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Darren McKinnon

Utah State University, NASA Research Intern

Darren is working with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on the project "How do Massive Stars Enrich the Interstellar Medium?"

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Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Final Reflections | Final Presentation

Reflection: A Summer of Growth

It's officially been over a month since I left DC. As I lose myself in another semester of school, I think back on my internship with fond memories. I honestly feel that my entire mindset was changed because of it. The exposure to life as a researcher was, in my opinion, incredible.

Along the way I learned a large number of skills. I learned to code in IDL. I learned to work with Hubble data. I improved my poster creation and presentation skills. However, these things pale in comparison to what I feel was the true "moral" to my summer story. I learned the power of networking and collaboration. I learned that no matter what age, you may have a wonder for the stars. I learned that even successful, brilliant scientists can be so down to earth, while their heads are in the heavens.

I am continuing to work on the project that I began while I was at Goddard. It's a friendly, refreshing reminder of the fun I had this summer. The work looks to be hard, and it's a bit more difficult now that I can't just wander down the hall, ask a question, and get an incredible story along with my answer. Instead I must now resort to email. However, the work is still exciting.

Some of the fondest memories of summer come from outside of work though. The other interns were fantastic, and we made sure to enjoy our summer together. It was so intriguing how quick we all were to be friends, when we had known each other for such little time. It seemed like we spent so much time together, but now upon reflection, it seems the summer ended far too soon.

All in all, I can't complain about this last summer. I entertained a growth of knowledge and experience; one without rival in my history of summers. These are memories I will forever be fond of, and skills that I will often put to use.

Thanks for the great summer.

Week 10: Farewell DC
August 5-9, 2013

The final week was busy; it was packed to the brim with events. This meant that there wouldn’t be a lot of time to go off and do whatever we wanted, so our final weekend was spent wrapping up all of the museums and sightseeing that we wanted to do. The work week began with a practice for our presentations. We all gathered together to practice in front of our supportive internship staff and all the other interns. It was extremely helpful to have people giving constructive criticism on the presentations. Since I was involved with my project all along, it was easy to forget that some of the things weren’t common knowledge. The other interns and staff pointed them out, which allowed me to make my presentation significantly better. The last portion of our Monday involved making last-minute changes to our projects and practicing a few more times. Then it was time for the big day.

Tuesday morning finally arrived, and along with it came a bit of nerves. We had to be at ACP a bit early to be sure that everything was ready before it was time to start. Ro’s brother was in town, and he offered a ride to a few of us. After a few mishaps with construction and Apple Maps, we finally made it out to ACP. I was set to go first, so I pulled up my presentation and then sat down to try to keep my nerves in check. Once the presentation started, it wasn’t so bad. I was particularly worried about the questions that would be asked after the presentation, but they all turned out to be very interesting and easy to answer. All in all, it was quite fun. Following our presentations we headed out for a tour of the State Department. The facilities were beautiful, and we got to talk to some of the employees that have a backing in physics. Two of them actually had degrees in astrophysics or astronomy. I have noticed this summer that there was a large number of people who had transferred from astrophysics and astronomy into the political side of things. I mentioned this to one of the people we were talking to, and I actually got to have a nice conversation about it with her.

Wednesday wrapped up the week for me. We gathered at ACP for our exiting surveys and final paperwork. It was sad to realize that the summer was over, but a glance back reminded me of all of the fun I had. It was a great opportunity to meet a lot of people, make a lot of connections, and really solidify my love of science and physics. I couldn’t have asked for a better internship.

Week 9: Becoming the Expert
July 29-August 2, 2013

This week was all about finishing up the poster for my presentation. My mentor has been in Canada, and so he was hard to reach. Fortunately the rest of the group, namely Tom and Mike, were able to help me along the way. By Tuesday I had finished the first draft of the poster. I sent it to everyone in the group, and things worked out just right so that I was able to get a response from everyone by Wednesday. I was then able to make some adjustments, print the poster, and sigh with relief.

Thursday was the day of the presentation, so I put on my fancy clothes, grabbed a tie, and set off for Goddard. I checked in and set up my poster with plenty of time to spare. I then had some time to just sit and relax. Once the actual judging of the posters began, things went really well. The judge was pleasant and didn’t ask any terribly hard questions. The really terrifying part came a bit later when it the poster session was open to all of the Goddard employees. A lot of people wandered through during this time, but one in particular made my palms sweat. Tom had just stopped by the poster, so I was chatting with him. Next thing I know, there stands Jennifer Wiseman, the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Eta Carinae was the first light for Hubble. This means that the first time they actually went to use it in its full scientific glory, they pointed it at the system I’m studying. Dr. Wiseman had approached with her niece and nephew, and she began telling them about how much she loved Eta Carinae, including the story of Hubble’s first light. She then began asking me questions. With nervous laughter and only a little shaking, I managed to answer all of her questions. She smiled and thanked me before heading off for another poster. I mentioned to Tom how terrifying it was. He laughed and said not to worry. He mentioned that he had felt that way too at first, but then there came a point where he realized that he had studied Eta Carinae so long that he was the expert. “At that point,” he laughed,” you can say pretty much whatever you want.”

Sadly, this internship is coming to an end. I’m currently working on my final presentation. Since I won’t be coming to Goddard next week at all, today I have to turn in my key and ID. It’s a bit sad, but I had a blast while I was here. I cannot wait to continue my research with this group at home.

Week 8: Time Waits for No Man
July 22-26, 2013

The work that I have done this summer has been a bit erratic. I have worked with a number of different approaches to studying Eta Carinae, including principal component analysis, three-dimensional hydrodynamic modeling, and observational analysis. I have thoroughly enjoyed each one. However, my poster presentation for this next week is about a single topic, preferably something that has been completed (or nearly so). Most interns at Goddard have had a single project that they have been working on, and that is what they will be presenting next Thursday. Since I have been all over the place with mine, we figured that I should pick one thing to be the focus of the poster. It was a brilliant idea…

… until we realized how much work was going to be needed to go into fleshing out that one thing into an entire completed poster. Each addition to the poster or the project gives rise to a new aspect of the research that we need to consider. However, the dice had been cast, and the abstract submitted. Using all of the skills that I’ve acquired so far this summer, along with the ones I brought with me, I have been furiously working to compile a mostly completed scientific presentation. This has involved delving through the stacks of scientific papers that had been given to me at the beginning of the summer, as well as looking up a few more. Tom has been helping me along the way, providing me with tips, suggestions, and hints on how to improve my poster and the research.

The poster is coming along, despite the difficulties presented. I’ve been surprised at how well the graphics are turning out, and adding the logos of those involved adds a nice little touch. There alongside each other sit the NASA logo, the SPS logo, and a Utah State University logo. They sit there representing the deep tradition of research, excellence, and the love of science that each organization holds. They present me with bold encouragement and a pleasant push forward: Carry on, for there is much to be discovered, and time waits for no man.

Week 7: Abstract Thinking
July 15-19, 2013

The beginning of this week was set to be a sad one of sorts. My mentor was departing for Canada, and he would not return before my time at Goddard had ended. However, once I had checked my email Monday morning, I found that there was no time to waste. Apparently all the interns were responsible for presenting a poster on their research at a poster session on August 1st. Somehow that memo had slipped through the cracks, so this was my first time hearing of it. The abstracts for the posters were to be due on Friday, so we quickly set to work on figuring out exactly what my poster topic would be. After helping find a little direction, Ted wished me luck and headed on his way.

The next few days involved a lot of playing around with the topic, title, and abstract content. Tom graciously provided me with correctness checks, as well as with a few pointers on how to improve my abstract. In my own opinion, it turned out quite nicely. It is likely the finest piece of scientific writing I have taken part in (which isn’t saying a lot, as my scientific writing background is slim). I have included it below, as I feel it is a great example of yet another skill that I’ve been developing while here at Goddard.

“Eta Carinae, a massive, highly-eccentric colliding wind binary, boasts a sidereal laboratory of great astronomical interest. It is an exceptional example of a pre-supernova environment, having survived a non-terminal stellar explosion in the 1800′s that left behind the incredible bipolar Homunculus nebula. The central interacting stellar winds are resolvable using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) aboard the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Three-dimensional (3D) data cubes (2D spatial, 1D velocity) of numerous spectral lines that form in the colliding wind regions have been collected at several phases during Eta Car’s 5.54-year orbital cycle using the HST/STIS. By applying differencing techniques to these data cubes, we can compare and measure temporal changes in the two massive winds. Initial evaluation of these changes supports current 3D hydrodynamical models of Eta Car’s colliding winds. The observations can also be used to help constrain Eta Car’s recent mass-loss history, which is important for determining the current and future states of this likely nearby supernova progenitor.”

At the end of the week, we had the tour of NIST. It was full of many interesting stops, but the one that held my attention the most was the final lab that we stopped at. The group in this lab was a conglomeration of physical and synthetic chemist, physicists, and engineers. They were working on developing the means to cheaply and efficiently map an individual’s entire genome. I found it to be incredibly intriguing. This next week will include a couple tours of the other workplaces, all of which should be entertaining.

Week 6: Tour de Goddard
July 8-12, 2013

Following the fun of the 4th, it was back to work on Monday. Most of the week was taken up with familiarizing myself with writing scripts in Linux and working my way through the modeling code that we would be utilizing. Tom and Nicola had to fix one final bug, and then we’d be off to the races (which may prove to be a poor analogy). They finished fixing the code, and I was able to begin the first tests. I wrote a script that allowed me to log out and leave the computer if the need arose. I then prepped the files, called up the script, and let the code start running. Estimated time until first data output: 1 day. Number of outputs requested: 12. I instantly became quite fond of my script. Personally, I didn’t really want to stay at Goddard for 12 straight days, regardless of how awesome it is.

Speaking of how awesome Goddard is, this was the week that Alec and I hosted a tour of our offices. Though Alec’s office is rife with exciting equipment, mine leans toward the drab. It consists of 2 bookshelves, 1 filing cabinet, 3 chairs, 3 desks, 1 computer, and 1 me. Since I lack officemates, I couldn’t even make introductions. To compensate, we chose to spice up our tour. We asked my mentor, Ted Gull, and Nobel Laureate John Mather to join us. Both kindly obliged. The tour began at the Goddard Visitor’s Center with “Science on a Sphere,” an incredible bit of technology consisting of a white sphere capable of displaying any number of things at the whim of the guide. The sphere can become planet Earth with all of the airline flights shown as little red dots traversing the globe. It can become the massive giant Jupiter, with our tiny Earth projected along side for scale. It’s highly interactive, including a wii remote the guide can use to rotate the planets every which way.

Following that, we had the opportunity to sit in on a presentation by Charlie Bowden, the administrator of NASA. I found it highly informative to see where NASA was headed. We then journeyed to where they test numerous spacecraft, including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). John Mather, the senior project scientist for JWST, led us around the testing center where he iterated incredible facts about JWST and other spacecraft. We walked inside NASA’s massive centrifuge, where they subject spacecraft to incredible acceleration forces. Along with that, we were able to see WFC2, a camera that was used in Hubble Space Telescope for 15 years. The final servicing mission replaced it, then returned this historic instrument back to Earth. Later it will be in the Smithsonian for Hubble’s 20th anniversary. We concluded with building 34 where Alec and I work. I was able to show them my office, a tour that lasted roughly three minutes.

It’s sad to think that there is less than a month left of the internship. It’s been so much fun and incredibly educational. Working alongside numerous scientists has whetted my interest in astronomy and science. I anxiously anticipate further participation.

Week 5: It's All Rainbows and Sunshine
July 1-5, 2013

This last week was a fantastic week to be in our nation’s capitol. I started out the week working with Tom, one of the Ph.D. group members. Our collaborator from the Netherlands, Nicola, had been working on a program to help us model a few different portions of the system that we’re studying. The plan was to have me use this program to help run and evaluate the system using just hydrogen, while Nicola would run it for a system of hydrogen and helium.

The first thing I should note with this program is that it can take a long time to run. Depending on the parameters it can take anywhere from two hours to a month (or longer if we get ridiculous). Due to this, we are likely going to be applying for some time on the supercomputers. This will allow us to process data much more quickly. While we were working out the last few bugs of the code, I was nudged toward expanding my skill set once more. Tom suggested that I learn to write scripts that would help run the programs. This will allow me to let things run while I’m not watching. That was motivation enough for me.

Following a few days at work, we had a long weekend to celebrate Independence Day. It was fantastic. The day offered extremely cooperative weather, with bright sunshine and an occasional cool breeze. We were invited out to a pool party and barbecue, which was both filling and entertaining. Afterword we went to the National Mall on the lawn of the Washington Monument to watch the fireworks. Being the scientists we are, we all grabbed our handy dandy diffraction glasses. Since these glasses split the light from some source into its individual spectrum, each firework was accompanied by lines of rainbows. It was an incredible display. I wanted to run around the mall handing people my glasses, urging them to partake in the incredible celebration of science that I was experiencing. However, I took the route of being selfish and shy, so I kept the glasses to myself. Next year I think that I’ll invest in a large number so that I can share.

The rest of the weekend consisted of a trip to Union Station and another trip the folklife festival. I also got to have my first “conveyer belt sushi” experience with YO! Sushi at Union Station. It was delicious to say in the least. At the folklife festival I was able to listen to live performances of Welsh, Hungarian, and Kalmyk music. Each had it’s own beauty, and each reflected a gorgeous portion of each of these cultures. Following my trip to the folklife festival, I briefly popped over to the National Museum of Natural History. I took a wander through a few of the exhibits that I had missed the first time through. With only four weeks left, it seems that the summer has gone by too fast. I’m looking forward to another fun filled week of work and fun.

Week 4: The Other Side of Science
June 24-28, 2013

Science. Last week I got a taste of the excitement. This week, however, it seemed I was destined to round out my scientific experience. I found myself trudging through a large bundle of data. I had run a number of datacubes through the program that we’ve been using. I now had four different versions of each datacube. Each datacube consists of 51 images. It was my joyful experience to trudge through each of these images looking at the four different types side by side. There were interesting aspects, don’t get me wrong. However, things really dragged for a while. My mentor was gone this week on vacation, so I was dealing with a few others in the group. I worked back through the papers that I had been given at the beginning, and I was surprised to see how much better I understood them. Let’s not confuse that with completely understanding them; that will be a long way off yet. On Thursday I met with one of the group members, Tom, and we Skyped in with a collaborator in the Netherlands. Nicola, a graduate student in the Netherlands, has been working to reconstruct a portion of what we see when looking at Eta Carinae. It was very interesting chatting with him and seeing what he was doing. I will begin working to help with this portion of the project sometime early next week.

Thursday night, we all gathered together at the American Center for Physics for a reception with the American Institute of Physics Directors Board. It was a lot of fun meeting with the people who help support the internship. We had a lot of chances to use our “elevator speech,” a quick half-minute or so synopsis of who we are and what we’re doing.

As for home life, I had the delicious experience of checking out Ben’s Chili Bowl. This famous grill states that only Barack Obama and Bill Cosby eat for free, and judging by the pictures hung on the wall, it appears that both of them have. It was a nice change of pace finding something delightful for both my wallet and my taste buds. A few of us also took a lovely trip down the river on a pirate ship. Pirate ship is being a bit liberal here… it was more of a tug boat with a couple of fake masts. The boat looked fantastic though, and we had a lot of fun. We even met another physicist on board! It was a lovely little trip to round off the evening.

Week 3: The Darren, The Data, and The Fixed Code
June 17-21, 2013

Ahh… IT access. Work was finally moving along. The Eta Car group had me working with a new program they were hoping to use to get a new angle on their research. Mairan, one of the Ph.D.’s in the group, had done a bit of work with the program, but for the most part we were all on the same level by way of understanding how exactly to work things. It was decided that I should flex my new IDL muscles and work on automating the code. I began running a few of our data cubes through the program to understand how it was being processed.

I was becoming extremely comfortable with my understanding of the program, so I decided to run a particular data cube through, deconstructing it, evaluating it, processing it, and finally reconstructing it with only key features. I figured that this would be a decent exercise, since this was what we intended to do with the program. Feeling quite proud of myself for reconstructing this particular data cube without the signal noise that it originally contained, I decided to show it off to my mentor.

His response was not at all what I anticipated. He became quite attentive to the image at hand, excitement exuding from his every action. In the reconstructd image, a new structure had shown up. It was something that they hadn’t seen before, but upon initial evaluation, it could very well fit with many predictions that were being made by the models the group was creating. This excitement was revisited after lunch when the entire group convened in my tiny office. The discussion of what it could or couldn’t be lasted for an hour, each scientist showing the same excitement as my mentor. This was the part of my internship that I hoped for, but honestly didn’t expect. The anticipation of what could be, the love for science, the brilliant formation of ideas… All hemmed by scientific reasoning and plausible doubt.

Like all things science, this little discovery wasn’t the end of things. Now we had to verify that it exists, and that it was what we thought it was. This brings me to my task at the conclusion of my third week. I would now need to run many different data cubes through to see if we could see this same type of structure show up through any of the other emission lines. Along with this the week concluded with a Skype call to a few collaborators in Mexico.

I end this week on a note of elation and anticipation. The weekend is calling with the allure of entertainment, and I am elated about the opportunity to see one of the many processes of science. Don’t worry… I’ll keep you updated.

Week 2: The Case of the Missing IT Access
June 10-14, 2013

The tail end of the second week caught me by surprise; I was the overconfident gazelle to it’s stealthy, hungry lion. As of Monday morning, my IT access had still not come through. There are numerous security measures taken before you can get IT access at NASA, which left me in a difficult position. You see, one of the things that I needed to do in these first couple of weeks was learn IDL (Interactive Data Language) a program designed to help process and display data. Upon arriving at work Monday morning, my mentor handed me three thick books about IDL. My Task: Learn IDL. The Challenge: Do it without computer access.

Along with this, I still had my numerous works on Eta Car that I was still working through. So I plopped down at my desk and began flipping through pages. The next three days consisted of weaving my way through numerous contacts and IT services to try and gain access. When I wasn’t doing that, I was at my desk, reading about IDL or Eta Car. The majority of the group studying Eta Car was gone. Some of them were in Greece presenting some of their work [Insert jealousy here]. Finally, Thursday morning happened upon me. My mentor called in sick; I was abandoned in the Goddard IT wasteland. Reaching deep into my core, I managed to gather the courage to take on the task of finally getting my IT access. I discovered the great joy of making phone call after phone call while trying to track down the right person. Through this endeavor I realized Mario’s frustration as he battled past koopas and worse. “I’m sorry, the IT service you need isn’t here. It’s in another castle.” Finally, after things had gone on long enough that I had most of the IT numbers memorized… it happened. My computer logged on, my IDL license was connected… I could begin actually learning IDL.

Following my triumphant return from the jungle of technical assistance, I began working through many of the IDL practice demos that were strung throughout the stack of IDL reference books my mentor had lent me. Having already been familiar with writing computer code, it was a quick language to pick up. Things were finally moving along.

Home-life continued to entertain. Almost every night we have gone out adventuring. The Air and Space Museum was fantastic. Jamie and Nicole wandered through most of it with Alec and I at the helm. They were loaded with “Fun Fact” after “Fun Fact” as Alec and I offered up tidbits of knowledge. Though I’m sure that the real entertainment was watching Alec and I as we stared wide-eyed at the wonders around us. It seems odd that it has only been two weeks, but already I feel like we’ve settled into the city. I have already picked out the place with the best wings and delicious, cheap burgers. Now that I’m getting settled down both at home and at work, the real fun can begin. I fear the summer will pass too soon.

Week 1: "It doesn't get weirder than this."
June 3-7, 2013

My new roommate Ro summed up our first day in DC with the simple and honest truth: “It doesn’t get weirder than this.” You see, we were at a restaurant at 11:30 at night thousands of miles away from our hometowns with people we had met less than six hours previous… And we were having fun. It was a mundane flight from Utah to DC, with only my worries of failing miserably upon arrival to keep me company. It happened that Ro’s flight would get in soon after mine, so I waited for him before catching a bus to our room. The next few days were unpacking, exploring, meeting people, and anxiously awaiting to see what our internship would really be like.

Finally our first day arrived.

Not unlike a huddle of penguins, we made our way through the metro system and to the American Center of Physics (ACP). As orientation began, we met many of the people who make the ACP world turn. The support and kindness was overflowing from the many people excited for us to succeed and have fun. We were then presented the incredible opportunity to break bread (and some delicious pasta) with John Mather, a Nobel Laureate. This was a joy. He was genuinely interested in us, what we found interesting, and what we wanted to do. After lunch and a brief meeting with HR, it was finally time for Alec and I to split off from the rest of the group and head to Goddard.

The place is massive… and gorgeous. It’s beautifully secluded among the Maryland foliage. With the assistance of the Goddard staff, I was introduced to my mentor, Ted Gull. He promptly presented me with three published scientific papers, one unpublished paper, a book to learn the language of IDL, part of a dissertation, and a book about the Hubble Space Telescope. With a hearty chuckle he said “You’re going to be lost for the first few weeks.” Judging by my first few days, he’s right. The science is fascinating. The group I work with consists of five Ph.D.’s, and lunchtime consists of us sitting together and discussing the new exciting science surrounding Eta Carinae (the star system we’re studying). The majority of it is far above my head, but day by day I’m recognizing more words and phrases. It’ll still be a mental marathon before I begin understanding it, but with Ted’s encouragement to “just have fun,” I can enjoy working my way there.

“Home-life” has been extremely entertaining. I can step out the front doors and take a quick jog to the White House, the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial. Those of us that live in town have been getting together and wandering around downtown at night. The history and culture is terribly exciting. As I wrap up my first week in DC, the anticipation of what’s to come seems to grow each moment. Over the next few weeks, who knows? Maybe it will get weirder than this. All I do know is that as physicists, we’ll create some models, test to see if it does get weirder, and hopefully publish a paper detailing the entire thing.

Also… I met an astronaut. It was fantastic.


Darren McKinnon

I am Darren McKinnon, and I am a physics student at Utah State University. My specific interest with physics is astrophysics. I am very interested in gravitational waves and binary systems. After I get my bachelors degree, my plan is to go on to earn my doctorate in astrophysics. I hope someday to become a professor so that I can share my love for physics. I am deeply involved with the Society of Physics Students at my university. I have been president for the last year, and I will be again for my remaining year at Utah State.

I originally hail from a small community in South East Idaho. I love to play Ultimate Frisbee, and I am an avid Doctor Who fan. I love to enjoy the outdoors, especially through hiking and backpacking. I have a huge love for science fiction movies and books, and I will shamelessly admit that the astrophysics characters from these helped me decide that astrophysics was the direction for me. I love the sciences (physics in particular), and I thoroughly enjoy sharing that love and knowledge of physics with the public. This is what led me to the Society of Physics Students in the first place.

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