Works and Days

Summer Internship Award: CRAL Astrophysics Lab in Lyon, France

CRAL Observatory in Saint-Genis-Laval, France

For two months this summer I worked at the CRAL (Astrophysics Research Center of Lyon). The observatory is located in Saint-Genis-Laval, a town right outside of Lyon, France. The observatory is small but has a lot going on, and is also up the steepest hill I’ve ever had to walk. I started looking for summer work by sending emails to various people at institutions all over Europe who I thought was doing interesting work in computational astrophysics. I started by emailing The Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) where I thought I could learn a good amount of the basics. They were only allowed to accept Swiss students, but hearing a response at all made me feel encouraged and kept me going. Two weeks into this process I found a list of internships available on CRAL’s website, and sent my boss, Jérémy Blaizot, an email. The internships were in numerical astrophysics, which interested me because of coursework I had done at Reed in Physics and in Computer Science. My request for summer work was apparently one of the weirdest and out of the blue emails he had ever received, coming from someone in an unheard of place in Oregon who was very intent on learning numerical astrophysics for galaxy formation, so he figured he might as well say yes.

My research aimed to speed up part of a radiative transfer simulation code. In a given area within the simulation, a photon might scatter many times, something that is computationally expensive. A way to speed this process up is to have a probability distribution function for the photon after it scatters, or try to approximate one. Initially, I tried working towards an analytic solution for the problem, but then moved to various numerical techniques. I was amazed when everything I was doing somehow built on things I had learned in my two years at Reed. The physics for Monte Carlo Radiative transfer was a natural extension of material learned in Physics 202, and the math and computer science courses I had taken at Reed also allowed me to learn new material in an effective way.

I learned a lot academically, but I also got a lot more out of the experience. On my way to France, I started freaking out that I didn’t know anyone or didn’t speak the language. However, as soon as I landed I started feeling better. Everyone I met was so wonderful and the overall environment was great for me since I was able to really focus on something I loved while getting a new experience of living abroad. The person I stayed with for two months, Marie, helped me learn enough French to make basic conversation, and was always giving me great advice for what to do in Lyon. I must have gone to almost every museum twice, but the highlight was when during my last week a friend came to visit me and insisted we go to the film prop/miniatures museum, which I thought I would hate but wound up loving. I also tried “toasted bread” ice cream, which I can definitely say changed my life for the better.

My boss Jérémy also made me feel incredibly welcome by making sure I had settled in well and was enjoying the work I was doing. . My summer experience helped me to appreciate everything I’ve learned so far, and renewed my drive to keep going forward in pursuing a career in academia. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into the summer and I definitely pushed myself out of my comfort zone, but it wound up being the best summer I’ve ever had.

Tags: summer internship award