An Inside Look at the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics

By Pluto Cornelius

I sat down with two of the founding faculty of the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics, Program Manager, Kimberly Nucifora and Academic Director, Dr. Michael Faison, to ask a few questions about how YSPA got started and its goals. 

Here’s my interview with Dr. Faison: 

Who are you? What is your background?

I’m Michael Faison, I’ve been on the astronomy faculty at Yale for about 15 years, and I’m the Director of the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium at Yale, which is our main astronomy education and outreach center. Before I came to Yale, I taught astronomy and physics at Reed College, Northwestern U., and Beloit College.  I did my PhD research in radio astronomy at the VLA in New Mexico, studying the structure of hydrogen gas in the Milky Way. 

Let’s see… what should I say about my background… I was an amateur astronomer growing up, so I learned the constellations and looked for planets and deep sky objects with my backyard telescope. I was also very interested in electronics and, more generally, in how things work, so I knew I wanted to study physics in college. I majored in physics at Oberlin College, but I also started doing research on pulsars with a radio astronomer there, Daniel Stinebring, and that got me more interested in astronomy teaching and research as a career. In 1995, I started teaching for the CUREA program at Mt. Wilson Observatory, which got me into teaching hands-on, observational astronomy over the summers. In 2003, I started teaching at the Summer Science Program in Ojai, CA, (a classic astronomy summer camp that has roots going back to 1959), and that got me excited about high-engagement, intensive teaching with gifted high-school students. Those experiences at SSP had a big effect on my teaching philosophy, influencing even how I teach classes for astronomy majors at Yale. 

How did you get involved with YSPA? 

I taught at SSP several times from 2003 to 2014, which was great, but I also thought we could host a program with a similar overall structure but with an updated curriculum at Yale using the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium as the central location for classes and research. I think there are a lot of interesting variations on modern astrophysics research projects (such as stellar photometry and spectroscopy, exoplanet modeling, etc.) that one could do with high-school students in an intensive, high-engagement program, and I wanted to explore these options. I taught a two-week pilot program for YSPA in the summer of 2015 which went well, and then Kim Nucifora, Jesse Feddersen, Victoria Misenti, several other helpful people, and I launched the first full YSPA in 2016. 

What kind of experience do you hope that students will have at YSPA? How do you hope that they will be changed by the experience? 

We hope our students have one of the best “college-like” experiences that teenagers who are passionate about science could have. This includes taking accelerated classes on advanced topics in physics, astronomy, data science, and math (we cover about a semester’s worth of 2nd or 3rd year college classes in 6 weeks), working on a challenging research project that involves taking their own data with research-grade telescopes and modeling the data with the help of their peers as well as Yale astronomers, and working in an intense but also collegial environment of scholars. I hope that our students will develop self-confidence, teamwork skills, attention to detail, and a realistic sense of what doing full-time research is like. They also get to explore life on a college campus, and student life at Yale specifically.

Who is the ideal applicant for YSPA? Do you have any advice for someone applying for next year’s program?

We have a big range of types of students who attend YSPA… some of our students are advanced programmers who are also really interested in astrophysics and want to work on research, some are avid amateur astronomers who have built their own telescopes and want to work on a challenging, quantitative astronomy project, and some have broader interests in physical sciences but are specifically interested in learning advanced data analysis techniques. All of the students we admit have demonstrated two things… that 1) they have academic skills and emotional maturity to complete the program and 2) that they will make the most of the opportunity to come to YSPA. So, although there isn’t one ideal candidate for YSPA, successful applicants will have demonstrated in their applications that they will make the most of the experience. 

As for advice for applicants… my main advice is to be yourself! Talk about what you are passionate about in your essays and/or video. Also, we get many more applications from qualified candidates that we could possibly admit, so if you don’t get an admissions offer or if you are on the alternates list, don’t let this discourage you. There are many other summer opportunities for high schoolers interested in science research, and you can even make your own opportunities, digging into online courses and/or volunteering at a local college or university observatory or planetarium. 

What do you value the most about participating in the program yourself? 

Well, our students are really the Platonic ideal of who a science teacher would want to teach and work with… they are super-smart, creative, and highly engaged in our research projects, and they often come up with innovative solutions to problems we encounter along the way. They ask great questions in class and in lab, and they often become really good at helping other students. They tend to have diverse interests, and they are fun to converse with about science, philosophy, education, politics, culture, and other big ideas. I really love that the faculty get to spend a lot of time working in small groups with the students and get to know them really well, and I love that YSPA alumni keep in touch with each other and with us over time. Some YSPA students will matriculate at Yale and come work with me at the Leitner Observatory during the academic year and even work for future YSPA programs as Teaching Assistants! 

What do you see for the future of YSPA? 

YSPA is an outreach program of the Yale Astronomy Department, and we’ve been very happy with how things have gone since 2016. We’d like to continue to develop the curriculum to keep it up-to-date and adapt our research projects and methods. Some of our projects will be written up in manuals or textbooks so that other schools or summer programs (or even individuals) can try out some aspects of our curriculum. We’d also like to work on fund-raising so that we can offer more financial aid for participants who need it. We’re also planning to expand YSPA to two sessions per summer (perhaps working on different research projects in each session) in order to accommodate more qualified applicants and provide some scheduling flexibility. 

I also spoke to YSPA Program Manager Kim Nucifora, and I asked her some of the same questions. 

Who are you? What is your background?

I have an engineering and computer science background, and I’m also very interested in teaching (I taught math in Tanzania in the Peace Corps, and I even taught middle school math in New Haven public schools for a while!). Right now I work with a research group at NYU that builds mathematical epidemiological simulations to address questions of public health policy.

How did you get involved with YSPA?

I’ve known Michael for a long time, and through him, I learned about Summer Science Program, which looked like a really amazing experience for high school students. When the chance to launch and work with a similar program at Yale came along, I leapt at the chance. 

What kind of experience do you hope that students will have at YSPA? How do you hope that they will be changed by the experience? 

Most YSPA students end up accomplishing things that they never thought they could have done at the start of the program. All of our students come in with different backgrounds, but no matter what their strengths and weaknesses are, each of them have an amazing growth experience during the program, and they get pushed in a way that is unique for them.  At the same time, they have an amazing bonding experience with their peers. 

Honestly, having done this for four years now, I hope that each student will leave YSPA feeling that they have changed, and that they’ve had the best summer of their lives. 

Who is the ideal applicant for YSPA? Do you have any advice for someone applying for next year’s program?

The ideal applicant is a student who has had a lifelong interest in math and science, who has taken all of the courses in physics and astronomy available to them at their school, sought out all of the sciency clubs that are available (or even started their own!), and wants to have an in-depth experience and work on a project at a level that wouldn’t be available to them in high school. 

Um, advice for someone applying? Have a back-up plan (haha). I mean admission is very competitive. No, seriously… let your real self shine through in your essays.  Almost everyone who applies has perfect grades in math and science and strong letters of recommendation, so among those, we are looking for students who will support each other, who will make a great cohort of 32 students, and so the more that you can share about your personality and who you are, the better we can see how you might fit into the program. So don’t write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear… tell us who you really are. 

What do you value the most about participating in the program yourself? 

Back when I was a teenager, I would have absolutely loved to participate in a program like YSPA, which is a huge part of what makes it exciting for me… giving them this opportunity.

This is an interesting time in these students’ lives… soon they are going to be launched into adulthood. I love that I get to help make this incredible experience for the students, and I get to experience it with them! We all experience this program together, and it’s so wonderful the way a community emerges and grows out of it. 

We’ve gotten better at running the program each year, too, so things run more smoothly and it’s easier and more fun for the faculty… we’ve established some traditions that also connect students between years. I love that the YSPA alumni can meet each other and have an instant bond over what they remember about Chunny’s jokes and QoDs, playing “Resistance” in the library, counting off to go to breakfast, observing at Leitner, or Dr. Faison’s Calculus lectures.  

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

No problem!