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Dr. Phillip Reed with KU students in the Astronomy LabPhillip Reed

Dr. Phillip A. Reed, professor of physics and astronomy, has brought an exciting new program to Kutztown University for physical sciences majors. In a joint effort with Westminster College, Reed has been a leading figure in KU's earning of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) grant.

Reed came to KU 10 years ago and immediately began working to bring the planetarium and observatory up to date with the latest technology.

"Around 2012-2013 we got a new telescope in the observatory, which I used to continue my Ph.D. work on binary stars with students," Reed said.

Soon after followed Reed's interest in exoplanet studies and KU's subsequent involvement with the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT). Exoplanets are planets outside of our solar system that orbit other stars in the galaxy.

KELT is used by a small group of observatories in North America, particularly Ohio State and Winer Observatory in Arizona, to perform transit surveys and define possible exoplanets as candidates for follow-up at other observatories. KU is one of several universities that observe the KELT planet candidates with higher precision, and look for planets in fluctuations of the brightness of stars to confirm the existence of an exoplanet.

This exoplanet research is what led to KU's acquiring of the NSF IRES grant, as Reed was contacted by Dr. Thomas Oberst, a member of the Westminster College KELT follow-up observatory, to join in the application for the grant. The three-year grant funds undergraduate research in exoplanet discovery at KU during the fall and spring semesters and at various foreign sites over the summer. 

Since 2016, two students per year, who have taken the prerequisite courses and shown great interest in contributing to the field, are selected and trained to perform high-precision photometry, which allows them to measure the size of an exoplanet. During the 2016-2017 year, the selected students traveled to the University of Salerno, Italy. This past summer, KU students Daniel Johns and Jacob McCann traveled to the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, with Reed to learn how to measure the mass of an exoplanet using a different observational technique called spectroscopy.

Dr. Phillip Reed with KU students Daniel Johns and Jacob McCann traveled to the University of Southern Queensland, AustraliaJohns and McCann produced significant findings in their research and co-authored an article that explains how they used new data to update the properties of more than 200 known exoplanets. It is currently in the process of being published. Johns spoke nothing but praise in regard to the IRES program and how important is it to have as an option for KU students.

"The NSF IRES program was very beneficial to me because it introduced me to the process of doing formal research at a different university. It's also important to KU because it highlights the university's ability to produce undergrads that can contribute to the field and builds credibility that strengthens the university's astronomy program, as well as exposes its students to a new culture," Johns said.

Reed shared similar sentiments as he expressed how crucial undergraduate research is to a solid graduate school application.

"We have a good program, but until recently, we haven't been known very well. With the NSF grants, we've been building our reputation, specifically with this NSF grant since it's an international collaboration. It benefits our students by helping them build a strong graduate school application, and it also helps KU in the way of future grants," he said.

Although the grant is in its third and final year, with this year's students also attending the University of Southern Queensland in the summer, Reed is in the process of applying for another grant that would allow students to work solely in Australia for the next three years. This is because the university is in the process of building the MINERVA-Australia telescope, which will provide observations to support NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

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