This post was written by Mariella A. Mestres-Villanueva, a fourth year Biology major at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras.

One of the perks of my father growing up and being from Arecibo is that I was taken as an impressionable young child to the Arecibo Observatory many times. I was always fascinated by the night sky and all that it contained and I relished each chance I got to visit.

Now during my fourth year of my undergrad career I was given the opportunity to not only go once again to the Observatory but to participate in the ALFALFA survey! Myself and two other students— Jean Casellas and Yenuel Jones— from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus went to the Arecibo Observatory on Saturday, November 28th (still full of turkey from Thanksgiving, mind you) to participate in a night of observing. Of course, the bonus was staying overnight at the Observatory and getting a very cool tour of restricted areas.

When the time came to report to our posts at 5:00 PM, I was feeling pretty excited. We would be getting an overview of the systems and programs used for the survey and observation by Dr. Gregory Hallenbeck and other fellow undergrads, Ryan and Kamin, and then would spend five and a half hours recording and analyzing the data we obtained from the telescope’s L-band wide receiver.

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Two thumbs up for a successful calibration.

IMG_9960.JPG  I would not have understood any of this a few weeks ago, but glad to say I now do! (LST is still a weird concept for my AST—or Arecibo Standard Time—adapted brain.)

As a biology major, I admit that I thought I would just type in data that would seem like gibberish to my brain but I’m proud to say I got the hang of it and actually understood what I was doing. It was fantastic seeing how interference and detections are identified, and also interesting seeing how the San Juan Airport could cause interference (I would soon recognize this as “Our Greatest Nemesis” due to the interference it caused). I never thought I would be able to identify galaxies and even understand readings from the telescope, let alone actually be in its control room! Even using SDSS so we could get a visual of the galaxies we were observing was fulfilling.

All in all, the experience was fantastic. When 11 o’clock rolled around, signaling the end of our observation we celebrated and our names were logged in alongside the information analyzed, a—I’d like to think—permanent reminder of my time living out my astronomy dreams.

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The very awesome people I worked with and geeked out with during the observations. Special shout-out to Dr. Mayra Lebrón who gave me this amazing opportunity!

From left to right: Jean Casellas ’16 (UPR), Dr. Mayra Lebrón (UPR), Dr. Gregory Hallenbeck (Union), Yenuel Jones ’18 (Union), Ryan Muther ’16 (Union), Kamin Sylvia ’18 (Union), Mariella Mestres-Villanueva ’16 (UPR)