LARAMIE, Wyo. — Graduate student Brad Lyke recently arrived in Laramie to begin work on an astronomy Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming, but it was not that long ago that he had never heard of the place.

As an undergraduate at California State University, Long Beach, Lyke was given the opportunity to do research alongside other undergraduates from across the country in UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“I came here and realized this is the best school possible for me,” he said. “So, it was being here that actually got me to come back.”

The department’s research internship program dates back to 1987.

Every summer eight undergraduate students from across the U.S. are invited to take part in a collaborative research project on the UW campus.

Starting in summer 2015, UW astronomy professors Danny Dale and Chip Kobulnicky struck up an agreement with Alex Rudolph of California State Polytechnic University-Pomona to reserve two of those eight internships for students coming out of the California higher education system.

The arrangement introduces students such as Lyke — who would have never considered UW otherwise — to the university and to Laramie, Dale said.

“(Lyke) probably wouldn’t have thought of a school that’s in a pretty rural location, coming from a big town like San Diego, but he came here and he saw how cool it was and he’s coming here,” Dale said. “I don’t think he would have given us a second thought if we hadn’t had these sort of agreements in place with these people in California.”

The agreement also makes it more likely students from diverse backgrounds hear about UW and what it has to offer, Dale said.

Earlier this month, Dale and Rudolph signed a memorandum of understanding stating the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy will strongly consider some graduating California students for entry into its graduate program.

“Basically, they help advertise our program to Cal State students,” Dale said. “And then we do a few things on our side that will help them get a second, closer look than they might otherwise get.”

The majority of California State universities are Minority Serving Institutions, meaning they have a more diverse pool of potential graduate students than UW. And in the large California higher education system and elsewhere, many students are knocked out of consideration for advanced degree programs on the basis of solely their GPA or GRE score, Dale said.

“We’ll make sure we give them a second look — like look at the letters of recommendation and if they have research experience and their grades in the last couple of years in their specialty classes,” he said. “We waive the application fee for the students with the partnership.”

Cal-Bridge — the California program that places these students in graduate programs across the country and, since 2015, has encouraged these students to apply to UW — tries to find the talented students who would otherwise fall through the cracks, Dale said.

“On their end, they’re trying to make sure students who might otherwise get overlooked get a shot,” he said. “And you can find the diamonds in the rough, who might not have had the opportunities earlier in life, but they definitely have the motivations and skills and they turn it on in grad school.”

In addition to bringing in diverse students, the agreement also helps the astronomy program maintain a 50-50 gender parity among its graduate students.

“We recruit a very diverse population of students from across the state of California, which is of course very diverse,” Rudolph said. “A lot of these programs are trying to reach out more broadly than to people who are traditionally involved in physics or astronomy and get to a broader segment of the population — to so-called underrepresented minorities and women.”

Many of these students would have never considered UW, much less going on to do research or obtain an advanced degree, Rudolph said.

“The types of students we get don’t come from backgrounds where family members have gotten Ph.D.s,” he said. “In fact, most of our students are first generation college students. They are overlooked in the sense that they would never have probably found their way to a program like Wyoming — or any other program we send students to — without our being there to be able to guide them toward those opportunities.”

Lyke, for example, is the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first to pursue an advanced degree.

The agreements between Dale and Rudolph — both the agreement to save spots in the undergraduate research internship program and the new agreement to consider California students for graduate school — also introduce several students to a completely new place and way of life, by giving them a taste of Wyoming, Rudolph said.

“I think that’s a really special thing in our current, somewhat polarizing environment where people don’t necessarily interact the way you’d like them to,” he said. “So, I just think it’s really great.”

Lyke said he was drawn to the undergraduate summer internship because of the benefits associated with UW’s program — a focus on collaborative research and the opportunity to take part in all parts of that research — but decided to come back for graduate school because of the small-town atmosphere.

“(California’s) pretty much paved for half the state,” Lyke said. “And I like this small-town feeling. Everybody here was absolutely wonderful. The whole town was nice, as opposed to where I’m from, which is L.A. and San Diego. People there are not as nice.”


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com