Lethbridge Herald: U of L internship leads to Mitacs Award

Pragya Chawla spent her summer analyzing data from the Planck Telescope as part of an internship in Dr. Locke Spencer’s research lab at the University of Lethbridge. Her work has earned her a Mitacs Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Innovation.

“I am delighted that she was selected out of all the Canadian-based Mitacs students,” said Spencer, a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Experimental Astrophysics, who added he was impressed with her work and recommended her for the award.

“The experience of working in Dr. Spencer’s lab was really amazing,” said Chawla. “I interacted very closely with my supervisor, a post-doctoral researcher and five other undergraduate students working in the lab on various related projects in astrophysics and got to learn a lot from all of them.”

Chawla, a physics major at Miranda House, a women’s college, at the University of Delhi, was applying to the Mitacs Globalink Program when she came across the work going on in Spencer’s lab at the U of L.

“This research project required knowledge in astrophysics and computing, which are both fields I am really excited about. I read a little bit more about the exceptional research that Dr. Spencer is involved in and I immediately put my application in with Mitacs,” said Chawla.

She worked with data from the European Space Agency’s Planck Telescope and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Since it was launched in 2009, Planck has studied the cosmic microwave background for over four years by scanning and mapping the full-sky over an important frequency range not accessible from the ground. Planck’s mission is to observe the oldest, most distant light from Earth in order to give scientists more information about the early days of the universe.

With the massive amounts of data that Planck has produced, much analysis is needed. While working in Spencer’s lab, Chawla learned a new computer language and wrote several thousand lines of code to handle the hundreds of gigabytes of data. She developed unique processing algorithms to analyze data and verify the colour-sensitivity of one of the telescope’s cameras.

“The work I did helped to verify the accuracy of data and images from the Planck Telescope. It also increased my knowledge about the methods and tools used in the field of astrophysics that is definitely going to be of great use later in my career,” said Chawla.

While living in Lethbridge, Chawla also had the chance to travel to Waterton Lakes and Banff national parks and visit Vancouver.

“Additionally, the kindness and warmth of people I met during my travels and research in Lethbridge are things I am never going to forget,” she added.

Chawla’s award was presented by the Hon. Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Minister of National Revenue, on Nov. 18. She was one of five researchers to receive an award and since Chawla could not attend the award ceremony in person, she sent her thanks via video.

Mitacs Canada is a non-profit national research organization that manages and funds research and training programs for students in partnership with universities, industries and government in Canada.

“These researchers are true ambassadors for everything we stand for at Mitacs, including academic leadership, strong problem-solving skills and an aptitude for business. They join thousands of Mitacs researchers across the country that are working to bridge the gap between academia and industry to better the lives of Canadians,” said Rob Annan, interim chief executive office and scientific director at Mitacs.

By: Garrett Simmons