Week 2: Attacking the Steep Learning Curve

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Sunday, June 13, 2021


Gina Pantano

Hello everyone.

Thank you for continuing along with my journey as one of the NASA GSFC Research Interns this summer. I can’t believe I am already two weeks into my internship! This past week I established my project and objectives with my mentor, attended several events and meetings, and started my Python crash course with Joseph. I am excited to share my overall experience from this week with you, so let's get into it!

New Physics

As a recap, line intensity mapping is a relatively new observational technique which measures the integrated sky emission from a specific atomic or molecular line transition (specifically CO and CII for us), which allows scientists to understand the physics of star-forming galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe. CO and CII line emissions are key tracers of the gas phases in the interstellar medium involved in the star formation process. I learned that singly ionized carbon (CII) is one of the brightest emission lines from star-forming galaxies! If we observe these line emissions at different redshifts, we are essentially watching these tracers evolve over time, which gives us a detailed reconstruction of star formation in the early universe. We are particularly looking at the time the star formation rate began to decline, approximately 12 Gyr ago, up until our current universe today. The mission's goal is to provide new evidence for why the star formation rate has slowly been declining since redshift z ~ 2. For my project, I get to develop the software for visualizing these intensity maps in celestial coordinates. The end goal is to create a mission reference simulation pipeline where a user can input certain parameters related to the mission and the code will produce a reference sky model. Furthermore, I get to add realistic instrument noise to the simulations based on our MKIDs noise models and resonator noise data.

Physics of MKIDs

Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detector, or MKID, is a new type of superconducting photon detector developed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2003. Photons incident on the superconducting material are absorbed breaking up Cooper pairs, pairs of electrons (or other fermions) coupled together at cryogenic temperatures, creating an excess amount of quasiparticles (a disturbance in a medium that behaves like a particle). The increase in quasiparticles changes the surface impedance (ratio of voltage to current) of the superconducting material. This change in surface impedance is measured by making the superconductor material part of a microwave resonant circuit, and by monitoring the phase of a microwave signal transmitted through (or past) the resonator [1]. In other words, the resonator changes frequency based on the photons incident upon the surface of superconducting material. Some benefits to MKIDs include them being cheaper to make and having higher sensitivity than other detectors. EXCLAIM will have MKIDs coupled to six superconducting spectrometers. Super interesting condensed matter physics!!

More on MKIDs


Weekly Events

The week started off with our GSFC Orientation, where we got to meet the other EXCLAIM interns for the first time. Following the event, I attended my first mission science and analysis meeting. The purpose for these meetings is mainly to talk about the physics behind EXCLAIM, review related papers, and discuss progress on physics-based simulations. Later in the evening, I met up with a few of the SPS interns to play a couple rounds of Scribblo, similar to Pictionary. On Tuesday, I got to attend the mechanical systems meeting where I met the rest of the EXCLAIM team. They showed the interns and me the detailed SolidWork designs of EXCLAIM and talked about areas needing improvement (so cool!). Wednesday, I met with Trevor, the fourth-year graduate student from the University of Wisconsin, to talk about my project. Trevor has been extremely helpful by walking me through the current coding files on GitHub and reassuring me that “feeling lost” is completely common at the beginning stages of my internship. Later that day, the EXCLAIM interns and I attended our NASA division’s orientation. We met the directors of each laboratory in the division and learned about weekly events we can attend. I am particularly looking forward to attending the Inclusive Astronomy Roundtable to talk about DEI-related topics in the astronomical community. Thursday, Joseph and I attended our first Python course. However, the first class familiarized us with Git and GitHub since we will be using the version control platform throughout the course series. I will admit the class was a bit chaotic with over 100 interns asking questions and trying to follow along virtually. Luckily, the classes are recorded and sent to all GSFC interns after each session. On Friday, we had an agency-wide event where amazing speakers, such as the NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson, spoke to us. We learned about NASA’s Artemis mission, the importance of STEM education, the science behind the Orion spacecraft, and so much more. We even got a virtual goodie bag! The day ended with the SPS interns meeting the SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma Executive Committee. We played a couple rounds of Scribblo and got to know each other on a more personal level. 

Overall Experience & Feelings

This week has been challenging with the steep learning curve I am facing. My project involves a lot of background research related to the physics behind EXCLAIM and is computationally intensive. I have never worked with JupyterLab, utilized classes in Python, or have used the plotting package WCSAxes in astropy. Additionally, I am still struggling with certain technical terms my mentor uses such as scan strategy and websky. Scan strategy is the process by which we map the sky by scanning the instrument in azimuth. Websky is a simulation for gravity on cosmological scales which produces a “halo catalog” of large structures as a function of redshift. It took me asking for clarification to understand these terms better. A learning curve is certainly to be expected for any new job or project, and your mentor(s) know this because they have been there before too. The key is being able to flatten the curve enough to get yourself in a position of feeling confident. Here are my few tricks to work on getting there!

Be Patient

You will not be an expert on day one, so give yourself a break and some time to take everything in. Your first two weeks can be overwhelming attending meetings for the first time, meeting new people, learning new material, getting assigned tasks you are unsure of, and receiving deadlines that seem to close for comfort. This is where it is critical to remind yourself that you were chosen for this position for a reason. Understand that your nerves mean you care deeply, and you want to do well. Furthermore, do not downplay your accomplishment for being selected (as I talked about last week). Even if luck was on your side, you still had to beat out other candidates. 

Do Your Relevant Background Research

One way to start flattening the curve with any new research project is understanding the why behind it, arguably the most important part. The ‘why’ behind the EXCLAIM mission is to understand what caused the sudden decline in star formation rate despite dark matter continuing to cluster in the universe. Once you know the why, look into the key concepts that surround the overall topic. For me, this was line intensity mapping, large-scale structure, infrared spectrometry, the evolution of galaxies/dark matter, and star formation. You will soon find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of information about your project. Just picking a place to start will allow you to tackle the important information a little bit at a time. 

Ask for Help & Advice

With any research project, you will inevitably run into roadblocks. This is where mentors become extremely important. Mentors are there to support you, help set goals, serve as a source of knowledge on the subject matter, offer encouragement, provide feedback, and so much more. Do not be afraid to seek advice or ask questions if you do not understand something. If you do not, you create the risk of either setting yourself or your team behind on schedule. Internships are learning experiences, so you should continuously be asking questions. 

Do Your Best!

Overall, this past week was very exciting for me. I am thrilled to be a part of the EXCLAIM mission and help lay the foundation for future line intensity mapping missions. Although the steep learning curve has been challenging, I am confident I will be able to overcome it and successfully meet all my project objectives. Next week, I plan to discuss my challenges with remote work and how to create a work-life balance at home. I hope everyone's enjoying their summer!

Happy Researching!


[1] Mazin, B. A. (2004). Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors (dissertation). Retrieved at http://web.physics.ucsb.edu/~bmazin/Papers/2004/Mazin/Caltech%20Thesis%202004%20Mazin.pdf.

Interesting Links

Current & Future Line Intensity Mapping Missions: https://lambda.gsfc.nasa.gov/product/expt/lim_experiments.cfm

Cosmology lectures I have been watching: https://youtu.be/ndSD9U34-gM

Dr. David Helfand’s book from last week: https://www.amazon.com/Survival-Guide-Misinformation-Age-Scientific/dp/0231168721

What a balloon telescope mission looks like: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/nasa-mission-will-study-the-cosmos-with-a-stratospheric-balloon

Gina Pantano (she/her/hers)