Multiverse Blog

Karin Hauck
/ Categories: In-Focus

My Summer Research Experience Abroad: ASSURE '15

[This week's guest blogger is one of our wonderful summer Space Sciences Lab research interns, Omar Alaryani, a student from United Arab Emirates.]

Upon receiving a call from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre learning of my acceptance into an undergraduate research program at the University of California Berkeley's Space Sciences Lab, called ASSURE, I felt ecstatic, to say the least. Not only have I never been abroad to perform academic research, but I had never been exposed to a professional scientific working environment like this one. The weeks passed in the blink of an eye and soon I found myself picking films to watch in my excruciatingly cramped plane seat. A couple of naps and meals later, I was alone on the other side of the globe, in the midst of the overwhelming crowds of San Francisco International Airport. Everything worked itself out smoothly and in the next few days made myself comfortable in the warm, welcoming vibes of Berkeley's International House. At around that time, I was first introduced to the Space Sciences Lab.

I met up with my colleagues for the summer, a group of interns with a variety of backgrounds and interests. Dr. Claire Raftery, our cordial supervisor, who simply went by her first name, took us to get our Cal IDs, so we can get on the bus everyday to the lab, and we did just that. We played some icebreaker activities, became familiar with the friendly faces at the lab and got a taste of the place we'd spend our summer at.

Our first week at the Space Sciences Lab was entitled 'Bootcamp' where we went through intensive scientific seminars, project presentations and programming ABC's so we can all play ball when research time begins. These sessions were separated by a potluck lunch, a tour of beautiful UC Berkeley and a math-physics scavenger hunt around SSL. We were assigned our projects for the summer, these ranged from alien hunting to detecting gamma-ray emissions from lightning, each of the interns was up for a distinct challenge. I was given a choice along with a fellow intern from the Emirates to each go for a Mars-related mission. I soon settled for the project involving conductivity calculations of the Martian ionosphere. I found the idea of studying the transfer of electric charges in a planet's atmosphere intriguing. Our first week ended with a trip to the California Academy of Sciences at San Francisco. In addition to learning bits and pieces of information on evolution, earthquakes and amphibians, I familiarized myself with Californian public transportation.

Starting out my work at the laboratory in the following weeks took a few days to get used to. Programming in the Interactive Data Language (IDL) was anything but intuitive, and I started wondering why space scientists use this outdated syntax. After a few weeks however, I pulled through, and I began writing up walls of code. My research involved reading lots of previous papers where similar conductivity calculations were performed for Titan - a moon of Saturn - using flyby data, along with gathering knowledge on plasma physics and atmospheric sciences. I've soon realized that scientific research is filled with imperfections, where we make do with the data that's available, make sound decisions when it comes to following assumptions, and relentlessly try and try again even when you're not seeing any results.

Meanwhile through my weeks of work at the lab, I had a few kickback days where Claire arranged trips for us to see the Googleplex at Mountain View and Lick Observatory up at Mount Hamilton near San Jose. I've also managed to get away with spending every weekend in a different city at and around the Bay Area, exploring and getting to know new people. With a balance between work time and late night excursions, I've realized how valuable my time has been over here, where this experience has been far from strictly scientific or academic and has turned out to be character-building through experiences that I can carry along with me for the rest of my life.

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