My first weeks at SETI

You made it! Welcome to my blog. I’m going to tell myself that I will keep this updated from now on, but we’ll see how that goes.

I am now one third of the way through my 9-week research experience at the SETI Institute and it has been utterly surreal. This internship had been at the top of my list for a while, but I never thought I would actually get it. When I got the news that I would be working with Dr. Franck Marchis on the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), I cried freely and without shame. I told everyone I knew. I told people I didn’t know. I had been researching indirect exoplanet observation methods at my university for a few semesters, but not direct imaging like what GPI does. I was just itching with excitement to dig in to this new cutting-edge area of astronomy.

In my first week, I got acquainted with the SETI office and my workspace. The REU interns’ desks are just down the hall from the office of the SETI chairs, Frank Drake (creator of the Drake Equation, co-designer of the Pioneer Plaque with Carl Sagan) and Jill Tarter (creator of the stellar classification “brown dwarf” and inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s Contact). Pretty dang cool. I also got to explore Mountain View with my fellow interns, who are smart and wonderful people.

For the first two weeks, my time was mostly spent reading papers about GPI (pronounced “g-pie”) and pyKLIP, the image processing code that I would be testing and developing for the next two months. I got to visit Stanford for a day to meet with some of the members of the GPI team, and then the next week I went on a        free        trip to Pasadena to meet more folks at CalTech who helped me get into the meat of pyKLIP. I couldn’t get over how crazy it was that somebody thought it was worth the resources to send me, just some guy, all the way to CalTech and back. I am also incredibly grateful to Jean-Baptiste at Stanford and Max at CalTech who are two real-life published professional researchers for using their valuable time to teach me basic terminal commands, among other things more relevant to the project. I hope that I will get the chance to pass that courtesy on when I am in charge of training interns one day.

Entering the third week, I was beginning to mess around with pyKLIP, testing if it was working the way it is intended. Fortunately for me, everything is written in Python, the only programming language I know. It was great to finally write code as a job instead of a distraction from other more important things.

At this point, I had not met my mentor yet. He was still on vacation in France, managing to keep in close email contact, a testament to his work ethic. Then, on the Wednesday afternoon of my third week at SETI, Dr. Franck Marchis arrived to the office in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts as though he had just stepped off the plane and immediately asked me to prepare a few slides about my work over past fortnight. He had a powerful, commanding presence that I will not soon forget. After a few days of talking with him face-to-face, I can see he is patient and attentive to his students and pushes them to produce their best work. I think he will be an excellent mentor and I am happy I am able to work with him. I am however very intimidated.

In conclusion, these have been the three nuttiest weeks of my entire life. I am so thankful to the CAMPARE program for giving me this opportunity and to all the people that helped me get here.

I’ll try to come back next week to maybe talk about how weird living at NASA Ames is, or discuss my project in a little more depth.



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