PASADENA, Calif. - 23 January 12
Stephanie Gomillion: Intern Designs Brown Dwarf Database
Heather L. Ogletree
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) is NASA spacecraft carrying an infrared-sensitive telescope that was used to image the entire sky, highlighting new interesting celestial objects such as rare brown dwarfs, unusual asteroids, and comets. This summer, Amy Mainzer, the WISE Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), selected intern Stephanie Gomillion to become part of the WISE project through the Undergraduate Student Research Program, helping to increase the efficiency of the project through the creation and implementation of a WISE database.
Gomillion explained, “We were searching for brown dwarfs, which are stellar objects that are too low in mass to fuse hydrogen in their cores like our Sun does. Popularly, they are called ‘failed stars.' The project I worked on had lots of possible brown dwarfs found by WISE, but they needed to be confirmed using other telescopes sensitive to different molecules in their atmospheres. As of now many have been confirmed spectroscopically, but there is a lot left to do. So, as you can see, there’s an incredible amount of excitement to get them all confirmed.”
Coming to JPL as a junior engineering physics major, Gomillion had taken a few programming classes, but not in the computer languages that were needed for this project. She noted, “I had to spend some time in the beginning of this internship teaching myself a few different computer languages. Luckily, I had great mentors that were very patient and more than willing to help me.”
The database Gomillion was tasked to configure contained data for both candidate and confirmed brown dwarfs, data that had been “scattered around in many places.” She continued, “My project will help the team keep track of all the candidates in a user-friendly database. Since we’re near the beginning of the list, now would be a great time to finish a successful database.”
Also while on-site, Gomillion was given the opportunity to go observing for four days at the Lick Observatory in Northern California. This further enriched her internship because she was allowed to use a 120 inch reflector telescope to take infrared pictures of celestial bodies, including candidate brown dwarfs identified by WISE.
Growing up in Florida, Gomillion always wanted to work for NASA. “I grew up watching Space Shuttles being launched and told my parents I wanted to be an astronaut. As I grew up my love for space just deepened,” she said. This was her third USRP internship; previously, Gomillion interned at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and she interned with Mainzer’s project last spring. In all, she has gained 40 weeks of experience, and with every experience she is one step closer to working in the space program as a professional. After graduation, Gomillion hopes to return to JPL so that she can work with spacecraft instrumentation while pursuing her master’s degree.When asked her advice for other interns, she stated, “Make sure that the project you work on interests you. Being passionate, or dispassionate, about your project will either make you experience great or miserable. Don’t go into an internship close-minded, because you may end up loving what you never thought you wanted.”