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KU Professor Awarded National Science Foundation Grant for Exoplanetary Science

KUTZTOWN, Pa., August 31 - Dr. Phill Reed, associate professor of physics & astronomy at Kutztown University, has been awarded a $250,000 collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation.  The award is in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Oberst, associate professor of physics at Westminster College, Pa., and other members of the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) exoplanet discovery project.

Kutztown University's shareof the grant, $113,450, will fund Reed and six KU students for three years between 2017 and 2020.  The students will work with Reed at KU's on-campus observatory during the fall and spring semesters and will then become visiting researchers at universities in Italy, Australia and elsewhere as they conduct paid internships with some of the world's leading experts in exoplanetary science - the study of planetary systems other than our own solar system.  The students will learn cutting-edge research techniques and help discover and characterize new exoplanets.

Students currently enrolled at KU, and those entering or transferring to KU in the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 school years are eligible to apply. 

"This is an incredible opportunity for students considering scientific- or engineering-related careers in astronomy or the aerospace industries," Reed and Oberst said in a joint statement.  "Even those who end up in other fields would benefit from the exposure to general research and data reduction techniques."

In the first year, students will visit the University of Salerno on Italy's famed Amalfi coast, where they will conduct research in gravitational microlensing.  First published by Einstein in 1936, gravitational lensing refers to the brightening of a background object due to the bending of its light by the gravitational field of a foreground object, or "lens."  Microlensing is a special case in which the lens is a star or planet, which has far weaker gravity than galaxies, the traditional lenses. Scientists at the University of Salerno have played a role in several important recent microlensing discoveries, including the detection of one of the first exomoon candidates.

In the second year of the grant, students will travel to the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, to study planets using the technique of Doppler spectroscopy.  The third year destination is yet to be determined. Kutztown, Westminster, Salerno, and Southern Queensland are connected through the KELT project - an international network of nearly 50 observatories who collaborate to discover and study giant planets orbiting bright stars.  KELT is managed by Lehigh University, the Ohio State University and Vanderbilt University.  At Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., Dr. Joshua Pepper is the Director of the KELT survey and Pepper also serves as an advisor on this NSF IRES grant.  At Kutztown University, Reed has been designated with "architect status" in the KELT project and he and his students have helped discover several new exoplanets in the past three years through their involvement in KELT.

The grant is part of the NSF's International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program, whose mission is to keep the U.S. at the forefront of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by developing a globally-engaged workforce capable of performing in an international research environment. Students interested in participating with Reed at Kutztown University can visit faculty.kutztown.edu/preed/NSF.html for more information and to apply for the program.  Applications for the first year are due Sept. 26, 2016.

Photo: L to R:  Luke Maritch, Bethlehem, Pa.; Bethany Tirrell, Pawtucket, R.I.; Dr. Phill Reed, associate professor of physics & astronomy, Kutztown University; Rachel Hammersley, Birdsboro, Pa.; Tiffany Visgaitis, Breinigsville, Pa.