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International research scholarship funds NMSU student's study at Chilean observatory

The New Mexico State University Honors College has awarded the 2009 Honors College Scholarship for International Research to undergraduate student Owen Boberg.

Owen Boberg was awarded the NMSU Honors College Scholarship for International Research to travel to one of the world's most renowned observatories, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in La Serena, Chile, to study unusual binary systems, known as "polars." (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The Honors College established the $5,000 award for an international travel and research experience during a student's third year of undergraduate study.

Boberg, a junior physics major and chemistry minor, will use the scholarship to travel to one of the world's most renowned observatories, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in La Serena, Chile, to study unusual binary systems, known as "polars."

"This opportunity is going to open my eyes to a whole new world and will most definitely change my life," Boberg said.

In his proposal, Boberg described magnetic binaries and polars, which included the evolution of our sun and other facts about stars. Also outlined were the techniques he will be using to study polars while in Chile.

A polar is a binary star system composed of a magnetic white dwarf capable of ripping material from its companion star. The material is then funneled into the white dwarf by magnetic lines that create a "shock." As the material follows the magnetic field, electrons create what is known as a "cyclotron emission."

While in Chile, Boberg will be studying the spectrum that is created by this cyclotron emission using an advanced computer program. Boberg will be in charge of creating models of the cyclotron emission and analyzing the information.

The models will reveal the strength of the magnetic field, the viewing angle of the polar, the temperature of the shock, and other interesting facts about the polar.

"I am going to get the chance to participate in real astronomical research and experience the life of an astronomer," Boberg said. "I get the chance to observe using professional research telescopes, which is something most undergraduates will never experience."

The scholarship recipient is selected by an Honors College committee for interview on the basis of a detailed proposal. The winner is announced at the end of the interviews at a reception in honor of all finalists.

"Owen wowed the committee with his ability to explain the techniques he would use to gather astronomical data in language laypeople could understand," said Tracey Miller-Tomlinson, associate dean of the Honors College. "We learned from him."

Miller-Tomlinson said Thomas Harrison, observatory specialist in NMSU's astronomy department, was instrumental in helping Boberg develop a winning proposal.

"Support from a faculty mentor is absolutely key," Miller-Tomlinson said. "The faculty mentor not only helps the student develop the proposal and, in many cases, find international contacts to support and supervise the project, but also writes a letter speaking to the merit of the project and the student's preparedness to complete it."

Boberg said he hopes this experience will help him make a decision as to which field of study he should pursue in the future, as he aspires to one day earn a doctorate.

To find out how to apply for the 2010 Honors College Scholarship visit http://honors.nmsu.edu/honscholarship.html.