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UMD's Shane Loeffler Works at a Sky-high Facility for Interstellar Research

Shane Loeffler University of minnesota Duluth  
Shane Loeffler back at UMD  
Shane Loeffler stands before a building housing a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile  
Shane Loeffler stands in front of a building housing a massive telescope  

UMD student Shane Loeffler traded the laboratories of a university campus for a complex of astronomical telescopes and instruments at an international astronomy observatory.

Loeffler began work at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in January, 2014, leaving frigid Duluth for northern Chile. There, he spent 10 weeks researching and observing the cosmos.

Loeffler is an undergraduate student working towards a geology major and astronomy minor. The adventure began in October 2013, when he applied to the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program through the National Science Foundation. He was one of the six students from the U.S. and two students from Chile to land work as apprentices to the researchers at the Cerro Tololo Observatory.

Galaxies, Stars and Planets
Loeffler’s internship fed a passion for astronomy that has flourished since Carl Sagan’s television series, Cosmos, turned Loeffler on to science. He enrolled in UMD’s astronomy classes and quickly discovered that the study of astronomy encompasses many other areas of science. His studies branched out, and he became a geology major. "The study of astronomy encompasses all the galaxies and stars and planets of the universe.” Loeffler explained. “I'm here on this one, so I decided to focus my studies on it through majoring in geology.”

Mapping the stars
Loeffler worked as the apprentice to a researcher who was mapping nearby galaxies by examining their infrared output. The Cerro Tololo facility houses equipment including the 319-inch Gemini South telescope and the 157-inch Blanco telescope, which allow for optimum viewing of our universe and distant galaxies.

To get clear images of subjects light years away is no easy task, however. Much of Loeffler’s time was spent touching up captured images to remove effects caused by the Earth's atmosphere and imperfections in the telescope. It was no simple task. “There is no photoshop for astronomers,” Loeffler joked. The goal of his work was to examine nearby galaxies of different types, identifying trends in the infrared light given off by the stars within them.

Despite the difficulties associated with his effort, Loeffler’s time in Chile proved to be quite valuable. It was a common occasion for scholars to share the breadth of their work. He met top researchers in the field, including a 2011 Nobel Prize winner. “I came to realize, being around all of these top-notch astronomers and physicists, that there is no ‘magic’ to science,” Loeffler said. “If you focus, and work hard enough in an area, you can become an astronomer or do well in any field you choose.”

The REU program is highly competitive, and Loeffler knows he was privileged to receive this opportunity. He says it will help him with future plans. “I want to go to graduate school for my masters and Ph.D. in observational astronomy or planetary geology,” Loeffler said. In addition to the National Science Foundation’s REU, Loeffler is thankful for local outreach programs such as the UMD Planetarium. "My long-term goal is to do what I do at the planetarium, share science."

Loeffler wasn't alone in his studies. Six American and two Chilean students were also accepted into the program. Shane Loeffler and the other program participants stand in front of a large mirror that is part of a telescope's inner workings. Telescopes
Six American and two Chilean students interned at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Shane Loeffler and the other interns in front of a large mirror that is part of a telescope's inner workings. Sarah Burkhart, one of the REU program participants, opts for a new perspective.  

Written by Irene Hanson, Katherine Revier, and Zach Lunderberg, May 2014.


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UMD News Features editor, Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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