we use such as Mopex, Maxim DL, APT, and Excel, to find the intensities of the stars and then create SED ( Spectral Energy Distributions) charts. Also color composites, which are made by matching a color to a certain wavelength to see the different invisible wavelengths in a scenes that we can understand them, which also create the pretty pictures that we view in textbooks or online of space.

Days that we did not present our posters we had a chance to do some other things. We also visited The Aquarium of The Pacific, which is one thing that I wouldn’t have been interested in doing if it was taking place in PA. I am very grateful that I was able to do on this trip to Long Beach. I learned more about Space Science and even acquired a new interest in astronomy. I also realize now all the opportunities that lie ahead in my future. My plans to be a photojournalist are still ongoing, but now I also know how many jobs can relate to astronomy. But while I am thankful to have this opportunity, I was also grateful to come home with the great memories. The friends that we have made will turn into long term relationships.

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