Off-Campus Scholars: Studying Cosmic Rays and Fisheries Bycatch

While many Bowdoin students stay on campus to do research over the summer, there are always some who pursue research opportunities elsewhere, sometimes on another university campus, a laboratory, or even an oceangoing vessel. For instance, Margaret Lindeman ’15 and Sara Hamilton ’16 joined scientists in Greenland this summer to study the effects of climate change. Erin Voss ’16 traveled to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to look into yellow-bellied marmot habitats and species distribution. Bowdoin Daily Sun caught up with two off-campus researchers, Davis Unruh ’16 and Karl Reinhardt ’15, who are, respectively, investigating the skies and the seas.

Searching for Clues into Cosmic Rays

davis unruh

Davis Unruh, left, with peers in front of one of the University of Utah’s cosmic ray surface detectors

Davis Unruh is spending this summer at the University of Utah, close to one of the largest arrays of surface detectors in the world. The detectors, which span an area of over 300 square miles in the desert, are collecting data on a mysterious phenomenon called cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are not really rays; rather, they’re ultrahigh-energy subatomic particles. They can be detected when they create a cascade in the sky called an air shower, which occurs when cosmic ray particles, flying at the speed of light from outer space, smash into earth’s atmosphere, splintering into thousands more particles. These secondary particles repeat the collision process, and at the end of the event billions of particles — pions, electrons, neutron, etc. — rain down from the skies.

While methods for detecting ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays have progressed a long way since the rays were first discovered in the early 20th century, scientists still don’t have much data about them. “There are three main research goals of cosmic rays,” Unruh said. “To discover where they come from, how they are accelerated to high energies, and what kind of particle they are [e.g., protons or iron nuclei].”

 Unruh’s work in Utah is supported by a National Science Foundation grant. He is assisting the Telescope Array project, the largest cosmic ray research group in the northern hemisphere. The group recently detected a “hot spot” in space, an area that contains more high-energy cosmic rays than expected and may point scientists to the source of rays, perhaps colliding galaxies or active galactic nuclei.

Davis’s task this summer is to help fine-tune the new detection technique. He is measuring vertical aerosol optical depth — or, the number of suspended particles in the air between two altitudes — to help scientists gather more precise data from their telescopes. Aerosols in the atmosphere can prevent scientists from accurately seeing cosmic shower particles.

A physics major, Davis said he plans to go to graduate school, most likely to study astrophysics. “I feel like there is so much more that we could know about our universe; we know so little,” he said. “If I went into astrophysics, I could do something to help us move toward that goal.”

Accurately Measuring Fishermen’s Bycatch

karl reinhardtKarl Reinhardt is spending his summer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Woods Hole Laboratory in Massachusetts, helping scientists more precisely predict how many protected species, such as sea turtles and sea birds, are accidentally caught by commercial fishermen. Fishermen don’t always report bycatch, so scientists turn to satellite data and other sources to get a true measure of how many animals are being harmed.

Reinhardt has a two-year Hollings Scholarship from NOAA that includes a summer internship before senior year. Reinhardt’s task this summer is to conduct an analysis on how satellite data’s spatial and temporal resolutions affect what scientists can discern about bycatch. His work will help researchers determine the most practical scale of satellite data to use for their models.

An earth and oceanographic science major who is also majoring in math, Reinhardt was attracted to the summer position because he wanted to work alongside biologists and ecologists. He said he’s also learned a lot about working for the government, and gotten a look into the complex policy behind fisheries management. Plus, he’s expanded his technical skills by working with GIS software and big datasets.

Reinhardt credited a few courses with preparing him for his internship, including Numerical Modeling of Ocean Ecosystems and Earth Oceans and Society, taught by EOS professors Nicholas Record and Emily Peterman. “Perhaps most helpful was the experience I had last summer conducting research with [Associate Professor of EOS] Collin Roesler, modeling and analyzing algal bloom productivity and distribution in Harpswell Sound,” he said.

Although much of Reinhardt’s work is working with numbers and computer modeling, he had a real-life experience that brought home the importance of his work. “Just the other day, another intern and I came across a dead sea turtle on a beach near Woods Hole that had washed ashore during high tide,” he said. “Although the sight was pretty morbid, I couldn’t help but wonder what the cause of death was for the turtle and if it were by any chance connected to my project. Although chances are it probably was not related to bycatch, it still provided a bit of imagery, though negative, behind my project.”

To see what other Bowdoin students are up to this summer, check out this interactive map by Nina Underman ’15.