Monday, December 12, 2016

Telecommuting to work on the Red Planet

Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
Self portrait of the MSL Curiosity Remote Sensing Mast via MAHLI. Taken on sol 32 of the surface mission. Helping to write the plans for taking images like these is just another day at the office for the PVL trainees working as Collaborators on MSL (Christina, Casey, Charissa and Jake).
By: Casey Moore

Members of the group typically fit into “Team Mars” or “Team Moon” — I am a part of “Team Mars.” Our involvement on Mars is through PVLs Participating Scientist (PS) grant on the Mars Science Laboratory mission — MSL or Curiosity for short. This means that certain members of the group can participate in Science Operations.  Since we are stationed outside of the United States (and MSL is a mission led through NASA/JPL) — the work we do is funded by the Canadian Space Agency. In addition to our operations activities, our research involvement in MSL has lead to several peer-reviewed paper authorships for PVL members and many more to come.

So, what is exactly do I mean by Science Operations? Well, in short, this is where members of the lab participate in planning Curiosity’s sol-to-sol activities (a sol is a martian day, approx. 24h39m). Participating in rover ops is a time commitment, but it is enjoyable and a nice break from the daily grind.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Transition: From Undergrad to Grad Student

 As we approach the end of the year, it is an excellent time for reflecting. In this post, PVL MSc Student Elisabeth Smith considers the change in moving into her graduate studies.
By Elisabeth Smith
One year ago, I was sitting at my desk in the bedroom of my upper-year student apartment, with various textbooks, notes, past exams, and cans of Red Bull scattered about. I was preparing for the final exams of my undergraduate engineering degree. It was also right around this time that I suddenly woke up one day and thought, “gee, I think I’d like to go to grad school!” and began researching some interesting graduate programs. I suppose that I thought that I was really enjoying the whole education thing, and wanted to continue learning. I soon learned about the Earth & Space Science program at York University in my old hometown of Toronto. Looking more into it, I found that several of the professors were doing some very interesting research, and decided to send an application. At this point, it was too soon to be certain that I would be accepted into any graduate programs I applied to, so I also sent out several applications to companies for entry level engineering positions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

TA-ships and what they can offer in return

 As part of this post, Jasmeer has sent along the view from his desk (pictured above).
By Jasmeer Sangha
Part of becoming a graduate student entails taking on some teaching duties. When first offered positions, I wanted to make sure my assignments would allow me to interact with the students face-to-face. I’ve had experiences both teaching a class and being solely a marking TA, and the sum of my experiences have taught me that the prior is more favourable.

In my final year of undergrad, I was presented with the opportunity to teach a tutorial section. This experience taught me that a team of students is needed to ensure a class is run properly. The team would meet once a week to go over the topics that were to be taught in the upcoming tutorials. These hour-long sessions would consist of all the TAs solving the quizzes we would be handing out to our students, and sorting out any ambiguous terms or statements in the provided tutorial slides. It was particularly challenging to coordinate the content students were taught in lectures versus what we, the tutorial leads, had planned to discuss with them. This was my first experience teaching individuals that were not close friends or family asking for assistance. I noticed that one must approach issues from a very different angle being an authority figure representing an institution, as opposed to a peer who is giving a helping hand. Having the responsibility of strengthening and contributing to these students’ education was a new feeling for me.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Not-So-Obvious Benefits of Undergraduate Research

In 2014, the members of PVL took part in a photo shoot to promote the lab and science at York. We had to get a little creative as planetary science isn’t always as flashy as photographers might like! Pictured from the left, me (Brittney), Casey Moore, and Ian Tomaszewski.

By Brittney Cooper

In my first undergraduate year at York, I met many passionate students through my involvement in academic clubs and volunteer research. I’ve always tried to get the most out of every experience, and do as much as I can while I have the opportunity to learn as much as I can. Being surrounded by like-minded individuals early on in my academic career only further cemented those ideals, and as I will come to discuss within this blog post, my experiences ended up teaching me a great deal about what it means to take on too many things, and compromise your goals by losing focus.
During a shift volunteering at York Observatory towards the end of my first semester at York, I met Dr. Moores and ended up learning a great deal about his research, all of which happened to greatly align with my interests. I ended up looking into his work further following our meeting and after becoming thoroughly inspired, I decided to reach out and see if I could offer any assistance in his lab. I was quite convinced that there was no way a first year undergraduate student could be of any real help to him, but it couldn’t hurt to inquire, right?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Goodbye Mars, Hello Moon

Congrats to Jake on completing all requirements for his MSc! Tomorrow I sign off officially on his thesis revisions, paving the way for his graduation. Jake is the first graduate student to complete a degree from PVL. We hope he is the first of many. With the change of degrees comes a change of targets for his studies, moving from Mars over to the Moon to help with some instrumentation development. But first, Jake is investigating the environment in which his equipment is intended to operate - hence the Lyman-alpha sky map above.

By Jake Kloos

In the weeks since my last post, a lot has transpired, but the main highlight is that on September 16th, I successfully defended my thesis. Overall, I thought that it went fairly well. I gave what could very well be my final talk on Martian clouds, and managed to escape from the oral examination with only specified revisions, which is about as good as I realistically could have done. My examiners - Dr. Mark Gordon, Dr. Jim Whiteway and Dr. Patrick Hall -  were fair, and gave me a lot of insightful feedback.

As much as I have enjoyed studying Mars and its climate, a new degree will involve a new project. For my PhD work, I will be helping to design, build and test a camera that will image water-ice in the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) of the moon. The camera would operate on a future lunar rover, and is in response to the increasing scientific interest in the PSRs due to the water-ice that resides in these regions. In fact, one of the main drivers for this research is that it may help to determine the location for a future human base, given that water is such a valuable resource.

A test of teaching and phobias of public speaking

 While I was in Switzerland this past week, I asked my Postdoctoral Fellows, Dr. Christina Smith and Dr. Abdelkrim Toumi, to cover my lectures in Fluid Mechanics (PHYS 4120) and Planets and Planetary Systems (PHYS 3070). Below, Christina describes her experiences with the Planetary Science Class.

By Dr. Christina Smith 
This week I am dipping my toes in the waters of lecturing for the second time. I am covering lectures on the shapes of planets and the strength of bodies vs gravity.

Preparing lecture materials is a time consuming process, even if you have previous notes to work from. From deciding what materials go in and thoroughly researching them, to putting them together in a way that makes sense to people unfamiliar with the topic. Ensuring that you pitch the subject at the right level is also a very tricky aspect: if you pitch it too low, you risk not challenging the students and if you pitch it too high, you risk the students not following the material and not learning the important aspects of the subject that you want them to gain from your lectures. You also have to be aware that there is always the chance that students may not be familiar with concepts that you assume prior knowledge of - this happened in lecture one of the two I covered so I ended up adapting lecture two with a 10 minute introduction to that particular concept to make sure we were all on the same page.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Opportunity to Expand my Curiosity of Mars

An example of the X-ray spectra you’d see from a supermassive black hole vs. the one our new MSc Student Charissa Campbell was researching in her undergraduate studies. (Gallo, 2011, JRASC, 105,143) While many of our students have previous research experience, this is not true for all. Still it has been an added plus for our newest recruit from St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

by Charissa Campbell

After 5 years, I successfully finished my Bachelor of Science degree but I could not tell if I wanted to continue with my studies or not. The final year of my degree was intense, filled with 6 classes a semester, working a part-time job as well as completing my undergraduate thesis which involved weekly research. All I could think of during that time was why on earth I had decided to do this field of work. However, at the same time, receiving my Bachelor degree in May 2016 was a great accomplishment and I appreciated the degree much more.

To be honest though, when the time came around to apply to graduate studies, I had no idea if I wanted to repeat the process I was currently going through. Sleepless nights, typical college food and one assignment after another. Since applications were due in early 2016, I figured, why not apply anyways and see what happens.

Since I did my undergraduate thesis on high-energy astrophysics, this was all I knew, research wise. So I applied across Canada for high-energy research, specifically on Active Galactic Nuclei. However, one day I got an email from Dr. John Moores asking if I’d be interested in planetary science. At first, I wasn’t sure what to think or if I’d even respond as I didn’t know anything about planetary science since it wasn’t in any of my studies at Saint Mary’s university. But then the voice inside my head said I’d be crazy if I didn’t take any opportunity that came my way, especially since I have been interested in Mars research from a young age.

An Experimental Life

Abdelkrim Toumi is a new postdoctoral fellow here in the Lab who started with us in September. Originally from Corsica, he completed his PhD studies at Aix-Marseille in France.

By Abdelkrim Toumi

As a new member of the “Planetary Volatiles Laboratory” group for my first postdoctoral fellowship, everything was new to me when I arrived a month ago. First, the environment… I left my family, friends and my home country (France) to live and work in Canada. The day of my arrival (so after a very, very long trip), I put my feet on the American continent for the first time of my life. It was really a shocker! Everything is bigger here than in France: buildings, streets and even the trucks. It is pretty much a new scale life for me because I come from a little town in Corsica. Luckily for me, the French culture is also present here: from indications in the subway to the food I buy in the supermarket. That made me more comfortable.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Final Planetary Science Short Course

Over the past few years members of the PVL have been attending the Planetary Science Short Course taught at Western University (full disclosure: I used to be an instructor in this course when I was a postdoc at Western). However, with the Western-based exploration CREATE cluing up, this past September may have been their final year. Luckily, our recent crop of graduate students was able to attend, including Elisabeth Smith, our new MSc who joined us this spring from Rensselaer PI in up-state New York.

by Elisabeth Smith

For seven days, four members of the lab – Giang, Jasmeer, Eric, and myself – were in London, Ontario for an intensive short course in Planetary Science at Western University. This was an important course for us to take, since we had varying degrees of exposure to planetary science, given our various backgrounds. My background is in Mechanical Engineering, and though I did take some undergraduate courses covering orbital dynamics and introductory astrophysics and astronomy, my knowledge in this particular area was lacking. Because I am now a research assistant in planetary science, I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about what I am researching.
The first day of classes covered the basics. We had two lectures - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Here we were taught about the different classes of planets, stars, and natural satellites, and were introduced to several of the leading hypotheses on planetary and solar system formation. The afternoon lecture covered various planetary datasets – that is, sets of data obtained from various scientific instruments.
We also were divided into different groups during this lecture. These groups would be our teams for the course. During the span of the week, our teams would work together on a project to develop a plan for a sample return mission to Mars. The details of this project were given to us during the first day, and we immediately set to work to meet the outlined goals. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An ode to conferences

Casey Moore, PVL's longest serving graduate student and a PhD Candidate stands in front of the poster he presented at the 2015 Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting in Washington, D.C.

By Casey Moore

Graduate students become masters at juggling. Between meetings with your advisor, meetings with course directors, health and safety training, taking courses, teaching courses, office hours, marking … ad nauseam -- every now and then you will find yourself finally able to sit down and get to your research and eventually, present at conferences.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Publishing an article and what happens next...

Christina Smith has just begun her 2nd year with us here at PVL as a Postdoctoral Fellow. She obtained her PhD at the University of Manchester. Her first paper for PVL created quite a stir, as can be seen from the press coverage above. How will her 2nd paper be received?

By Christina L. Smith

A major part of academia is the writing and (hopefully) subsequent publication of journal articles describing a research project. This can be quite a lengthy process. First, a draft article is produced by the authors - this itself will usually go through several iterations where the authors correct, clarify and comment upon the manuscript which describes not only the methods and results of a project, but also background information. The draft paper is then submitted to a journal and at this point the specifics differ journal to journal, but the general process is the same.

The Ring Paradox

Eric Shear is a new MSc in the group this year, having previously obtained his bachelor's degree here at York. As our resident mission designor, he is exploring the Saturnian system in his MSc work. The image above is taken from the Cassini Mission.

By Eric Shear

There are still many things in our solar system that our spacecraft have not yet gotten close to, and Saturn’s ring system is one of them. It’s the biggest of all the gas giants’ ring systems and to date we do not know how old it is or how it formed in the first place, or how it got so large compared to the rings of the other gas giants. It appears to be an outlier – and a lovely outlier at that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Waiting Game

A topographic map of the lunar south pole, as obtained using the LOLA instrument onboard LRO and reproduced from the JMars software package. Jasmeer Sangha, an MSc Candidate here at PVL, has been looking at code which simulates the movement of water particles in this region since having joined us from the University of Toronto in May.

By Jasmeer Sangha

During my four years of undergraduate work it became more and more apparent to me that my future would revolve around using programs to simulate various astrophysical phenomena. As I gained more experience, I was able to write and run more complicated scripts. Though, as these scripts became more complex the run time would increase. My first experience with run time issues came in my final year: I had been assigned a project where I would analyze a three body system which would destabilize after 100,000 years. The one caveat being that the time steps had to be very small for any close encounters between the two planets but then had to dynamically change to large steps when the planets were far apart. This dynamic time step ensured that the code would not need excessive amounts of time to run, still the code admittedly took a few hours. It was then that I learned the importance of efficiently scheduling around my code run times in order to troubleshoot issues and achieve the most runs in the minimum amount of time.

As one could infer, this first year working in York’s Planetary Science group has given me the opportunity to work with bigger and even lengthier projects. The first project I was exposed to was written by Professor Moores. The program simulated a particle jumping around on the spinning surface of the moon until it escaped, vapourized or landed in a crater where it was too cold to escape. This process was repeated for five million particles, resulting in a code that took well over a week. Luckily, I have not needed to run this time-intensive code, yet.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Observatory Blues

HD189733, a star with a particularly deep transit, as seen by the York Observatory 60 cm telescope. Giang, who joined us in May from McGill University, is obtaining a dataset for our Planets and Planetary Systems (PHYS 3070) students to use in class this fall.

By Tue Giang Nguyen

In preparation for the upcoming term, I was tasked with observing a transit of an exoplanet across a star in the constellation Vulpecula, known as the “little fox”. This is not my first time observing a transit and I cannot help but think that this would not be my last. Accompanied by Jake, a warm-hearted space enthusiast, we set out to take a series of images of what seems to be a tiny sliver of the vast darkened sky.

Forecasts leading up to the transit had not been promising; the hot humid air created a risk of thunderstorm. With the transit expected to last for two hours, the fear of poor visibility occurring during the transit loomed over my mind. My previous attempt at observing this particular transit had been foiled by rolling clouds high above. Whether it be frustration or sorrow, I can relate to the feeling of being inhibited by forces beyond our control, especially on the subject of astronomical observation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Mock Defense in the Lab

 Images of Clouds from the surface of Mars - the basis of Jake's MSc work! To see a second example, look under the cut below...

By Jake Kloos

As the summer winds down and the new academic year approaches, the feeling for me is bittersweet. On one hand, I am only one month away from completing my MSc degree. On the other, however, I have the notorious oral examination still ahead of me. This is a friendly (or so I’m told) interrogation of sorts in which 3 examiners will closely scrutinize the work that I have put forth, probing me with questions and clarifications for a mere 2-3 hours. It sounds daunting, and having heard my fair share of horror stories as an undergraduate, I am approaching it with slight trepidation. Whatever the outcome, however, it will almost certainly be a useful experience, and one that I will remember as I move forward in my professional career. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

So You Think You Can Research: Undergraduate Conference Posters 101

This post is contributed by Brittney Cooper and Rachel Modestino, two of our summer undergraduates working under the LURA and RAY programs here at York. Part of their summer research experience is to present their work at our in-house conference to take place next week in the Bergeron Center (above)!

By Brittney Cooper and Rachel Modestino

So You Think You Can Research?

For two undergraduates working within the lab, the answer to that question is a firm “yes”, or at least “we’re trying”.

Next week the Lassonde School of Engineering is hosting York’s first-ever undergraduate research conference, and it will include work from students participating in summer research not only within Lassonde, but also the faculties of Science, Health and the Schulich School of Business.

It’s going to be a one-day event with over 60 presenters giving talks and showing posters to judges, peers, and faculty alike.

With just under a week to go, the mad-dash to not only begin, but also complete our posters is underway. For one of us, this will be her first poster, and for the other it will be her third. We thought it’d be interesting to see how our thoughts on the matter differed (if at all), leading up to the event.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Welcome to the Lab!

 A group photo of our laboratory in the Petrie Building, York University Keele Campus.

Hello and welcome to the blog of the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory (PVL) at York University!

We are a group of students from Undergraduates to PhD candidates who conduct research on the robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond, focusing on those elements of a planet that can evaporate and re-condense (in Planetary Science Terms: 'Volatile' as opposed to 'Refractory'). We've also got a couple of postdoctoral fellows helping to lead the way along with Professor John E Moores. The lab is based out of the Lassonde School of Engineering, though we also have students who take part in the Faculty of Science's Physics and Astronomy Program.

In this space, you will see weekly postings about what we're up to and items of significance for our work, such as conferences and papers of significance (including our own). The authors will change week to week, hence why we will sign our posts (as I have done below).

The goal of all this? There are two aims:

Publicity for the lab is part of it. Certainly it would be helpful for future students to get a better idea of what we do. It is also a handy place for us to break-down our own papers to bring them to a larger audience.

But, in my estimation, the more important side effect of this space will be to improve the writing skills of our existing students. Furthermore, by writing for a broader audience they will think about their knowledge base in a new way, providing synthesis and thereby helping each member to understand their field even better. Last, but not least, we hope to instill in each other the idea of service: our work is publicly funded and part of the job is sharing the results of that work and our excitement for the field with you!

I will be cheering on each and every one of them, and I hope you will be as well.

-John M.

P.S. I would love to take credit for this idea, but I owe the suggestion to Professor Catherine Neish of the University of Western Ontario. As they say, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!" (C.C. Colton)