Some of our previous AGUSS recipients have been kind enough to write a bit about their experiences, and provide some pictures to give you a flavour of what life in Chile is like.
If you are reading this while contemplating whether you should apply to become an Australian Gemini Undergraduate Summer Student (AGUSS), I fervently and whole-heartily recommend you apply! This program represents the chance to experience the environment and thrill of scientific discovery at a world leading astronomical observatory; all the while enjoying the adventure of living in a fantastic and unique country. I could not imagine a better way to spend the summer! In case you are still uncertain about applying, I thought I would give you some details about my experiences as an AGUSS student in 2011-2012.
For the majority of the ten weeks, I was situated in the beautiful and quaint tourist town of La Serena. La Serena is about a five-hour car trip north of Santiago, and it is the town that hosts the Southern Base Facility (SBF) of Gemini. Early in December, the town was practically desolate of tourists and I was finding it hard to believe how such a place could be called a "tourist town" when there appeared to be no tourists besides myself and the other AGUSS recipient, Aina. However, the character of the town changed dramatically after New Years as tourists, the majority from Argentina, came and changed the spirit of the town. Very quickly there were beach parties, carnivals, and buskers to give the town a quirky vibrancy not present earlier.
All of this is set in the background of completing a major research project within Gemini. I was working with Benoit Neichel, an Adaptive Optics (AO) specialist, and Claudia Winge, a data reduction specialist, in characterising the mesospheric sodium layer. The major result we managed to elucidate from the data was the identification of a seasonal minimum in sodium concentration, and the required refocusing time on a natural guide star so that image quality did not degrade below a desired level. This information is vital to directing the queue system for the Laser Guide Star (LGS) AO system on Gemini South, and for the planning of the next generation LGS AO systems on the Giant Magellan Telescope. However, what I got most out of the project is not related to the results but was contained in the process to the results. It is through this project that I learnt a lot about the techniques of how an astronomer handles large amounts of data, codes key programming languages, uses images taken from a ground based telescope and makes use of the collaboratory nature of astronomy. I feel that this knowledge is invaluable, and it is something that is already proving priceless to me in my Honours year of study. Added to all of this were science meetings and colloquia, ranging from topics on Star Formation in Radio Quiet QSOs to Stars in the Periphery of Galactic Massive Stellar Clusters, which emphasised I was participating at the frontier of astronomy.
Aina and I also got the opportunity to visit Gemini South, located on the nearby mountain Cerro Pachon, on two separate occasions. The first instance was during full moon and a laser commissioning run, where the 50 W laser, GeMS, was being tested. It was awe-inspiring to see such a powerful laser propagate into the sky through the press of a single button! However, while such a phenomenon was amazing to behold, that marvel was dwarfed by the beauty of the night sky on our second visit to the summit. This time the lunar cycle was at new moon, so the sky was bursting at its seams with the number of stars that were visible to the naked eye. Losing the well-known constellations in the sea of stars I have never seen before is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Aina and I also got a chance to visit the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, which provided an excellent contrast to the culture and style of how observations are performed at Gemini South.
Finally, I was lucky enough on my last weekend in Chile to do a little bit of travelling. With some of the American students, who were on a similar program (REU) and appeared six weeks into our program, I organised a road trip down to the two famous towns: Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. Here I got the chance to visit the house of the famous Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda and I was able to soak in some of the amazing atmosphere of a trendy town. Also, since I was driving, I managed to have some of the frights of my life. Let's just say Chileans are a very relaxed type of people until they get on the roads!
Hence, I highly recommend applying for AGUSS. I had the time of my
life as I was able to be part of the community of a fantastic
observatory, all the while getting the chance to explore and adventure
in a beautiful country. Believe me, you will have the time of your
life as well!
I was working with Tom Hayward and Fredrik Rantakyro characterising the image quality of the Gemini South 8-meter telescope. We wanted to know which parameters affect the image quality and how we can better plan the queue when observing science targets with the telescope. To do this we analysed the Gemini Engineering Archive data, which contains information from various environmental, instrumental and telescope sensors. I wrote some data processing and analytical routines in the programming language Python which I had to learn for this project. Among other things we discovered that seeing was worst when pointing the telescope to the south.
Gemini has its own compound (recinto) where many astronomers reside. The compound is guarded 24/7 so very soon we knew most guards by name and they knew us. The offices are located at the same place so it was an easy 5 minute walk from the house we shared to the office. The Observatory staff made us very welcome from day 1. We were introduced to ALL the members of staff (how often does that happen at the places people work these days?). Apart from working on our own projects we also went to various colloquia which were organised every week, sometimes even several times a week. It was very interesting to hear what people are doing across the world with the data collected with Gemini and also other telescopes. It was also a surprise for us to discover that about 80% of staff are engineers and not scientists; in the university environment it is quite the opposite. However it is understandable as a lot of effort is put into optimisation of the telescope performance.
We were lucky enough to go up to the telescope twice. The first time was during a laser commissioning run, which was especially exciting for Joe as his project was all about that laser and the sodium layer it interacts with. The laser is absolutely impressive; a 50 W laser requires airplane spotters so the laser doesn't interfere with their operation. So the first time we had a large team of people even though there were no science targets observed that night. The mountain the telescope sits on is 2715 m high and is called Cerro Pachon. The primary mirror of the telescope is 8 meters in diameter and is absolutely majestic. So if the altitude hasn't quite taken our breath away, the sight of the mirror has surely done the job! On the same mountain there is also another telescope SOAR with a "humble" 4 meter mirror.
The second time we were on the mountain during the new moon and we could observe so many celestial objects! I brought my binoculars with me but the site is so dark, you can just observe with your own eyes! For those of you who know your sky, here are just some of the beautiful objects we saw: M41, M35, IC2602, NGC2516, IC2391, NGC3372, NGC3532, M50, M48, and IC2391. Gemini Observatory has a dormitory for the astronomers who are working at the mountain which is only 5 minutes away, so after a long night they don't have to travel far before hitting the pillow. We were also able to visit Las Campanas Observatory which has a whole bunch of telescopes. The seeing at that site is absolutely exceptional.
The base facility of Gemini is located in a beautiful town called La Serena. It is not very big but has a nice climate: it never gets too hot or cold, unless you go into the desert. Although it hardly ever rains there, we were surprised at how generous people were watering their gardens given the fact the dam level was only 30%. La Serena has a lovely beach which stretches as far as the eye can see. The water however is quite cold even though we were there in the height of summer. People are laid back and nobody seems to rush anywhere, except on the road: drivers in Chile are crazy and impatient. What impressed us most in La Serena was actually its fruit and vegetable markets! Imagine the freshest fruit you have ever tasted - but this is better! And incredibly cheap! Apart from grapes, watermelons, apples and other common fruit they also have these interesting local fruit that are even hard to describe, you just have to try those for yourself! A lot of those fruit flavours are added to ice-cream; in La Serena they love their ice-cream, it is sold absolutely everywhere! I also loved that they had so many berries, including those that you never ever see in Australia but that I am used to in Russia: like raspberries and red currants. Apart from the fruit markets La Serena also has lovely craft markets where you can get gorgeous knitted items with South American themes and jewellery. In Chile they love using the stone called Lapis lazuli in jewellery, it is very unusual and beautiful. There are no high buildings in La Serena so at night the whole harbour with all its beautiful lights could be seen from where we lived (up on a high hill). Right next to La Serena there is a port town called Coquimbo with a huge Millennium Cross and a fish market.
Food and Drink
Many cafes have lunch specials where you can get a 3 course lunch for as little as $6! There are many different Chilean dishes we tried, among which are: pastel de choclo (baked corn paste with meat), completes (hot dogs with avocado) and ceviche (fresh fish in lemon juice). One of the common sweet drinks is mote con huesillos, which is a sweet water with barley and pickled peaches. I know it doesn't sound appetising but it was most delicious! Pisco is a kind of fortified wine that is popular but in my opinion their best alcoholic drink is actually red wine and in particular wine made of the carmenere grape which disappeared from European vineyards a long time ago.
If you are the lucky one to be selected for AGUSS...
You will have so much fun working at Gemini and exploring La Serena.
Brush up on your Spanish, trust me it will help! Try all the
different fruit at the fruit markets, the chances are you will never
see fruit like that ever in your life. Try all sorts of Chilean food
and drink, it is all lovely. My recommendation: on the main street
Haunhuali just 5 minutes down the road from the recinto there is an
amazing restaurant called Puerto Callao. If you can, organise a trip
to the telescope near New Moon - the sight of the stars will blow your
The Chilean city of La Serena was a great place to work. The place was mostly quiet and laid back. Most of the city is within walking distance and taxis are fairly cheap. The beaches attract many tourists in the summer from Argentina. The locals were generally friendly. There were a few huge supermarkets and a shopping mall as well as food markets. There were also some great restaurants by the beach and were all fairly cheap. Our accommodation was located at the Recinto de AURA, a secure area containing our houses and the Gemini offices. We made friends with many of the other staff and students at Gemini.
I was working with Percy Gomez and Rodrigo Carrasco. My project was to use spectra taken with GMOS to determine the age and metallicity of galaxies to test theories on the formation of massive cD galaxies. It was the first time I had an opportunity to untertake real research, reducing and analysing data. We also attended meetings and presentations from other staff.
I was fortunate enough to get to spend two nights on Cerro Pachon, the location of the Gemini telescopes and observatories. I got a tour of the telescope and the facilities and got to see some of the instruments. Seeing the telescope in real life was far more impressive than I expected. From inside the dome I could see many of the surrounding mountains including Cerro Tololo. The sunsets were beautiful and the sky was very clear. We got to observe using both GMOS and NICI.
Over the weekends we got to explore various sights around La Serena. We also spent a few weekends in the Elqi Valley where we got to visit some of the wineries and Pisco distilleries. Over the new year most of the staff went home so Belinda and I took the opportunity to take a 16 hour bus ride to the desert location of San Pedro de Atacama. We woke up very early to see geysers, despite the pre-dawn cold of a 4300m altitude desert. We also got to see lagoons, watch the sunset over Moon Valley, see flamingos and try sand boarding.
As an AGUSS 09/10 recipient I worked at the La Serena Base Facility of the Gemini Observatory from December 1st to February 14th (just before the quake!) I worked with Steve Margheim, an Assistant Scientist with Gemini South, on an assessment of current stellar metallicity calculation methods. My university courses have been mostly theoretical so this was my first real opportunity to "get my hands dirty" in data reduction and analysis. Analysing data, reading and reviewing literature as well as preparing raw data from the telescope for analysis has not only increased my understanding of what a "real astronomer" actually does day to day but has allowed me to participate in research outside that which universities could normally offer an undergraduate student.
Throughout my stay in La Serena I shared an office with other undergraduates, admin interns, PhD students, and postgraduate computer science interns, from all over the world, all working on projects in various areas of Gemini's operation.
At the beginning of my ten-week internship I was fortunate enough to spend three nights on the summit of Cerro Pachon during my supervisor's observing shift. I was able to tour the facilities and those of the neighbouring SOAR Observatory and participate in the observations themselves, not to mention being on the summit provided the best view of the Geminid Meteor Shower!
I also spent a night at the Magellan Telescopes that make up the Las Campanas Observatory; it was incredibly interesting to contrast and compare the instrumentation and daily operations between the Gemini and Magellan telescopes.
Another complementary aspect to my research at Gemini South was the opportunity to attend lectures given at the AURA Lecture Hall in the Gemini offices at La Serena Base Facility. The ACS LCID Project: Star Formation Histories of Isolated Galaxies in the Local Group, Massive Clusters in the Atacama Cosmology Telescope Survey, and The Joint Formation of Bulges and Black Holes are just three of the talks that were presented during my ten-week stay.
Also as most of the staff travelled home for Christmas, I took the opportunity to travel around the country - sea kayaking with sea-lions, trekking up snow-capped volcanoes and exploring pictographs in desert oases!
The Australian Gemini Undergraduate Summer Studentship presents an amazing opportunity and I cannot emphasize enough just how much I would recommend this scheme to anyone looking to move into astronomy -- or a related field.
Being paired with an astronomer to work on a project and experiencing research outside of a Uni context was an eye-opening experience. I was set working with Gelys Trancho at Gemini, attempting to determine the age of four intermediate-age, remnant merger galaxies. After familiarising myself with a number of tools and programs common to the astronomy community (but which I'd never even heard of at uni), we succeeded in determining these ages which was, in short, very cool! We certainly put in a lot of work -- including a weekend or two -- but the opportunity to stand back in the final week and say, "I've done something that no one else has", was definitely worth it.
Aside from being amazing work experience, and giving you access to a range of programs and skills that you would otherwise likely not see until after you graduate, the AGUSS provides a remarkable opportunity to live in Chile for nearly three months. Having never lived out of home, let alone overseas before, I was a tad nervous at first. Once arriving in Chile however, I found the people of La Serena (where you'll be staying) to be extremely helpful, friendly and very, very laid back. Our colleagues at Gemini were amazingly welcoming and given that nearly everyone at Gemini spoke English we had no problems -- with the possible exception of a few strange looks at the market -- with the language.
Lastly, whilst living in Chile, we were lucky enough to get some travelling done. Courtney Jones and I spent New Year's in Puerto Varas, which was awesome. We also did a number of day trips on weekends to some of the sights and towns around La Serena. Just before returning to Australia, I took an extra week and did some walking down in Patagonia which proved to have some of the nicest scenery I've ever seen. Overall, I had an amazing experience and I strongly recommend anyone even thinking about applying to do so.
If you are considering a career in Astrophysics and a life of travel I have one thing to say to you... apply for this scheme, do it! Not only is it a chance to travel overseas to one of the most friendliest (if disorganised) countries you'll ever visit, but you get to work first hand with one of the most advanced optical telescopes in the world.
Discovering how a telescope is run, the many, many ways the data can be applied and making connections with many astronomy professionals from around the world are just some of the benefits of the program. The program allows you to enter into a real life research project run by your supervisor. My project looked at possible evolutionary theories attached to compact galaxy groups. It also allows one to two wonderful visits to the stunning Andean foothills which house the Gemini South summit, Cerro Pachon, where you can watch the astronomers at work collecting observations.
The town of La Serena where you get to live is a very relaxed city. Lovely people and plenty to see. I always felt safe in Chile. And the wealth of food markets at fairly cheap prices are always a bonus. Gemini also hires Chilean interns which you have the opportunity to meet and make friends with, one of the best experiences I've had by far.
A wonderful aside is the possibility of travelling a little while in South America (leaving ample time for any changes to flight plans!). I got the chance to visit Easter Island before I arrived in Santiago (Book this early if you're keen though! The planes fill up fast) and myself and my fellow interns went on a five day hiking trip (over the weekend) in Southern Patagonia's Torres Del Paine national park.
This is a brilliant opportunity, you learn a lot, get to travel and it looks great on your CV!
The journey to Chile began with a red eye flight from Perth to Sydney airport. I then boarded LAN airlines where I met Richard, another AGUSS recipient. After a brief stopover in New Zealand it was on with the 10-hour direct flight to Santiago. Fortunately I managed to sleep most of the way and the food they served was surprisingly delicious. The flight attendants announced everything in Spanish, Portuguese and then English. I soon became very grateful for the couple of Spanish lessons I had taken before leaving, since very few people speak fluent English in Chile.
We arrived in Santiago only 2 hours after we left Sydney (the time difference is 12 hours). We were met by one of my friends who happened to be on exchange in Chile at the time. Richard and I were privileged to stay with her and her host family for three days. It was a nice way to be introduced to the Chilean culture and lifestyle. We found them to be very hospitable people who are eager to teach you their language. We picked up some of the essential Chilean lingo such as "vamos" ("let's go"), "cachai" ("get it?") and "bakan" ("cool"). We also discovered that we would from then on be referred to as "gringos" (foreigners). I particularly stuck out as a gringo because of my blonde hair.
Santiago is not the most attractive city. It is incredibly huge and a layer of smog hangs over the city during the day. So Haley's family took us sight-seeing in the mountains around Santiago. They were very beautiful and covered in cacti. We went for a horse ride through the foothills of the Andes and then had our first delicious empanada. These are a very common Chilean snack and are fairly similar to pasties.
From Santiago, we had a 1 hour flight to La Serena where we would be working at the Gemini South base facility. La Serena is a lovely coastal town. It is relatively small and has lots of traditional charm. There are recent developments such as a big super market and mall, however you can still buy fresh fruit and vegetables from the Sunday farmer's markets. La Serena is one of the main holiday destinations for other Chileans and Argentineans due to its long strip of beach. For this reason, La Serena's population doubles over the summer and the atmosphere becomes very vibrant and lively.
While we worked in La Serena, we lived in a nice house on the recinto. The recinto is like a secured compound that houses the Gemini and Cerro Tololo office buildings and a number of rental houses for staff and their families. There are lots of pretty gardens and the houses are fairly big and fully self-contained.
Working at Gemini South
On our first day of work we met Emily (the other AGUSS recipient) who had just flown in from Easter Island. We then had a tour of the Gemini building and we were introduced to all the staff. We had an office to share between the three of us, and occasionally with visiting astronomers and engineers. The staff were very helpful and kind people and we made many friends. It felt like a truly international facility with people from all over the world. Although everyone spoke English, many also spoke Spanish, French, German, Chinese and Portuguese.
My supervisor was Markus Hartung, an adaptive optics specialist. Markus and I worked with high-resolution images of the red giant star Arcturus to see if we could verify claims that it has a companion star in orbit around it. I learned extremely valuable skills in data reduction methods and was introduced to some important software packages used for analysis. We did not find a companion star but we established limits on possible companion detections and found some useful techniques for processing data involving adaptive optics. These can be applied to data from the new Gemini instrument NICI (Near Infrared Coronagraphic Imager). NICI was in its commissioning stages at the time of my visit. It will be used to search for planets around other stars.
I was fortunate to join my supervisor on the summit of Cerro
Pachon for a few nights at the Gemini telescope itself. One astronomer
must be present at the telescope each night to decide what object to
observe based on the weather conditions and other factors. Astronomers
from all over the world put in requests for certain observations, and
these requests are put into a queue and executed under the most
The telescope dome was very impressive. It was much bigger than I
had imagined. I was involved in opening the mirror cover, the side
vent gates and the dome roof. The entire floor and walls can rotate,
as well as the telescope itself. The view of the mountains through the
vent gates at sunset was unbelievably beautiful. There was absolute
silence up on the mountain except for when a slight breeze blew. When
it was completely dark, we went outside to look at the stars before
the moon rose. It was the clearest sky I've ever seen, with the
Milky Way glittering like diamonds. There were strange flashes of
light in the distance which we later discovered was an electrical
storm over the Andes. We worked in the control centre on the ground
floor where there are lots of monitors displaying many different
details. We slept in dormitories during the day and I had some time to
explore around Cerro Tololo. I had to keep an eye out for a certain
mountain goat that kept following me!
Emily, Richard and I were fortunate to witness some of the incredible natural beauty of Chile. We explored the Elqui Valley to the east of La Serena, where the vineyards extend up the mountainsides growing grapes for the famous Chilean wine and pisco brandy. We climbed to the top of the Cruz del Tercer Milenio which is an enormous cross built in Coquimbo, the harbour town neighbouring La Serena. We also travelled down to Patagonia in the far south of Chile. Here we braved the hike around the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park. We saw avalanches off the mountains, icebergs, a huge glacier, azure lakes, green forests and herds of guanaco (similar to llamas). Emily and I also took a side trip to Peru with the aim of visiting Machu Picchu, but had to settle with exploring Lima. A lesson learned - allow plenty of time when making a journey in South America so as to avoid disappointment!
Overall, this was an amazing experience and the trip of a
lifetime. I discovered so much about observational astronomy, and
about living and working in a different country. Thank you to the AAO,
Gemini observatory and all our friends in Chile. I highly recommend
the AGUSS program to anyone interested in astronomy as a career.
La Serena, as its name implies, is a small, quiet town situated between the foothills of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It as an amazing place to spend a summer, working with professional astronomers at the best and biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere. The surrounding beauty and nature offers a wide range of activities including; fishing, hiking, camping, horse riding, bike riding, exploring and travelling. All of which I had plenty of time to do while searching for giant galaxy clusters with my supervisor.
We arrived before Christmas, so we got to see the town and its people before the holiday season, when flocks of people flood the "beautiful" beach that La Serena and Coquimbo (a neighbouring town) are home to. Quickly we found our feet and were using the town's public transport system; buses, collectivoes, and taxis to explore our new home. Shopping for all the essentials, including maté, was made easy with the fantastic farmers markets and big shopping malls everywhere.
Work was relaxed and flexible, starting at about 9:30-10am and finishing around 5-6pm. This allowed for the opportunity to fit in a quick fish before work. Lenguardo (flounder) and corvina (sea bass) were the most common catches. Muchas (giant pippies) were also in abundance; simply walk along the beach searching for a sand bar, walk out to it and squidge your bear feet into the sand. When you feel them under your feet simply pick them up. Along with the fish they make a fantastic meal. I had no shortage of fresh fruit, veggies and seafood at my fingertips.
I was working with mosaic data taken with the 4m Blanco telescope. I was working on the Sunyave Zeldorvich Blind Cluster Survey, searching for galaxy clusters. I learnt a lot. But more importantly I gained an invaluable insight to working in professional astronomy. Work proved to be very interesting most of the time. Whether it was finding some really cool interacting galaxies in my images, or glancing out the window and seeing the largest humming bird in the world hovering over the beautiful gardens in the recinto. Chile is also home to the Andean Condor, their national bird. One weekend I was lured into the mountains north of La Serena, which run along the beautiful rocky coast. During this solo trip, in what I was told to be a "rare event", I saw these magnificent birds close up, they are huge!
Torres Del Paine is a place you should visit, its natural beauty is second to none. From towering, snow covered mountains with pristine rivers flowing into giant lakes, to huge glaciers and awesome wild life. My only advice is to buy a small cooker and take your own food, for the food that can be purchased along the endless trails is not to be trusted.
If you are thinking about this scholarship then APPLY NOW, it really
is a once in a life time opportunity.
Australian Gemini Office, ausgo -@- aao.gov.au