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Researcher of the Month

November 2014

Noel Scudder 
Physics, Astronomy/Planetary Sciences majors, Honors College, Class of 2015 

Research Mentors: Dr.Timothy Glotch,  Geosciences

Noel Scudder is a senior in the Honors College, with a double major in Physics and Astronomy/Planetary Sciences; and a minor in Geology. Since January of 2014, he has been working with Dr. Timothy Glotch in the Geosciences Department to increase our understanding of the mineralogy of Mars from remote sensing data—in particular, developing a Hapke-based linear spectral unmixing model for CRISM data to quantitatively analyze mineralogy on the Martian surface. This work will be a part of his senior honors thesis for the Honors College. Noel’s research this past summer was supported by a NASA Mars Data Analysis grant to his mentor. 

Noel Scudder

Noel plans to submit an abstract to the 2015 Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference, as well as present at the URECA poster symposium and Honors College symposium in the spring. This year, he will also be applying to Ph.D. programs in planetary science. Asked about how undergraduate research has enhanced his education, Noel reflects: “I consider what I’m learning from the research to be just as important, or more important, than what I’m learning in my classes. This is the kind of work I will be doing in the future…” 

Noel started out as a physics major, but his initial interest in astronomy began when taking Astronomy 203 in freshman year with Prof. Michael Zingale, and his focus in planetary science was in large part due to taking Astronomy 205 in sophomore year with Prof. Alan Calder. Noel considers himself to be fortunate to get an early start in research, working with Prof. Michael Zingale and graduate student Max Katz on testing white dwarf binary models in his sophomore year. At SB, Noel has been four times recognized at the 4.0 Academic Achievement ceremony, and has regularly been on the Dean’s list. He came to SB from Sherwood HS, Sherwood, Oregon where he was class valedictorian. Noel enjoys running, hiking, and computer gaming.  Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen:  Tell me a little about your research.
Noel: Right now, I’m working in the Glotch group on developing an unmixing model of spectra. I’ve been working there since January. NASA has instruments like the CRISM spectrometer that takes really good spectrum of the Martian surface at great resolution. From the spectra you can infer things about what’s on the surface—you can infer if there are hydrous minerals, if there are certain kinds of clays or other minerals…What I'm doing is using reflectance data converted to single scattering albedo spectra, and building a model to unmix these spectra to quantitatively get the mineral abundances and the minerals on Mars.
My goal is to run the unmixing model over all of the pixels in a given image and get a map of mineral abundance. The trouble is that those images are large – they have many thousands of spectra in them. So running the model takes time over a single image. That kind of volume is tough but I’m still in the testing stage. 

How did you first get involved? What was your background for this type of research?
Previously I had done research in the Astronomy department with Prof. Mike Zingale—working on modeling white dwarf stars. I decided I wanted to try something new. I had only taken a couple introductory geology classes previously, but I knew planetary science was something I wanted to explore. So I emailed Dr. Glotch and asked him if he had any openings and he said yes. He gave me this project to work on, and it has turned out to be something that really fit my interests well and was a nice segue into planetary science. A lot of it is physics based – using optics, and physical theory of how light scatters from surfaces, how it’s absorbed depending on the type of mineral, the size of the grains that the light is reflecting off of and all that sort of thing. It wasn’t as far off from my physics major as it could have been.

I had to learn a new computer language called Davinci– it was built out of ASU for specifically these kinds of computations dealing with spectroscopy. And it was a little difficult in the beginning. I spent a good deal of the first part of the spring semester learning that and learning the kind of functions that were built into Davinci. My model calls upon an older model meant to deconvolve thermal emission spectra.

What is Professor Glotch like as a mentor?
He’s the best mentor I could have asked for. At the start I really needed a lot of guidance because I was coming straight into geosciences. That was very tough – getting right into a whole other field on how to view things, and seeing a bunch of frightening equations that I had never seen before from graduate level textbooks. He was very helpful in helping me learn the computer language and explaining the concepts to me that I wasn’t familiar with.
A lot of it is that he lets me be pretty independent in what I want to do, how I want to test my models. We meet every week– both individually, and then as a group where we all get together and get each other up to date on what we’re working on.  He taught me how to use the reflectance spectroscopy lab down the hall so I could take spectra of these samples. 

Sounds like you have become much more comfortable with the work now.
Yes, as soon as I started working on the actual project, it became a lot easier. I had to learn everything I needed to about it before I could even start interpreting the results.  And n ow too, I find that I can be of help to others in the group based on the work I’ve done on the unmixing model ... 

I was originally working with these spectra from Mars. We don’t have solutions for them, we don’t know what the actual abundances are, though we know what kinds of minerals should be present. I remember early on asking, “Do you have results I can compare this with?” (…which we didn’t). So what I’m doing right now is to take reflectance spectra of laboratory mixtures where I know everything about the minerals that went into them and their grain sizes and convert them to single scattering albedo and unmix them and see what kind of results I get so I have a baseline to test my model’s accuracy on. 

What are your future plans? 
I’m planning on applying to graduate school – hoping to do more with spectroscopy and planetary sciences.  

How does what you learn from research build on what you learn from coursework? 
I consider what I’m learning from the research to be just as important, or more important, than what I’m learning in my classes. This is the kind of work I will be doing in the future…But the two go hand in hand. Right now I’m taking a remote sensing class-- Just the other day, we talked about spectra unmixing, which gave me a great perspective on my work that I didn’t have before. …For my current project,  I need to convert my reflectance data into other units. There’s no real clear cut way on how to that. There are multiple equations in the literature…in general, it’s very non-linear and it’s difficult to convert one directly to the other. But I’m going to be attempting a root finding method that I learned in my Physics 277 class –Computations for physics and astronomy. So drawing on classes that I’ve taken, and having my physics background, especially programming, is definitely helpful for the research I’m doing.

It's great that you were able to dedicate the summer to research. 

This summer was extremely helpful to developing my code. There is something to be said for doing work and research singularly and not having to worry about classes and being able to devote all your time to that in the summer. It was very helpful! 

What advice do you have for other students?
When I came in I was hesitant to ask professors if they had positions for research because I thought I’d be getting in their way ...but Prof. Zingale actually asked me (at the end of the semester when I was taking AST 203) if I wanted to do research with him. I feel really lucky that I was able to get started when I did. My advice though is to look up professors and email them and just ask. And I would also add that you shouldn't be afraid to switch groups if your interests change.

How did you first know you wanted to go in a planetary science direction?
It was a story of shifting interests. I came in as a physics major. I had heard about the physics department when I first came in as a freshman from Oregon. And I had taken an introductory astronomy class just for fun and I really liked it. I continued with the more in-depth Astronomy 203 where I met my first research advisor Michael Zingale, and in sophomore year I went on to Astronomy 205. I found that my interests were going a little more in that direction. Then I took intro geology class junior year and decided that planetary science was where I wanted to go.

I’m happy with how SB turned out for me. The smaller size of the astronomy group was very nice for me as well as the larger size of the physics department. I’m considering returning here for graduate school.

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