Nicole Wolff

Student, Columbia University
  • Columbia University
  • People
  • United States of America

About Nicole Wolff

Hi! I’m Nicole and I’m a first-year undergraduate at Columbia University planning to study astrophysics. This summer, I’m living in New York City and conducting remote astronomy research. My project is searching for gravitational wave counterparts, particularly binary-black hole mergers, by looking for signature halos of scattered X-ray light. Aside from research, I love rock climbing, playing tennis and piano, and exploring the city! 

I am a/an:

Undergraduate Scholar

Area of Expertise

Physics Science

Research Topic

Astrophysics

Laidlaw Cohort Year

2021

University

Columbia University

I am from:

United States of America

I speak:

English Russian Spanish

My hobbies/interests are:

Foreign languages Hiking/walking Music Reading Tennis

I am open to participating in mentoring/buddy programmes

Yes

Influencer Of

Topics

Rooms participated in:

Columbia University

Recent Comments

Jun 21, 2022
Replying to Dennis Zhang

Week Three:

A typical day volunteering in the Huntington's disease unit at the Terence Cardinal Cooke (TCC) Healthcare Center starts in the Recreation Department office. After arriving in the morning, I get debriefed on my hour-to-hour responsibilities. In general, I'll usually start off my day by heading over to where our Huntington's residents live and checking in! I'll then walk over to a different part of the complex to help facilitate activities ranging from word puzzles to horticulture. Throughout the day, I'll also shuttle residents to the outdoor patio area of the TCC. This is often my favorite part of the day because the residents instantly get more lively when they're outside, making the patio a fantastic space to chat with and get to know the residents! I'll usually wrap up each day by checking in one more time with the Huntington's residents and then embarking on a scenic walk back to my summer residence through Central Park, which is conveniently situated right next to the TCC.

I'm attaching a link to the TCC's Huntington's disease unit website here (which includes pictures of Huntington's patients and what the unit looks like)!

Hi Dennis, I'm happy that you're able to work with patients hands-on this summer! As a scientific researcher, it's incredible that you're getting the chance to experience life alongside Huntington's patients in order to truly understand their experiences. It's also great that you can engage with them outdoors everyday, and that you're exploring new pathways to engage them through puzzles and lessons. I'm excited to see how this project changes your perspective as a researcher! 

Jun 21, 2022

Week Four: Has your research or work in a community to this point introduced you to any new fields or topics that are of interest to you?   How, if at all, has your work narrowed since the beginning of the project?

As a personal interest, I've grown very intrigued by observational astronomy and have been exploring curiosities about the constellations and ancient mythologies from different parts of the world. My coursework at Columbia for the past two years and my research experiences have equipped me to explain the physical sciences, but I've discovered I'm lacking a lot in historical knowledge. Some of my coworkers are incredibly knowledgeable about the history of astronomy and its cultural significance in different parts of the world, and I've been trying to learn from them and absorb some of their knowledge. It seems that the American educational system places more of an emphasis on pure physical sciences, but lacks the historical and cultural significance, especially in bigger cities where observing the sky is difficult. I've realized how important it is to learn astronomy just to understand how our Earth functions, to understand the seasons, and even to navigate. Children here learn about the significance of the constellations, the moon, and the planets from a very young age, which is something I don't recall learning growing up near a big city in America. My work has definitely narrowed in this sense: I started my internship with an interest in pure science divulgation, and I'm ending with a curiosity about the more interdisciplinary aspects of science and astronomy. 

Jun 14, 2022
Replying to Nicole Wolff

Week Three:
What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!

I typically wake up around 7:30, get ready and pack lunch, and ride my bike to the planetarium by 9. About three times a week, a class of students from the area takes a field trip to the planetarium for a lesson. First, they're given a presentation in the dome, which offers a projection of the night sky and an explanation of the movements of planets and moons solar system, the Earth's rotation/revolution, and the constellations. One of my coworkers leads this presentation. Afterward is a lab, which is typically an arts & crafts project related to the planets or constellations, which I help to set up, assist during, and clean up. My Italian level is luckily good enough to communicate with younger children about the project! When I'm not doing this, sometimes I've gone in to a local high school to speak in their English classes about university life in the U.S., and to help students practice having conversations in English. 

My afternoon schedule varies. Even in my third week, it still involves a lot of training and instruction to familiarize myself with the planetarium and speaking in Italian. But each afternoon, I spend some time preparing for whichever event I have coming up. The steps are: research, write a script, create a slideshow with images, translate to Italian, check the translation, and practice my pronunciation. If I'm not doing this, sometimes I plan curriculum for a lesson or activity that I'm not going to teach here. Because of the language barrier, curriculum planning has been my strong suit. Throughout the afternoon, I take breaks in the director's office for espresso with the other volunteers at the planetarium. 

In the evenings, sometimes I go to a meeting with another astronomy club in Modena: GAGBA, who specialize in telescopes and sky observations, and COSMO, who specialize in space exploration missions and launches -- both topics which I don't know much about but have always wanted to learn. Sometimes, I stay late for English lessons for adults hosted at the planetarium -- it's fascinating to see how English is taught because it's something I never thought about as a native speaker. On other evenings, I go to the city center with my coworkers at the planetarium. I end each evening by going back to my host family, eating dinner, and reading a book! 

Here is the link to a photo of me presenting a conference! 

Jun 14, 2022

Week Three:
What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!

I typically wake up around 7:30, get ready and pack lunch, and ride my bike to the planetarium by 9. About three times a week, a class of students from the area takes a field trip to the planetarium for a lesson. First, they're given a presentation in the dome, which offers a projection of the night sky and an explanation of the movements of planets and moons solar system, the Earth's rotation/revolution, and the constellations. One of my coworkers leads this presentation. Afterward is a lab, which is typically an arts & crafts project related to the planets or constellations, which I help to set up, assist during, and clean up. My Italian level is luckily good enough to communicate with younger children about the project! When I'm not doing this, sometimes I've gone in to a local high school to speak in their English classes about university life in the U.S., and to help students practice having conversations in English. 

My afternoon schedule varies. Even in my third week, it still involves a lot of training and instruction to familiarize myself with the planetarium and speaking in Italian. But each afternoon, I spend some time preparing for whichever event I have coming up. The steps are: research, write a script, create a slideshow with images, translate to Italian, check the translation, and practice my pronunciation. If I'm not doing this, sometimes I plan curriculum for a lesson or activity that I'm not going to teach here. Because of the language barrier, curriculum planning has been my strong suit. Throughout the afternoon, I take breaks in the director's office for espresso with the other volunteers at the planetarium. 

In the evenings, sometimes I go to a meeting with another astronomy club in Modena: GAGBA, who specialize in telescopes and sky observations, and COSMO, who specialize in space exploration missions and launches -- both topics which I don't know much about but have always wanted to learn. Sometimes, I stay late for English lessons for adults hosted at the planetarium -- it's fascinating to see how English is taught because it's something I never thought about as a native speaker. On other evenings, I go to the city center with my coworkers at the planetarium. I end each evening by going back to my host family, eating dinner, and reading a book! 

Jun 13, 2022

Week 2: If you are doing a leadership-in-action or community engagement project, how do you interact with community members, and what kind of conversations are you having? How do you connect with this community of people, and what common cause do you find?

Apologies for the late posts! Last week, I presented my first conference in Italian about planets and exoplanets. This has been my biggest interaction with the community so far, and I'm happy that everything went smoothly. It was exciting to plan a slideshow with images and videos to explain difficult scientific concepts to the general public, such as tidal locking of a planet or the sideways rotation of Uranus, which they found fascinating. Last Sunday, I organized curriculum for an event for families/children to learn about colors and light, then construct their own spectroscopes to look at different sources of light. I have another conference planned about black holes, along with an observation through a telescope of M87, the galaxy where the first black hole was photographed! I've been having a lot of conversations with children who are curious about science, and I've found that my lower level of the language actually helps make my explanations more accessible to young children. I've found a common cause with all my coworkers at the planetarium in that we are all trying to make science more engaging and accessible for the community. 

May 30, 2022

Week One:
As you set out on your research or community engagement project, do you find yourself experiencing any worries or insecurities about saying something that’s already been said? How do we as researchers and/or volunteers learn to address or set aside those insecurities or, better yet, to use them to our advantage? If your project this summer differs from your project last summer, has last summer’s project influenced your project this year, and if so how? If your project is different, what tools have you developed to help you work on this project?

This summer, I'm volunteering at the Planetarium in Modena, Italy. Before arriving in Italy, I wasn't quite sure what my work would entail. Once I arrived, the planetarium director gave me a very meticulous agenda for my daily activities and how I can help, even as an American who does not speak Italian well. To my surprise, the planetarium is not well funded - it operates with only one paid employee, and the rest of my coworkers are volunteers who put in immense time and effort to make the planetarium run smoothly. 

Each week, the planetarium has a few activities for classes of children on school trips. During my first week, all these activities were organized by my coworkers. During my six weeks, I designed curriculum for several events: a lecture about exoplanets and James Webb Space Telescope, a lecture about black holes (related to the research I did last summer), an activity for children about light and colors, and an observation for the planetary conjunction on June 24th. This week, I helped set up the events, clean, and answer basic questions during each event, but my Italian is still a work in progress! My biggest insecurity is definitely the language barrier. I've never taken a formal Italian class, and have needed to learn quickly because Modena is not a popular city for English speakers. Students learn English in high school, but many adults who work in restaurants, stores, etc. or who attend lectures at the planetarium didn't learn English when they were in high school. 

At the end of this week, I will give my first lecture. I've prepared a slideshow and a script in Italian, and will read from the script. I've found myself wondering about my credentials as a lecturer, because I am (of course) less experienced speaking in Italian than everyone else. I also worried that the topics of my lectures may have already been covered sometime in the past. However, I've realized this past week that any way I can help in the planetarium, even with simple tasks organizing/cleaning, is appreciated. I've also been going into high schools with the planetarium director, who works as a teacher of Engineering, and have advertised my lectures to the high school students. Many showed interest in the events, which was very encouraging. Lastly, I learned that the people here, including my coworkers, really value the opportunity to practice speaking English with me because they all want to improve their English. One of my coworkers studies astrophysics in Bologna, and all of his physics courses are taught in English. 

Last summer, I worked on a programming-based project searching for black hole mergers using data from an X-ray telescope. Though I enjoyed this work, I was eager to switch gears this summer to science communication. Last summer, I learned how to explain my project to audiences of different levels, and how to be adaptive with my explanations. I hope to apply these skills in the planetarium this summer, and teach both students and adults in a way that is engaging. 

Jun 03, 2021
  • What new ideas, challenges, or other issues have you encountered with regard to your project (this might include data collection, information that contradicts your assumptions or the assertions of others, materials that have enriched your understanding of the topic or led you to change your project, etc.)? How have these ideas or challenges shaped the bigger picture of your research? Has the scope or focus of your topic changed since you began this project? If so, how?

Throughout the past four weeks, I have definitely encountered many sources that have subtly or monumentally changed the way I look at my topic. My project has changed from how museums deal with unethically acquired early 20th century Chinese art to a comparative study of repatriation qualifications and, finally, to a look at complications for the nationalist rhetoric China uses regarding repatriation. My scope has narrowed and shifted slightly from my original intentions, but I believe my bigger picture is still trying to figure out the complex machinations of Chinese art repatriation. 

  • What research resources have proven particularly useful to you as you continue your research?

I predominantly read scholarly articles and books that I find on CLIO, but I have recently found news media to be particularly important. Lesser-known incidents of repatriation to China are rarely discussed in scholarly articles, but news media, particularly sites devoted to China, are overflowing with this information. Although they are relatively untrustworthy, many articles can also give me a jumping-off point to do further research. Older news media is also a major asset, especially when analyzing western reception and justifications of looting. 

I also primarily read peer-reviewed sources from CLIO for my research, and usually look more skeptically at news articles. I wonder if you've encountered/will encounter any news sources that are trustworthy, instead, or how you determine the trustworthiness of a source. In science, a few news sources are known to be pretty trustworthy, but it must be tricky if the news articles for your topic are naturally biased by nationalist rhetoric. Good luck with finding more sources!  

Jun 03, 2021
  • What new ideas, challenges, or other issues have you encountered with regard to your project (this might include data collection, information that contradicts your assumptions or the assertions of others, materials that have enriched your understanding of the topic or led you to change your project, etc.)? How have these ideas or challenges shaped the bigger picture of your research? Has the scope or focus of your topic changed since you began this project? If so, how?

During the first few weeks, the biggest issue I grappled with was regarding how 'novel' my research truly was. Last summer, my advisor started out the project with a few older students, and they examined data from the Swift telescope from several gravitational wave signals and found no halos. When I joined the lab during the school year, we examined data from a different telescope. This summer, I am focusing on Swift data from one gravitational wave signal. It took awhile for me to learn how to search the archive of X-Ray data and to write code in Python for generating sky coordinates and regions of intersection. Initially, I worried that I was repeating the work done last summer and wouldn't get any new results. I decided narrow the scope of my project to more comprehensively search the credible region for a specific gravitational wave event, instead of searching one average coordinate for multiple gravitational wave signals. I also realized that, in the past year since they started the project, new images have been taken by the telescope that have not yet been inspected. 

At the start, I planned to use a technique for data analysis to detect circles in images, but was running into trouble executing the code. Then, my advisor suggested a new technique that he had read about but never used to detect other persistent shapes and gaps in images, which is much more promising and comprehensive than searching for only circles. I've shifted my focus onto this new technique, and plan to continue working on it this summer. 

  • What research resources have proven particularly useful to you as you continue your research?

I've been able to write all my code by reading documentation online and searching up error messages. The biggest resources, though, have been my mentor and the students in my lab. I've learned to ask coding and data questions to one of the upperclassmen in my lab who ran into many similar issues last summer, and to ask my mentor all astrophysics/astronomy-related questions.