Physics Senior Gets Closer to Stars with Work at Famed Observatory

Chris Keele

Last summer, physics senior Chris Keele was the first UT Dallas undergraduate to conduct research at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. Here he stands on a triangular platform suspended in midair 450 feet above the telescope’s reflector dish.

Chris Keele, a physics senior at UT Dallas, enjoys reading science fiction stories. He’s even dabbled in writing some. But last summer, he found his own life imitating aspects of one of the most iconic sci-fi stories and movies produced in the past 30 years.

Keele is the first UT Dallas undergraduate to conduct research at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, supported by a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation. This week, he will earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in physics from the University, one of 365 students graduating this spring from the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

The giant Arecibo radio telescope is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, with its iconic 1,000-foot-wide, bowl-shaped reflector dish built into a naturally occurring depression in the Puerto Rican landscape. Visiting scientists and students use the facility to study astronomy and atmospheric science, and often stay in quarters at the observatory or nearby.

The 1997 film “Contact,” based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel of the same name, features actress Jodie Foster’s main character using the observatory to listen for radio signals as part of a project called SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“I actually stayed in the same cabin Jodie Foster’s character stayed in in the film,” Keele said. “They don’t let a lot of people stay there because there are more modern and more comfortable quarters off site where many of the visiting scientists stay. It was a great privilege to spend 10 weeks doing research at the observatory, and the ‘Contact’ connection was just icing on the cake.”

Graduate Space Science team

Dr. Fabiano Rodrigues (left) encourages physics undergraduates to work in his lab, including Keele, Matt Proctor, Logan Fox and John Nguyen. Proctor will be following Keele's footsteps this summer by conducting research at the Arecibo Observatory.  

Keele said he started out at UT Dallas in another major, “to try to make a lot of money.” But he was inspired to switch to physics in part by the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. He watched a live broadcast as the engineers and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) nervously waited for communication from the rover to indicate a successful landing.

“The room at JPL burst into cheers, and it was like their team had won the Super Bowl,” Keele said. “From that point on, I knew I wanted to do something in science.”

Knowing he would need to go to graduate school to reach his career goals, Keele wanted to gain research experience as an undergraduate, which can give a student a leg up in the process of applying to graduate programs. After taking a physics course from Dr. Fabiano Rodrigues and talking with him about his research, Keele knew he had found a good match.

“Doing research with Dr. Rodrigues has been tremendously helpful in giving me exposure to what will be required in graduate study,” he said.

Rodrigues’ research centers on remote sensing of the upper atmosphere using ground-based radar and GPS signals. His work is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the dynamics of the ionosphere, where radio signals can be reflected or scattered. Disturbances in this region caused by solar activity can disrupt radio signals used for communication and navigation.

“Every student who comes to work in my lab is encouraged to apply for an REU grant,” said Rodrigues, an assistant professor of physics whose Upper Atmosphere Remote Sensing Lab is part of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences at UT Dallas.

Chris represented the University so well that the observatory scientists asked us to encourage more UTD applicants. So we did.

Dr. Fabiano Rodrigues,
assistant professor of physics

Rodrigues said Keele’s enthusiasm for research, and science in general, is characteristic of the students who come through his lab and the Department of Physics.

“In physics, we have fewer students compared to other majors at the University, and they seem to be motivated by more than just making money,” Rodrigues said. “Like Chris, they’re not doing science because they expect to get rich from it. They do it because they love it.

“To me, it’s very gratifying to see that we attract that type of student.”

While Keele was at the Arecibo Observatory, his project was to analyze several years of data gathered by the observatory on the density of electrons in the ionosphere, and compare it with similar data obtained using orbiting satellites and a technique called radio occultation. The project aimed to assess how accurately the satellite technique could determine the electron density in the ionosphere.  

“Electron density in the ionosphere plays a role in GPS communications,” Keele said. “If there is a scintillation, or disturbance, in the ionosphere, your GPS can go haywire.”

Radio occultation is an inexpensive technique to make measurements in the ionosphere, Rodrigues said, and the method needs additional evaluation.

“There are only a few facilities that can actually tell us how accurately this method can make measurements, and the Arecibo Observatory is one of them,” Rodrigues said. “Chris represented the University so well that the observatory scientists asked us to encourage more UTD applicants. So we did.”

This summer Matt Proctor, a U.S. Air Force veteran and reservist, will conduct research at the observatory. He came to UT Dallas originally to study electrical engineering, but a physics class with Rodrigues redirected his course.

“I like to understand how the world works, so I thought I’d give physics a try,” said Proctor, who is entering his senior year. “Dr. Rodrigues invited me to his lab, and now I’m here and loving it. Because it relates to navigation, the atmospheric research we are doing here is of interest to the Air Force and Department of Defense, so this really ties my interests together.”

Both Keele and Proctor plan to eventually complete their PhDs, and possibly pursue careers in academia or government labs — and perhaps indulge in other projects on the side.

“Drawing on my science background, maybe I’ll now be able to write science fiction stories that make sense,” Keele said.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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