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December 4, 2013

In school, as in life, it pays to shoot for the moon.

For Jeremy Foote, ’14, that moon happens to be a little farther away than the one you think of first. His is one of the moons in a ring around Saturn. And getting a NASA space grant to study one of those rings this semester, has been like playing in the big leagues.

“For me, NASA is the NFL or the MLB of the scientific community, and what person would not want that chance,” said the BSU senior.

Jeremy, a geoscience major, is the university’s first recipient of a semester space grant from NASA, a program that began at BSU during the summer of 2012.

His project, studying the particles that make up one of Saturn’s rings, is an ambitious one, and while subsidized this semester and currently working about 10 hours a week, Jeremy actually began the project about a year ago. He is being mentored by Dr. Robert Cicerone, associate professor of geological sciences.

Already, the research has begun to show fruit: “One of the goals I set for myself was to complete and present this research at a national conference, and I did,” he said. Jeremy was able to present his research in October at the National Geological Science Association conference in Denver.

The program’s interdisciplinary approach – bringing in students from fields outside physics – was a goal of the program’s administrator, Dr. Martina Arndt, professor of physics.

“I want to challenge them more, to think about what they do and see if it connects with NASA’s mission, which is also part of the point [of why] NASA does this,” Dr. Arndt said. “Because it’s not always just engineers and physicists that do stuff at NASA.”

BSU students have other opportunities for undergraduate research grants, including the school’s own successful Adrian Tinsley Program. But the NASA space grants, provided to 19 Massachusetts colleges and programs as part of a consortium, are another avenue for hands-on research. Additionally, the NASA connection adds some extra prestige.

There have been six summer grants awarded to BSU students: four in 2012, two in 2013, and now Jeremy’s semester grant, according to Dr. Arndt. The grants provide $4,500 so students can continue to do research through the summer; the semester grant provides $1,400. And there have been no lack of applicants. The program has had to turn away some students.

“The ultimate goal is that we want the students to learn something from it, that they'll have a high probability of being successful, and that means that they’re academically prepared, that their project has been vetted,” Arndt said, adding that the projects can be new or they can build on the work of other students.

Arndt has mentored and is proud of all the students chosen to receive the “space grants,” but in several she has seen remarkable growth, including with Jeremy.

“I've really seen him blossom over the years and … he's finally ready to be doing it, and I'm really excited to see how this has enabled him,” she said. “He's grown a lot from this experience." 

Jeremy, who lives in Whitman and moved to Massachusetts from Washington about eight years ago, is enthusiastic about his work. He explains that he is studying the rate at which particles that make up Saturn’s outermost ring are diffusing. The belief is that those particles came from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is emitting them through a process called cryovolcanism.

“The best way to describe it is an ice-cold version of Old Faithful, that runs continuously from very large and very long crevasses in the south polar region of the moon,” he said. “The material moves fast enough and high enough to the break orbit of the moon,” ultimately comprising the ring.

Though Dr. Arndt wants students in the program to succeed, she emphasizes that a large part of scientific research is doing the work, dealing with limitations, and learning how to move forward from there.

In fact, students have needed to deal with real-world problems. For Kathryn St. Laurent in 2012, who was studying an exoplanet (a planet around another star), she had to overcome poor weather and faulty equipment. For Jeremy Foote, it meant dealing with so much data that it overwhelmed Microsoft Excel.

“I really want them … to tackle a real-life interesting project that’s not just textbook, but it’s data and it’s messy, and that they really understand what it feels like to do this kind of work,” Dr. Arndt said. “It might inspire them to continue. I also think it makes them feel confident, and it makes them stand out among other applicants for jobs, industry, or graduate schools if they have this experience.”

Other recipients of the NASA space grants have included, in 2012: Kathryn St. Laurent, physics; Alexander Medeiros, physics; Timothy Kiesel, geological science; Joseph R. Fitzgerald, physics. In 2013: Talia Martin, physics, and Jared Buckley, physics.

More information can be found at these websites: National Space Grant and Fellowship Program and Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium. (Story by Stephen Ide; photo by Michelle Hacunda, '12, University News)

Jeremy Foote