Sunday, March 18, 2007

summer plans & three-day weekends

So the biggest news of the month is that I finally decided what to do this summer. I sent an email about this, so most of you have probably already heard, but just in case, here’s the scoop:

I applied to 10 astronomy research programs in the states and found two positions here in Mexico. Six of the US programs, three of which were national observatories (!!), accepted me in the first two weeks of March.

I've decided to go to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. I'm very excited to work at the radio observatory, surrounded by professional astronomers in the jungle of Puerto Rico. It should be an experience of a lifetime!

The radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory. (photo from the Arecibo webpage:

I’ll be working with two professors on the following project:


The project will be to reduce neutral hydrogen data taken in the Taurus region of the Zone of Avoidance survey for galaxies behind the galactic plane and to search for galaxies in the data. Galaxies that are found will then be analyzed and cross-checked with existing catalogues through tools such as NED and the Virtual Observatory to see if they are new discoveries or previously known galaxies, and if the latter what is known about them. Optical and infrared surveys of the region will be examined to see if they give further information on the galaxies found, and galaxies properties will be cross-correlated to see what trends emerge.

Here is the PROGRAM DESCRIPTION we were sent:

We have made offers for 10 student positions at this time, of which 1 or 2 will be graduate students rather than REU per se. In addition, there are often a few other students from Puerto Rico universities that work on site outside the REU program. Housing is available at the observatory, complete with kitchenettes to prepare your own meals. Shopping trips into town will be organized, along with some weekend activities. There are regular seminars on a wide range of scientific research topics pursued at the observatory.

The Arecibo Observatory is set in tropical forest, limestone karst country, and is approached by a winding road along a valley between small conical hills. These isolate the site from radio frequency interference from domestic appliances, and much of that generated by population centers: a necessary protection for a radio observatory to function. The nearest residential area is 10 minutes away by car; the nearest town (Arecibo) about half an hour away.

Most REU students opt to stay on site, in Observatory visiting scientist's quarters (VSQ) accommodation. This provides them with the same experience as visiting observers to the site. You should think of an Arecibo REU internship as being a sample of the life led by a radio astronomer when he or she visits the site. Other examples of on-location REU experiences are (i) one run from the University of Puerto Rico for botanists in the jungle reserve of El Yunque, where students live in a typical base-camp for botanists on-location; and (ii) the program run at the US optical observatory of Cerro Tololo in the Andes, where conditions are broadly similar to those at Arecibo, but more isolated.

There are consequences. An Arecibo internship offers a lot of scope for a serious student to dig in to a project, and see what they can make of it. Many of our students are in their third year, and so may also use part of their time in the evening preparing for grad school exams. The point here
is that the Arecibo Observatory is not in an urban setting, and is not primarily setup to cater to students per se or to provide them with entertainment: it is a working facility for observers and engineers. And some of these will pass through the Observatory during the summer, and a few may offer talks.

We are aware that most students will be younger than 25, and so find it difficult to rent a car, which means that they cannot move freely about the island. At present (for the first time during an REU summer) the on-site cafeteria is not likely to be open on weekends, and may offer only a limited dinner service. Students may then need to use the kitchenettes in the VSQ to prepare meals. Some shopping trips will be arranged every week for necessities. We will also organize or facilitate an event about every other weekend to allow students to get away from the Observatory, and sample the life and sights of Puerto Rico. The students every year have some choice about these activities, and can, in addition make their own separate arrangements.

For example: many past groups of students have bonded together to share their summer at Arecibo. This has often resulted in many of them deciding to use their time in PR to get scuba diving certification, as there are accessible coral reefs at several comparatively nearby locations.
Their summer is then completed by a three-day diving trip to the nearby, unpopulated island of Mona. That is often the social highlight of the REU summer.

If you want to learn more about the Arecibo Observatory, check out their homepage at

Some of the TRIPS planned for this summer are:

- Visit to Culebra Island and its famous Flamenco beach, one of the most beautiful in the world,
- Visit to El Yunque, a tropical rainforest that is pretty much as it was before Columbus. This involves several hours of hiking, and swimming near beautiful waterfalls,
- Visit to the beautiful Camuy caves, where we can appreciate the underground river system of Puerto Rico
- Visit to Vieques Island, and its bioluminescent bay. If you swim there at night, the water glows. It is an amazing thing.
- Go to the great beaches of the Guanica dry forest and Cabo Rojo
- Visit Old San Juan, with all is nice Spanish architecture, cultural activities and (if you like it) great dancing places.

In addition to all of these perks, the REU program will pay me $4,500 USD for the ten-week internship (minus the $625 for housing and whatever I spend on food) and provide me with a plane ticket to and from Puerto Rico.

This is an amazing deal for the US, but comparing it to people’s opportunities in Mexico, puts a whole new perspective on it. The pay is unreal in Mexican terms. With the money from the summer and the money I’ll make during the school year next year doing work-study, I’ll make more money than an educated, Mexican adult with good salary. As an undergraduate student, I’m going to earn about what my university professors here earn in a year!! It’s incredible the huge difference in incomes in the US and in Mexico! Just to add a bit more to the idea, in my history class a couple weeks ago, we were discussing the minimum wage here in Mexico. We learned that it is close to $5 USD a day for a 10-hour day and many employers don’t pay the minimum. This means that a Mexican worker being paid the minimum wage, which is more than many receive, is making less money in a DAY than a US worker makes in an HOUR. That’s incredible! It’s true food and commodities are less expensive here, but not more than 10 times less!

With this perspective, it’s easy to see why so many Mexicans immigrate to the U.S. Even if the employers in the states don’t pay them as well as a U.S. worker, they’re still going to make a lot more than they would in Mexico. Building a wall or increasing border control isn’t going to change this situation; it’s not going to control immigration. If we really want to curb Mexican immigration into the states, we need to do something to improve the lives of the people in Mexico, help their country grow so they have good opportunities here to prosper and more forward. That’s the only way we’re going to stop them from going to the US in such large numbers!

* * *

In other news, the season of breaks from school is starting here. Last weekend we had a three-day weekend due to the university workers’ day. This weekend is another three-day weekend. We get money off to celebrate the day the Mexican government took the petroleum industry out of foreign hands and made it a government business.

Last weekend I thoroughly enjoyed the long weekend. On Saturday, Gerardo and I went for a LONG bike ride. We rode for about two hours to a small waterfall. We did the trip back in an hour and a half, pedaling really hard at some points. We arrived exhausted at his house. After a short nap and dinner we went to visit our friend Lauren who had just gotten back from Acapulco. Afterwards, somehow, we had enough energy to go out to dance for about an hour.

Sunday we went with Gerardo’s parents to Tepoztlán, a small town near Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos. Tepoztlán is situated among craggy mountains and is still quite a green area; somehow it’s been saved by the deforestation that has taken place in almost all of central Mexico.

My favorite tree in Mexico, called jacaranda. I love the purple of its blossoms.

The highlights of the town were wandering the Sunday market and, the biggest highlight, climbing one of the mountains to arrive at a small pyramid at the top.

The mountain seen from the the town below. You can just make out the pyramid on top. It looks like a small white box on the left side where the ridge dips down and levels off.

The hike to the top took Gerardo and I about 45 minutes (we heard it would take about an hour unless we were young and fit, so we were pleased to do it in less). It was basically like climbing stairs for 45 minutes. When we arrived at the top, we had a beautiful view of the valley and surrounding mountains.

The view from the top of the mountain.

The pyramid was small, but still impressive due to its location.

Me on the pyramid.

Me on top of the mountain with the pyramid behind me.

Gerardo’s father also hiked up. His mother started to but after about fifteen minutes, she decided to stay behind. While Gerardo and I fiddled with our backpack and tried to decide what to leave with his mom, his father went on ahead. I think we were with his mom about 10 minutes before starting up again ourselves. The whole way up we were passing people, not a single person passed us, but we never caught up to his dad. When we arrived at the top, his dad was there waiting on top of the pyramid. He said he’d been there for a bit. He must have hiked just as fast or faster than we did! We were impressed…and glad he’d started first so we were saved the possible embarrassment of him leaving us behind in the hike.

This three-day weekend hasn’t been nearly as fun. I woke up Friday with a fever of 100.4. I didn’t go to any classes and spent the day in bed taking Tylenol and drinking lots of fluids. My fever didn’t go down all day, fluctuating between about 100 and 102.5. At night it reached 103.4 and I decided I’d better go to the hospital. It was the first time I’ve had to go to the emergency room for a fever and only the second time in my life I’ve been for me (the first time was when I had appendicitis in high school). It wasn’t a bad experience, but I still hope I never have to do it again. We got to the emergency room, they took my temperature, did a quick check up, took a blood sample, and immediately hooked me up to an IV with antibiotics. I was there for about three hours, with an IV in my arm and a cold towel on my head, waiting for my fever to come down and for the results to come back from the test. They let me go at about midnight. In three hours my fever came down from more than 103 F to normal, thanks to the antibiotics and fluids they pumped into me. I learned I had a serious throat infection and a urinary tract infection. I was sent home with antibiotics and a fever reducer, in case my fever came up again.

I woke up Saturday feeling much better. I was congested and had more of a cough than before, but hardly had any fever and the whole-body-ache from the day before, especially strong in my head and neck, was gone. I spent the day sleeping, watching movies, and relaxing. A couple friends came to visit, which was nice. We also have two Smith girls staying in the house this week on a visit. They were here last year and are back for their spring break and a conference we’re hosting at the end of the week. I haven’t spent much time with them, but they seem nice enough.

I think the rest of the weekend is going to be spent pretty much in bed, trying to recuperate. Tonight several of the girls in the program have a folkloric dance performance, so I’m planning to go see that. It may be my only excursion all weekend. I’m trying to take advantage of the time in bed, while I’m awake with energy, to do little things I haven’t gotten around to, such as writing in the blog, filing my taxes, etc. Now that the worst is past, it’s not so bad I guess. It’s lucky I have a three-day weekend to recuperate.


Robin said...

I miss you Rouwenna! Update! I'm curious as to what you're up to, and how your transition is going! :) Much love,

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