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Astrophysics major lands dream REU, offers advice to others

Astrophysics major lands dream REU, offers advice to others

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As an astrophysics major with a minor in computational science, Kaitlyn Sheriff ’24 of Landisburg, Pa., had her eye on an REU prize since freshman year. “Students frequently get emails from faculty with REU opportunities, and an upperclassman explained to me that REUs look great on graduate school applications and resumes. I started thinking about applying to REUs early in my education,” she said.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is an opportunity that is much sought-after by science majors across the country. Acceptance into the program means that a student will have an opportunity to participate in a research project in a meaningful way, while receiving support from the host institution in the form of a stipend. The program is extremely competitive and carries a high level of prestige that raises a student’s appeal to graduate school admissions and to the workforce.

"Our students are excellently prepared for REUs. In many of our classes in the physics major, we emphasize research skills that will help students once they arrive to their REU host institution,”

“Our students are excellently prepared for REUs. In many of our classes in the physics major, we emphasize research skills that will help students once they arrive to their REU host institution,” said Emily Wilson, assistant professor of astrophysics at Lycoming College.

Sheriff took on the challenge of going after an REU her sophomore year, applying to 8 programs. “I was shooting high and I was a bit late in the process,” she said. “I didn’t get an REU that year, but I did realize that the next year I would have to research opportunities that were a better fit for my interests. REUs are not unheard-of sophomore year, but junior year really is the sweet spot because you have classes under your belt that show you have the knowledge and skills to do the research required of the REU.”

The Application Process

Searching for the right opportunity can be daunting since REUs run the gamut from biology to chemistry, physics, math, and everything in between. You can find an REU in any of the research areas funded by the National Science Foundation. Following are the steps that Kaitlyn took to find REU success:

  • Search for REU programs on With many applications deadlines in January, you can begin searching as early as November.
  • Use filters such as keywords and locations to help narrow down opportunities.
  • Depending on the opportunity, be prepared to answer 2-3 essay questions, or to write a personal statement about your interests and the challenges you’ve faced. Note: This is typically the longest part of the application.
  • Secure 2-3 letters of recommendation. Faculty members can help with this.
  • Work with a Lycoming career advisor to develop a solid resume.
  • Submit your application by the deadline. You should begin hearing back on your applications during the March timeframe.

But securing an REU is more than just completing an application your junior year. Students interested in landing an REU should begin building a resume as early as freshman year. To find the same level of success as Sheriff, there are a number of ways to acquire experiences that help strengthen a resume.

Sheriff has been doing research outside of the classroom in Kulp’s lab since her sophomore year, giving her experience in data analysis and coding. She is also a teaching assistant for recitations and labs, and tutored others students in astronomy, physics, and religion. Sheriff has also exhibited her leadership qualities by serving as an officer of the Society for Physics Students (SPS) where she organized a Star Party in a local park, volunteered on Lycoming College Service Saturdays and 9/11 Day of Service, served as an admissions tour guide for Lycoming, and even crocheted dolls for hospice patients.

The Experience

The lessons learned from Sheriff’s failed search, coupled with a healthy dose of persistence, paid off. As a junior, Sheriff did vigilant research, polished her resume, carefully constructed essays and a personal statement, and collected several solid letters of recommendation. After applying to 21 REUs that better matched her interests in astronomy, she received five different offers!

One of the first offers was from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) at the University of Virginia, and Sheriff did a Zoom interview mere hours later. “I accepted it the next day! It was an easy decision since it came highly recommended by Dr. Emily Wilson in the Lycoming physics and astronomy department, who did the same REU when she was an undergraduate student.”

Sheriff gushed about this amazing experience, which began with a week of lectures at the Green Bank Observatory, as well as an in-depth site tour. She also noted that a sharp learning curve required quick acquisition of new software and other skills that had not yet been covered in her coursework.

Her project, “Faraday Rotation Variability Study of the High Mass X-ray Binary LSI +61° 303,” focused on, a high mass X-ray binary star system known for its periodic radio outbursts every 27 days. A previous study found that the system's magnetic field is three times stronger than usual. Additional observations were conducted with the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, N.M., during these radio outbursts to better understand how the magnetic field changes, shedding light on the system's behavior and plasma properties within its jet.

“I was taking the data from the new observations and conducting radio data reduction, as well as data analysis, using Python to conduct something called Faraday Rotation, which led me to find rotation measures,” she said. “I am continuing this research currently by conducting rotation measure synthesis in my research topics class, Physics/Astronomy 448. I’m looking forward to presenting my summer work in New Orleans, La., in January at the 243rd American Astronomical Society meeting.”

Sheriff was also named in a telescope proposal for a VLA, which has since been approved.

“Having participated in the same REU program at the NRAO, it was fun to swap stories with Katie when she got back to campus this fall,” said Wilson. “We had a lot of the same experiences and mentors, and I’m sure this experience will help to launch her into a successful future in astrophysics.”

In addition to the NRAO stipend she used to pay for room and board in Charlottesville, Va., Sheriff was able to utilize her Skeath Scholars award, a $5,000 merit-based stipend awarded to select Lycoming College students in support of a STEM-based experience, such as an REU.

After the REU

“Research is hard in that you’re trying to do something you don’t really know how to do, and it’s the best feeling in the world when you figure it out! The fact that I was able to do this research solidified that this area of astronomy is for me,” said Sheriff. “It’s always been my plan to go to grad school and the REU reinforced that. It’s impacted how I look at grad schools, and I know now where I want to apply.”

“With acceptance rates to astronomy and astrophysics doctoral programs at around just 10 percent, applying can be scary,” Sheriff explained, adding that an REU can help to make an application stand out. “It’s a great way to differentiate yourself. I’m thrilled to have this REU to put on my applications.”

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