School's Out, Students In At UNH Research Institute
By David Sims, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
June 11, 2008
All’s quiet on the campus sidewalks and in the building hallways of
UNH. Gone are the hordes of undergraduates hauling backpacks and talking on
cell phones as they make their way between classes.
But at Morse Hall, home to the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans,
and Space (EOS), there are scores of undergraduates whose work is in full swing
for the summer.
EOS, the university’s largest research enterprise, sees a large influx
of undergraduate researchers every summer, and this year is no exception.
The institute’s four interdisciplinary research centers collectively
have more than 60 undergraduates currently working on a diversity of projects
that probe phenomena from deep in space to down in the dirt.
Senior physics major Brian Lynch is working in the Space Science Center analyzing
how clusters of galaxies are affected by supermassive black holes that dwell
in their centers. Closer to home, a diverse group of students majoring in chemistry,
environmental conservation, political science, and biology are working in the
Complex Systems Research Center investigating carbon cycling in forest ecosystems – from
leaf to soil to atmosphere.
Among the summertime student researchers are physics majors George Clark and
Morgan O’Neill, both of whom will be seniors next fall semester. The
two are continuing work they’ve been doing since their freshman years
on an instrument for NASA’s upcoming Interstellar Boundary Explorer or
IBEX satellite mission, which is scheduled to launch in September.
IBEX will carry UNH-built instruments on board, among them a “star sensor” that
Clark and O’Neill helped design and build. By charting the heavens the
sensor will help precisely pinpoint the source region of the atomic particles
hurtling through deep space that are IBEX’s quarry. This, in turn, will
allow scientists to create the first “full-sky” map of the boundary
that separates our solar system from interstellar space.
The flight model of the star sensor is already integrated on the satellite,
which is being readied for launch. But testing an exact replica in a state-of-the-art
laboratory/darkroom in Morse Hall, Clark and O’Neill continue to calibrate
the instrument. This will increase the sensor’s ability to take accurate
star readings through the “noise” of other light sources, such
as the Zodiacal light (sunlight reflected off dust particles in the solar system)
and the fuzz of the Milky Way. The students are also working on adding the
Moon as another precise target for the sensor’s directional reading.
Professor Eberhard Möbius is UNH’s principal investigator for the
IBEX project and has guided Clark and O’Neill from the beginning of their
work on the star sensor. “Without their dedication over the past three
years we would not have a calibrated star sensor for IBEX. They are doing a
marvelous job that the IBEX team is recognizing, and for them this task is
worth several times as much as taking another class each year,” Möbius
More down-to-earth research is being conducted by senior biology major Rachel
Torman, who is spending her summer in the woods of Bartlett Experimental Forest
in the White Mountains and Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts gathering
field data to analyze back at the Forest Ecosystem Lab at UNH.
Along with fellow undergraduates Jordan Jessup, TerKhor Met, and Morgan Stanton,
Torman collects forest “litter” (fallen leaves and branches) on
forest plots. The litter is dried, weighed, sorted by species, and ground up
for chemical analysis. The data derived will help researchers understand how
carbon and nitrogen are cycled in forests. Torman and Jessup are also working
on a project studying nitrogen mineralization in soil. Says Jessup, “It’s
interesting and exciting to be a part of this research to further understand
the dynamics of nitrogen cycling, especially since humans have doubled the
amount of nitrogen going into the natural environment.”
In two ocean-related projects, senior Olivia DeMeo – a summer intern
in the joint NASA-UNH Research & Discover program based at EOS – is
working with research assistant professor Joe Salisbury of the Ocean Process
Analysis Laboratory trying to better characterize the complex issue of how
coastal ocean waters play a role in the global carbon cycle. (The R&D program
provides undergraduates from colleges around the nation the opportunity to
delve into independent, graduate-level scientific research alongside experts
in the field.) And junior Kaitlyn Steele is using sediment core samples she
extracted from local tidal mud flats to determine if increasing carbon dioxide
concentration in the atmosphere will stimulate methane production from coastal
sediment. If this proves to be the case, it will be another pathway for increasing
concentrations of this potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to rising global
Steele secured funding for her project through UNH’s Summer Undergraduate
Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Working with research assistant professor
Ruth Varner of the Climate Change Research Center, Steele is analyzing her
samples using a mass spectrometer to measure particular isotopes of methane
to determine if the gas was created through increased levels of carbon dioxide.
Varner notes that such collaborative research benefits both student and teacher.
The methane isotope work is something Varner has wanted to do but simply didn’t
have the time and, says Steele, “I’m getting an experience that
is so different from normal academics and can only be learned firsthand. I
hope that this project will serve as the beginning of my research career and
enable me to apply for future internships and fellowships through NOAA and