The start of the school year marks the conclusion of summer internships at iREx. Our interns presented summaries of their summer projects to members of our institute and distinguished guests on August 17th. Most have now returned to their home institutions to complete their bachelor’s degrees, and some are embarking on graduate studies!
In the short written interviews below, they take a look back on their summer with us. See how Olivia Locke, Zoe Shu, Maddy Walkington, Maya Cadieux, Vincent Savignac, Élise Leclerc, Mathis Bouffard, Emilia Vlahos, Sophie-Mu-Fei Gravel Depalle, Élyse D’Aoust, Rebecca Hamel, Alexandra Rochon and Naman Jain appreciated their experience at our institute!
Trottier Intern from McGill University supervised by Björn Benneke at Université de Montréal
For my internship, I studied the atmosphere of the exoplanet LP791-18d. This exoplanet is likely very volcanically active due to gravitational forces exchanged between it and another planet in its system. I used simulations to predict if we would be able to detect molecules originating from volcanism in exoplanet atmospheres with the James Webb Space Telescope. If so, we would be able to use the telescope to confirm the predicted volcanism on LP791-18d!
Learning about how molecular species are discovered on exoplanets using spectroscopy was really interesting! I enjoyed working on a project that would serve as the base for a James Webb Space Telescope observing proposal as I got to see the process and felt part of the “forefront” of science!
I found that we can likely detect volcanic species using the NIRSpec Prism instrument on JWST. However, it will be difficult to detect the specific type of volcanic scenario on exoplanets like LP791-18d. These results will guide the future of this project.
I learned a lot about exoplanets and what goes into studying their atmospheres. I also worked within a very active research group and I appreciated being able to see the inner workings of groups such as this one. My coding skills were put to use and definitely improved as well.
I think the biggest challenge for me was that research is not on a linear path. Frequently, I got sidetracked from the main goal of my internship to work on other tasks. They were important, and would help me reach my goal in the end, such as implementing a new mathematical model to improve some plots, but they took time and when working on them, it was not as obvious that I was progressing.
I enjoyed learning about exoplanet science, as I was fairly new to the subject when I started my internship. My favourite part may have been the other interns though – it was so nice to have peers to bounce ideas off and to discuss all the new science and methods we were learning. I can’t wait to see what they get up to in the coming years.
Intern from McGill University supervised by Lisa Dang at Université de Montréal
My internship focused on analyzing high-resolution spectra of hot Jupiters. In the first part, I worked on modifying the program STARSHIPS to improve its compatibility with the data obtained with the IGRINS spectrograph, installed on the Gemini South telescope. I successfully tested its reliability using data for exoplanet WASP-77Ab. For the second part of the internship, I used the STARSHIPS program to study the atmosphere of exoplanet CoRoT-2b.
What I found intriguing about this project was the sense of fulfillment I experienced while delving into the entire process, starting from raw data and culminating with the final figures. The opportunity to grasp the purpose and applicability of diverse methods at every stage added substantial value to my learning journey.
With IGRINS on Gemini South, we were able to successfully detect cooler hot Jupiters, such as CoRoT-2b. Furthermore, our infrared observations revealed the presence of water and carbon monoxide in the atmospheres of both WASP-77Ab and CoRoT-2b.
Throughout the summer, I gained valuable insights into exoplanets, improved my coding skills, and learned techniques for analyzing astronomical data. Beyond these aspects, what I found most important was the skills of collaborating within a professional group of researchers.
At the outset of my internship, to ensure a smooth workflow, I had to communicate extensively with my supervisor and other researchers. Fortunately, the friendly and supportive atmosphere within the team made it easier for me to overcome any hesitations about asking questions (while also being mindful not to be annoying when having too many problems 🙂
In addition to the captivating allure of astronomy itself, one of the highlights was being surrounded by an exceptional group of individuals, including professors, post-docs, graduate students, and fellow summer interns! Engaging in work discussions and friendly conversations with these like-minded individuals, as well as attending the weekly iREx café, have provided me with invaluable lessons.
On a personal note, studying in the common area outside the office, whether under the warm sunlight or gazing at the rain, added an extra layer of joy to the entire experience, making it all the more memorable and enriching!
Trottier Intern from McGill University supervised by Jason Rowe at Bishop’s University
My research this summer focused on planets orbiting spotted stars. When a planet passes in front of a star from our point of view, the starlight that passes through the planet’s atmosphere and reaches us contains vital information about the composition of its atmosphere. However, if the star has darker, cooler surface features (which star’s often do), that information can be contaminated. My research aimed to correct for this contamination to make sure we’re getting the right information!
It’s interesting to consider the limited information we have about incredibly distant planets, as well as the ingenious ways that scientists have found to decode a wealth of information from so little. It was really fascinating to see how, step by step, a cosmic-scale problem that happens so far away from us can be corrected with just a few lines of code.
I found that, although the initial problems appeared challenging, resolving the issue of stellar contamination boiled down to a straightforward process of calculating a correction factor to adjust our available information. Of course, doing this type of research requires months of work, but at its heart, the solution was exceedingly simple.
I learned that despite a solution seeming very simple, the groundwork to setup a solution that is consistent and reliable requires a lot of care and attention to detail. I feel like there is a lot of time wasted in scientific research that could’ve been avoided by dedicating the right amount of time to setting up a strong foundation from the start, instead of jumping straight to the more exciting, problem solving part. This applies especially to research involving coding.
My biggest challenge was overcoming my own fears of asking questions. For me, it was difficult to see the overall structure of the project, and how each small step contributed to the rest of the whole. I had to learn that asking plenty of questions is expected, considering that this is more of a learning opportunity than an actual job, and that it is worse to be lost and produce faulty work, than to swallow your pride and reach out for help.
I loved being able to actually do work on something I’m passionate about. Whereas homework in university courses feels tedious and uninteresting, doing research truly feels like I’m exploring my interests without a predefined, correct answer that my work would be compared against. I find it to be a much more effective learning process than classwork.
Trottier Intern from Université de Montréal supervised by René Doyon at UdeM
My internship revolved around studying spots on stars’ surface, specifically red dwarfs, by observing variations in their temperature. Because these features exhibit slightly cooler or warmer temperatures compared to the rest of the surface, they create a periodic temperature variation as the star rotates.. This can be used to measure the stars’ rotation period, which is what I did this summer.
I had the privilege of being among the first to work with this new method for studying stellar spots, a brand-new indicator of stellar activity recently developed by researcher Étienne Artigau. I particularly enjoyed understanding how we can translate the telescope’s data into actual temperature variation data ready to be analyzed.
My internship demonstrated that this technique based on temperature variation of stars is a powerful new stellar activity indicator with a sub-kelvin accuracy. We were even able to measure several new star rotation periods!
Having not taken any astrophysics courses before, I learned a lot about the physics behind stellar activity and its impact on exoplanet research. Indeed, one might think they found an exoplanet only to realize it was a spot on the star’s surface!
My biggest challenge was persisting even when it seemed I had exhausted all possible solutions to resolve a programming issue. There were times when I spent hours and hours searching for a small error. Sometimes, it’s necessary to pause and take the time to understand the physics behind the code, even when we want to have results as quickly as possible!
As part of my internship, I had the exceptional opportunity to visit the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at the summit of the MaunaKea in Hawaii and witness where the data from which I do science comes from. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see that starry sky in the middle of the Pacific!
Intern from McGill University supervised by Eve Lee at McGill
This summer, I studied a subpopulation of small exoplanets that orbit their star in less than one day. These planets are extremely hot and have large densities which means they are most likely entirely made of rocks and magma. The goal of my project was to determine whether an interior structure that also includes a water atmosphere on top of this rocky interior can also be consistent with the observed densities of those planets, specifically if we account for the dissolution of water vapour in magma.
Because these ultra-short-period planets are so close to their host stars, they receive an intense amount of radiation leading to the photoevaporation of light elements such as hydrogen and helium. It is therefore impossible for these planets to have an atmosphere composed mainly of hydrogen and helium as do most of the exoplanets observed in this mass range. This makes the study of these planets very interesting, because the only way for them to have an atmosphere would be if it was made up of water.
My preliminary results show that most these planets are too dense to have a water atmosphere of considerable mass. This is true even if we account for the dissolution of some of the water vapour into the molten rocks at the surface of those planets, which makes the planetary structure denser. However, our model predicts that the planet 55 Cnc e specifically could have a water atmosphere which would weight up to 20% of its total mass. This is important as this famous planet has already been established as a water-world candidate.
This summer, I learned how to collaborate effectively with my research group, which will certainly be useful for my academic future. I also learned that sometimes, even if the model you’ve been working on for a summer doesn’t match the observations, you can still get a lot of information about the properties of astrophysical objects.
My biggest challenge this summer was to balance my time between different aspects of this project and of the research I am working on with my supervisor Prof. Eve Lee at McGill, with whom I will be continuing to work with in the next years as a master’s student. This summer definitely taught me the difference between what I want and what I can get done over such short-term projects.
My favorite part of my internship this summer was having the opportunity to interact and learn from the passionate researchers at iREx and my research group at McGill. I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting and getting to know the other iREx summer interns and look forward to continuing to work with these amazing people in the future!
Intern from Université de Montréal supervised by Jonathan Gagné at McGill and at the Montreal Planetarium
My summer internship with Jonathan Gagné focused on the identification and characterization of “planemos”. This term stands for ‘planetary-mass objects’ and refers to sub-stellar objects, with a giant exoplanet mass, found within associations of young stars. These isolated objects don’t orbit around one or multiple stars and their characteristics places them between a brown dwarf and a giant gaseous planet.
Planemos are yet relatively unknown and definitely mysterious! In fact, less than 10 discoveries are confirmed with sufficient observation data such as near-infrared spectrum. Therefore, research to better identify their composition and origin is important. Also, since they are similar to giant exoplanets but aren’t orbiting around stars, these free-floating objects are easier to observe and could then help understand and characterize giant exoplanets better.
During the internship, we were able to find a few good planemo candidates and observe some of them with one of the two Magellan telescopes located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Based on the observation spectra, we were then able to confirm the spectral types of these planemo candidates. More observation and analysis will be needed in the future to officially confirm whether they are indeed planemos.
This internship being my first, I learnt a ton over the summer. I was introduced to research, which was extremely stimulating ! I discovered tools and methods frequently used in astronomy as well as interacted with an impressive database for the first time. Being part of iREx, I didn’t only learn about my subject, but also about all of the other intern and student research topics through different activities and conferences.
Research unfortunately doesn’t always go as smooth or as fast as we would like! During the internship, I faced a few issues dealing with an extremely large data set and database, with which I wasn’t familiar in the first place, and I often had to use of a lot of patience while programming.
Being surrounded by astrophysics researchers and learning from them was definitely one of the things I preferred over the summer. It was such a stimulating and inspiring environment!
Intern from McGill University supervised by Björn Benneke at Université de Montréal
This summer, I analysed observations of the exoplanets WASP-178b and WASP-189b, which are hot Jupiters. This data was captured by the NIRPS and HARPS instruments at the ESO 3.6m telescope in Chile. My goal was to detect certain molecules in their atmospheres.
To detect chemical species, I used high-resolution spectroscopy, which consists in comparing super precise measurements of the light coming from a planet to models of this planet’s atmosphere. It was stimulating to get to understand and use this state-of-the-art method of exoplanet characterization.
I detected four chemical species in the atmosphere of WASP-189b: Iron (Fe), Magnesium (Mg), Vanadium (V) and Hydroxide (OH). This was the first detection of OH on WASP-189b, which is exciting!
I learned a lot about the various areas of research in exoplanet science by attending conferences and other iREx events. I was surprised by the fact that we are already able to characterize the winds and clouds in exoplanet atmospheres, and that we are studying what the presence of oceans, volcanoes and even rainbows would look like in future observational datasets.
The first exoplanet I worked on was WASP-178b, on which I could not detect a single molecule. It was hard to learn how to clean up the observational data without being able to assess the effect of my actions on a real signal.
I was delighted to get to meet so many astrophysicists with similar interests who are all doing impressive research. I think that my favorite part of the summer was working as well as going out with the other interns regularly. The iREx is a formidable environment in which to grow as a scientist and I was fortunate to get to be a part of it.
Intern from McGill University supervised by Eve Lee at McGill
My internship’s focus was on understanding the diverse atmospheric composition of Neptune-class planets. I studied the formation of these exoplanets, modelling the accretion of heavy elements. This allowed me to determine the theoretical primordial atmospheric metallicity of these planets based on the types of accretion they undergo during their formation.
What initially drew me to this project is the idea of modelling planet formation. I am amazed by the ways in which physicists can understand processes as far away (in either time or space) as the formation of planets. It was interesting to learn how to apply the laws of physics in order to theorize and make predictions about the early lives of these planets.
I found that the accretion of silicates will saturate a planets atmosphere during its formation. Future work modelling the accretion of volatile materials will give a fuller picture of the expected metallicity profile for different types of accretion.
This summer I learned what an exoplanet is! I also learned so much about the observational work done to detect and analyze these planets. Through my own work I learned about the physics of planet formation and the fluid dynamics/thermodynamics of atmospheric models. I also became familiar with various methods applicable to computational modelling in Physics.
One challenge for me this summer was learning how to efficiently manage my time while doing self-paced work. Without the strict deadlines that I am used to, I had to learn how to prioritize important tasks and avoid wasting time on problems only tangentially related to my project. Although this was challenging at first, I found that I was find a balanced work flow that allowed me to work efficiently.
I really enjoyed working within the iREx community. Exoplanet research was entirely new to me and so it was interesting to discover the range of research that is being done in this field. I had fun attending the iREx cafes and learning about interesting and important topics in astrophysics.
Marie-Curie Intern (finishing cegep student) supervised by Clémence Fontanive at Université de Montréal
My internship focused on a uniform analysis of the masses of planets and brown dwarfs detected by direct imaging. When we observe the distribution of the masses found in online catalogs, we see a peak at around 12 times the mass of Jupiter, which corresponds to the limit of the definition of planets and brown dwarfs. My internship’s main goal was to determine if the peak was real or if it came from biases by looking at different parameters.
It was interesting to learn how to use and to understand the different data from Gaia and Banyan mission catalogs. Another interesting aspect of my internship was to see the influence of many parameters on the companions’ masses.
Many parameters have an influence on the masse estimates of planets and brown dwarfs. By observing the results obtained with each parameter, it was possible to see that the masses’ distribution varies a lot and that there isn’t always a peak at 12 times the mass of Jupiter. It shows that the pic was due to biases and proves that we should be very cautious about the masses estimates.
During my internship, I learned a lot about the direct imaging method and about planets and brown dwarfs in general. I also learned how to code in Python. This internship also gave me the opportunity to discover the world of scientific research.
My biggest challenge was to learn how to code in Python in a short time. I had never used Python before the beginning of my internship so I had to get used to code and to understand what I was doing.
I really enjoyed learning lots of new things about direct imaging, planets and brown dwarfs and coding in Python. Another thing I really liked was meeting and getting to know the other interns and members of iREx.
Intern from University of Ottawa supervised by Björn Benneke at Université de Montréal
My internship was focused on reflected light spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres, more specifically for the exoplanet LTT-9779 b. Reflected light measurements for this planet reveal a high geometric albedo, indicating the presence of clouds in its atmosphere. The goal of my project was to model and compare different cloud scenarios to determine which ones best matched the reflected light observations.
LTT-9779 b is an ultra-hot Neptune, making it one of the only discovered exoplanets that is both Neptune-sized and orbiting very close to its star (meaning it’s a rare planet populating the so-called hot-Neptune desert). By determining what types of clouds could be present in this planet’s atmosphere, we gain knowledge on the climate and energy balance of such exoplanets, something we currently don’t know much about!
During my project, I was able to develop cloud models that matched the reflected light observations of LTT-9779 b. I confirmed that silicates were the most promising species, as their cloud models yielded a geometric albedo within the error bar of the measured value. These results were all obtained while considering solar metallicity (an exciting result, since a previous study using CHEOPS telescope observations had concluded that high metallicity was required in order to match the measured albedo).
First off, I was able to observe firsthand the value of rich datasets obtained from state-of-the-art space instruments and how they can be leveraged to advance science. I also learned to navigate and use the Python packages Picaso and Virga in order to compute cloud profiles and their associated reflected light spectra. Moreover, I learned a lot about the different aspects of astrophysics research and exoplanet science in general.
The biggest challenge during my internship was to thoroughly understand the vast documentation for the Python packages I was using, in order to be familiar enough with it to effectively leverage the relevant segments to recreate and modify some of its functionalities in my code.
The part I liked most about my internship was getting to be part of an amazing team of researchers! It was an incredible experience to be able to get the feedback and perspective of different iREx members including professors, graduate students and other interns, as well as getting a glimpse of their ongoing research. The knowledge I acquired over the summer combined with the awesome environment and people made for a truly memorable experience!
Sureau Intern from Saint Mary’s University supervised by Nathalie Ouellette at Université de Montréal
This summer I had the opportunity to work in science communication at iREx with Nathalie Ouellette, Marie-Eve Naud, and Heidi White.
I think what made my internship really interesting was the variety of science communication and outreach opportunities that I had. From giving presentations, to learning video editing, I got to participate in lots of different activities!
I got to learn a lot about video filming and editing, but I think the most important thing I learned during my internship are skills in science communication, such as how to give a presentation, how to generate media content, etc.
I think the biggest challenge I had was learning how to do video editing. While I had some experience with video editing, this was my first time using such higher end equipment. It was challenging, but also rewarding!
My favourite part of my internship were the interviews I did with the other iREx interns. Getting to know them better and hear their stories was such a fun experience!
Intern from McGill University supervised by Natalya Gomez, Thomas Navarro, Nicolas Cowan at McGill
I studied the climate of exoplanets called “ocean worlds” with a permanent warm dayside and a permanent cold nightside, like the moon. I used climate and ice flow models to simulate the climate and how it would evolve if part of the water covering the planet were in the form of ice.
When searching for potential hosts for life, we look for exoplanets in the habitable zone of their star, where they could have liquid water at their surface. Scientists expect most planets in this zone to have a permanent dayside and nightside, but we don’t know how this affects the climate. We believe it could create ice sheets at the poles and on the nightside while leaving an ocean covering the dayside. That’s what I simulated with the models!
For my project, I worked to create a climate and ice flow model using existing models. I first used one from 2012 that was made to study Snowball Earth, the period of time where Earth was entirely covered in ice. I adapted it to represent planets very different than ours. I also used a climate model to calculate initial parameters. This model also evolves as the ice flow model outputs new results. So my main result is the model I created!
Besides learning about new topics like ice sheets and exoplanet climate, I learned how to give talks and presentations, especially in a research group setting, and to communicate with other scientists and researchers. I also learned organizational and time management skills working on a project of my own without the usual deadlines of school.
This was a numerical modelling project, which was very different from anything I had done before. It was in a programming language I hadn’t worked with in a long time and on a topic I wasn’t familiar with. There was a steep learning curve associated with taking on this kind of project, but I am proud of what I accomplished!
I really liked the opportunities it brought me to talk with people studying similar topics, go to conferences and meet more of the exoplanet community. I also made friends and had a great time with the other summer students! The feeling of accomplishment after finishing a research project of this size on my own for the first time was also a highlight for me!
Trottier Intern from McMaster University supervised by Jonathan Gagné at Université de Montréal and at the Montreal Planetarium
We used groups of stars called “Young Stellar Associations” to do exoplanetary and stellar science. The key property of these associations is that we can measure their ages to great accuracy, so we used them to study exoplanetary evolution models and also to classify sub-stellar objects on the basis of their age.
In terms of the science, it was interesting to see how novel solutions to a problem contribute a variety of different science questions and help drive new science. Additionally, it is astonishing how much amazing science can be done with data archives in astronomy – I mostly used data from previous surveys to find new objects.
I was able to build tools that compile data from multiple surveys, accounts for their systematic differences, and catalogues them in a meaningful way to calculate motion and distance of objects. This tool is not only useful to find new brown-dwarf candidates but will be utilized in future to plan new surveys using JWST.
I learn a lot of new techniques to analyze distributions of data using classical statistical methods, as well as new machine learning techniques. Crucially, I further learned how to account for errors in measurements reasonably, especially when data is derived from different surveys with different designs. And a lot more about stars and planets!
The biggest challenge over the course of my internship was taking responsible breaks – coming out of a bachelors degree I had a fatigue that affected my work from time-to-time, so maintaining health while contributing to project was a learning challenge.
I loved my interactions with my supervisor, who came with an abundance of experience and knowledge, and yet was grounded to support me whenever I had questions and trouble. He went out of his way to ensure that I had enough background information and understanding of the science which made it a great learning experience.