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Leading the Way

TTU physics/astrophysics senior Heather Harbin

Heather Harbin Wins Academic Citizenship-STEM Award from Texas Tech Parents Association

Award Goes to Physics/Astrophysics Senior from San Antonio

4.7.2020 by Toni Salama

Heather Harbin, a senior physics major with a focus in astrophysics, has won the Student Academic Citizenship Award-STEM from the Texas Tech Parents Association. The San Antonio native was nominated for the award by Texas Tech University astrophysicist Alessandra Corsi for demonstrating academic excellence and outstanding public service leadership in the field of astronomy.

As an undergraduate researcher, Harbin conducts gravitational wave follow-up in the radio frequency, generating images of radio sources using data from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA). During summer 2019, she was one of only two chosen internationally to serve a 10-week internship in the National and International Nontraditional Exchange (NINE) program at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Va.

While there, Harbin collaborated with NRAO mentors to learn transferable technical and project management skills that enabled her to return to Texas Tech and establish, from the ground up, the U.S. Mainland's first hub for the NRAO's NINE program and help develop Texas Tech's very first hands-on Radio Astronomy Course that makes use of Raspberry PIs (inexpensive computers the size of a sandwich) to analyze some of the most detailed radio images of the sky collected via the VLA Sky Survey.

"What distinguishes Heather from other undergraduate students I have worked with is that she has decided to use the skills she has learned as part of her undergraduate research activity to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in radio astronomy," wrote Corsi in her letter recommending Harbin for the award.

When Corsi considered the undergraduate students she has worked with—more than 15 across four institutions: University of Rome Sapienza, California Institute of Technology, George Washington University, and Texas Tech—she ranked Harbin as No. 1 in terms of leadership skills and dedication to education and public outreach, and among the top one or two in terms of technical skills in research.

Harbin also is co-investigator on two observing proposals for the VLA—an activity that Corsi says is unusual for an undergraduate student. The goal of the observing proposals is to look for more nearby collisions of binary neutron stars by searching for their late-time radio afterglows. Her search for radio counterparts of colliding neutron stars is, says Corsi, a very hot topic in the field of astrophysics research. Harbin is co-author of a publication on this topic that is on track for submission to a peer-reviewed journal by the end of spring 2020.

Dominic Martinez, who submitted a peer-support letter recommending Harbin for the award, wrote regarding her participation in the NINE program: "This collaboration marks the beginning of something very exciting for the university: involvement in an international network of universities all united by the same goal of improving diversity in STEM."

Harbin says that receiving this award signifies the opportunity she has had to help influence and improve the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

"I attribute my receiving this reward to the internship I had this past summer and all the work connected to it. I am grateful for all of it," Harbin says. "It is truly wonderful to be able to see my summer experience and continuing efforts shape the future of the TTU astrophysics program."

However, she sees the award as more than a recognition for past accomplishments.

"This award serves as additional motivation to use my career as an avenue for helping to improve STEM education as well as diversity in STEM," she says. "I hope to someday lead projects similar to the ones I have taken part in as an intern."

Along with her major in physics with a focus in astrophysics, Harbin is pursuing minors in mathematics and Spanish. She is slated to graduate with her bachelor's in May 2021. Her post-graduation plans include working toward an MBA at Texas Tech—projected graduation December 2021—with an ultimate goal of project management at NASA or an astronomical observatory.

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