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C of I senior studies star formation, searches for dwarf galaxies

There will be no dog days of summer this year for College of Idaho student Tierra Candelaria. The senior math-physics major from Twin Falls recently spent a week on the plains of New Mexico at the Very Large Array, a radio astronomy observatory that consists of 27, 82-foot wide antennas. There, Candelaria and a dozen fellow undergraduates went on an exclusive tour of the facility and used its famous y-configuration to search the sky for the existence of a dwarf galaxy.

“Touring the VLA was fantastic; it was incredible seeing all the telescopes,” Candelaria said. “We got to see the control room that looks out over the array and we got to climb inside one of the antenna dishes. All of us were just in awe.” 

The New Mexico tour was part of Candelaria’s 10-week Research Experience for Undergraduates with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The prestigious program is highly competitive—Candelaria is one of about a dozen undergraduates working at the NRAO in Charlottesville, Va., this summer. The Magic Valley native is spending the majority of her internship in Virginia under the mentorship of Dr. Scott Schnee. Together, Candelaria and Schnee are studying star formation in dense cores.

During a typical eight-hour day, Candelaria researches for about six hours and spends the rest of her time attending lectures on career development and learning the context and scientific value of her work. At the end of the summer, she will give a presentation about her research.

The internship is not Candelaria’s first experience with radio telescopes. Last summer, she traveled to the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to collect data with College of Idaho physics professor Dr. Katie Devine. That experience impressed Schnee.

“You don’t see many undergrads at the NRAO who have worked with the GBT before,” Schnee said.

According to Professor Devine, two other students from the Math and Physical Sciences Department are participating in REUs this summer.

“We usually have one-to-three per summer from our department,” said Devine, who herself was once an NRAO summer intern. “REUs are competitive, but we have some very good and deserving students.”

Studying astronomy wasn’t in Candelaria’s plans when she arrived at The College of Idaho, but a freshman-year class with Professor Devine changed that.

“I thought, ‘This is something I want to study,’” Candelaria said. “So I changed my major.”

Candelaria credits her close relationships with C of I professors Devine, Dr. Jim Dull and Dr. Dave Rosoff in helping her successfully apply for the distinguished REU.

“When you know your professors well, it makes a big difference,” she said.

Professor Devine is quick to deflect the credit to Candelaria.

“Students with Tierra’s level of dedication can find many ways to get started in research in the Math and Physical Sciences Department and then use their successful C of I projects to earn opportunities like Tierra has done,” Devine said. “Her success shows that even though we are a small physics program, we prepare students to succeed on the national level.”

Candelaria is set to graduate from the C of I next spring. Afterward, she plans to attend graduate school, get her Ph.D. and make a career in research astronomy.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another 12 Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.