As a young girl growing up in Puerto Rico, Rachel Almodovar '15 got a chance to visit the Arecibo Observatory. Home to the largest reflecting telescope in the world, the observatory is a place that easily inspires future astronomers.
"I've always been fascinated by the observatory," said the astronomy major. "When I visited for the first time when I was 12, I told my mother that I hoped to work in a place like that someday."
As a first-year student, Almodovar was invited to accompany Rebecca Koopmann '89, associate professor of physics and astronomy, for a week of observing time at Arecibo. That experience only fueled her passion for astronomy.
This winter term, Almodovar and Koopmann returned to Arecibo as part of the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team Workshop. Organized by Koopmann and sponsored by a recent National Science Foundation grant, the three-day workshop brought together 17 other undergraduate students and 14 faculty members from 15 colleges and universities across the country. Among the schools represented were the University of San Francisco, George Mason and Cornell universities.
Participants attended lectures and group activities to study neutral hydrogen gas in nearby galaxies and used the telescope to measure the gas content of galaxies that are suspected to be dominated by dark matter. The group also toured the observatory, visiting the platform suspended 450 feet above the reflecting surface of the Arecibo telescope.
"Few undergraduates have opportunities to visit an observatory and participate in obtaining observations for a cutting-edge astronomical research project," said Koopmann. "Rachel and the other students learned how a major astronomical observatory functions and how to acquire and analyze the data for a major astronomical survey. They also learned how to collaborate with their peers, faculty mentors, leaders of the ALFALFA project and Observatory staff."
Koopmann and Almodovar also plan to work together on a research project this summer. Each experience brings Almodovar closer to her childhood dream.
"My extraordinary experiences here at Union continue to inspire me to keep learning
about a field that I love," she said. "As one of the few astronomy majors here, going to workshops like the one at Arecibo, I enjoy interacting with students and professors from other colleges that love astronomy as much as I do."