Two students from Rowan County Senior High School had the experience of a lifetime when they traveled to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia to take part in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory Summer Institute. Alexandria Northcutt, daughter of John and Tina Northcutt, and Allie Terrell, daughter of Russell and Maria Terrell, were the only students from Kentucky to be selected for the prestigious space science workshop. Alexandria and Allie, who have been have been students in the RCSHS Pulsar Astronomy class taught by science teacher Jennifer Carter, joined almost 60 other students from other schools in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and even Mexico that are participating in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.
From July 8-14, 2012, Alexandria, Allie, and the other PSC Summer Institute students were divided into teams of 8 and given the responsibility to review a list of possible pulsar candidates. Since the inception of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory in 2007, four new pulsars and an unidentified radio burst have been discovered by high school students. Two students from Rowan County Senior High School – Hannah Mabry in 2011 and Jessica Pal in 2012 – played a major role in the discovery of two pulsars.
The teams of high school students at the Summer Institute had the opportunity to work with astronomers such as Maura McLaughlin, Duncan Lorimer, and Sarah Scoles.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Allie Terrell. “We had one on one time with each of the astronomers and could ask any questions we wanted and even were able to show them our potential pulsar candidates.”
“I had the chance to study my own pulsar data,” said Alexandria Northcutt. "One of the astronomers said that they would let me know, possibly by the end of summer, if my data is actually a pulsar.
When asked what their most memorable experience was during the weeklong space science workshop, both Alexandria and Allie spoke of their time operating the GBT, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.
“It had to be working with the GBT, directing the largest moving object on land,” said Alexandria Northcutt.
Allie Terrell agreed, then added, “People have to wait years and years on a waiting list to operate that telescope and then have to pay $50 a minute just to use it. We had the opportunity to use the GBT as long as we needed to and it was all free!”
After observing some of the pulsar candidates, the student groups had to assemble their data and their research and make a presentation for both the astronomers and their fellow Summer Institute students. Alexandria Northcutt’s team took the opportunity to do some stargazing, going out at 2:00 a.m. to one of the several telescopes located at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
For both Alexandria and Allie, the opportunity to be part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory Summer Institute will have far-reaching effects. “The experience at Green Bank will be very helpful not only in high school class, but will also be helpful in my future,” said Alexandria Northcutt. “I am very interested in a career in space science or applied technologies. I plan to attend MSU where they have a state-of-the-art facility that will help prepare me for a possible career in the area of Math or Science.”
For Allie Terrell, the lessons she learned at the PSC Summer Institute went far beyond pulsars. “I learned how to communicate with people of all backgrounds as well as how to take my scientific research and present my findings to my peers. If I want to be successful in any career field then I need to be able to professionally communicate my knowledge to others.”