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March 17, 2011

Smith College Undergraduate Takes Her Research to Capitol Hill

1NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Even before Lauren Masiunas enrolled at Smith College, she was comfortable participating in discussions among higher ed faculty about the latest astronomy research. But her interactions on Capitol Hill next month will offer a new challenge.

Instead of presenting complex data about the formation of star clusters to an academic audience, Masiunas will need to make her research accessible to elected officials in the U.S. Congress, who fund the type of investigations she pursues.

Masiunas is one of 74 undergraduates who will discuss their research in Washington, D.C., on April 13 as part of “Posters on the Hill,” an event that spotlights the importance of investing in research.

“My project relates to the age and distances of stars to one another. A lot of the stars are younger versions of our sun,” said Masiunas, a junior student double majoring in astronomy and religion. “We are basically using examples around us to see how we got where we are.”

To perform her current research on the star cluster known as AFGL 490, which is 3,000 light years distant, Masiunas uses data from government-funded resources such as NASA’s space telescope and Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Masiunas will attend the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) event with Tom Litwin, director of Smith’s Clark Science Center, and her advisor, Rob Gutermuth, a Five College research fellow in astronomy.

"The event is meant to draw the attention of Congressional lawmakers to the breadth and importance of research being done by undergraduates," said Gutermuth. "Lauren's wrapping up a project that an early graduate student might start, so to have an undergraduate perform successfully at that level is incredibly gratifying and great fun."

Next month’s presentation follows a more in-depth version that Masiunas gave in January at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

The subject matter has long been an interest of hers. “I remember being a kid and watching Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ and loving it,” said Masiunas.

As a teenager, Masiunas spent many hours after school in the Astronomy Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, waiting for a ride home to Miller’s Falls with her father, Andrew Masiunas, an electronic hardware design engineer, who was developing components of a telescope for the university.

Toward the end of high school, Masiunas assumed an official role in the department as an intern. The experience gave her the opportunity to join morning faculty discussions about research.

The Department of Astronomy is a Five College department, so Masiunas still regularly visits the building that holds those memories. The walls are still adorned with posters that she designed during her internship. And the Web site that she developed for the department is largely unchanged.

“At the beginning, when I sat in faculty discussions, I felt as if I was listening to another language,” said Masiunas. Not anymore. Next month, she will translate the language of research to members of Congress.


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