A Universe of Possibilities

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Monday, July 22, 2013
Sherri Cruz
OC Register

High school students Samantha Hurtado and Ivan Lomeli are spending their summer at UC Irvine researching open star clusters.

“By finding the distance, age and chemical composition, you can begin to figure out how the Milky Way galaxy was formed and how it’s going to evolve,” Lomeli said.

Open star clusters, as opposed to globular star clusters, are a group of younger stars with more space between them, the project partners explained.

Hurtado and Lomeli are among the state’s top junior and senior high school students selected to take part in Cosmos – a month long academic program in which students live on campus and study one of eight subject clusters in math and science.

These include Genes, Genomes and Biocontrol, and Astronomy and Astrophysics: From Atoms to Stars, Galaxies and the Expanding Universe.

Of nearly 700 applicants, 164 were chosen for UC Irvine’s Cosmos this year. The program, known formally as California State Summer School for Math and Science, is also held on three other UC campuses.

Hurtado, a senior at San Diego High School, and Lomeli, a junior at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, chose the astronomy cluster, which has about 25 students divided into teams of two to four people.

Each team gets a different project, such as “Searching for Asteroids and Calculating Their Orbits” and “Dark Matter in the Universe: Measuring the Rotation of Spiral Galaxies.”

Sound rigorous? It is.

“They take a yearlong course in astronomy in one month,” said Tammy Smecker-Hane, a UCI professor and astrophysicist.

Smecker-Hane selected students from a slew of applications. Astronomy is one of the most popular clusters, she said. Similar to applying for college, students write two essays and supply transcripts and teacher letters of recommendation.

These are students who have the grades and the ambition. “We get debate captains, volleyball stars and musicians,” she said.

Hurtado wanted to take the class to get an idea of how to apply chemistry to astronomy. She’s considering being an astrobiologist, someone who studies life in the universe.

As part of her high school International Baccalaureate studies, she’s taken biology and chemistry, both of which involve the smallest things possible, she said.

“What I wanted to do is check out the opposite end of the spectrum,” she said.

“I’m just fascinated by the stars,” Hurtado said. “I’m limited at home, staring at them through the toy telescopes,” she said. “I wanted to see the real thing.”

The real thing – that’s what the Cosmos program offers.

“How do we get kids interested in science? This is how you do it. You show them how cool the universe is. You make it real to them,” Smecker-Hane said.

The course, which isn’t graded, serves many purposes. It helps students figure out career paths and allows them to get a taste of college life and what it might be like to study at a research university. It can also help students get into college.

Marilyn Chan, a senior at Early College High School in Costa Mesa, is leaning toward a medical career, but she first wants to rule out other pursuits.

She applied for the program, in part, because she’s a fan of “Doctor Who,” a British TV show about a regenerating Time Lord’s adventures with his companions through space and time.

“I’m Asian, so the joke is you’re either a doctor or a lawyer,” she said. “Since I like space and sciency things, why not give it a shot?” she said.

Matt Adams, a senior at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, isn’t sure of what he wants to study after high school. But he knows he’s going to college, and being part of Cosmos will help him get there.

“People told me it was a really prestigious program and looks good on a college résumé,” he said. “I think it will give me a better understanding of what I want to do in life.”

Adams and his teammates – Christopher Calciano, a senior at York School in Monterey, and Erica Morales, a senior at Bell High School in Bell – have the task of finding the mass of Saturn through orbital periods of its moons.

They’ve gathered their data at UCI Observatory, where the teenage astronomy students spend most of their weeknights.

“The most amazing moment was when we went to the observatory – they have a 24-inch telescope there, which is bigger than anything I’ve ever come close to seeing – and looked through and saw Saturn and its rings,” Calciano said. “This sounds really cliché, but it was really inspirational.”

The students’ day begins early and goes well into the evening.

During the day, they spend time in the computer lab sifting through data and working to complete their assigned projects. They get free time on the weekend to hang out in the game room or visit University Town Center; sometimes they end up in the library studying.

On Wednesdays, guest lecturers come and speak to the students. UCI astronomy and physics Professor James Bullock recently lectured.

Hurtado was impressed.
“When he talks about astronomy, he talks in a collective ‘we,’ ” Hurtado said. Rather than countries competing in a space race, it’s humans working together on space exploration, she said. “It’s a beautiful concept.”

For Lomeli and his family, studying at UCI is a big deal. “My whole family came to drop me off,” he said. “If I end up going to a university, I would be the first generation to go to a university,” he said. “My mom got really emotional.”

UC Irvine summer research program gives high school students a glimpse at careers in science.