Tabitha Smith: Practical Pulsars

Published: September 22, 2009

Tabitha Smith completed a customized Russian as a Second Language (RSL) program with The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) during the summer of 2009. The program combined a month of RSL in St. Petersburg, Russia, with visa and travel services to support a month of independently-arranged scientific research in Pushchino, Russia. Contact SRAS for more info on customized programs. 

SRAS: Can you tell us a bit about who you are and where your academic interests lie?

Tabitha eating wild Russian berries beneath one of the telescopes she used.
Tabitha Smith eating wild berries beneath one of the telescopes that she used while in Russia. The wires stretching above her head are actually part of a large radio telescope.

Tabitha Smith: Who I am is defined by where I come from. For years, my family wandered around without a permanent shelter, as I was subjected to being raised in rural poverty in the cornfields of West Virginia, without plumbing or heat. Due to isolation and my quest to advance in life, I read a lot of books as a child and became interested in sociology, science, and languages. I also became interested in the poor infrastructure of West Virginia, and the methods by which poor children could excel through academia, in the US and internationally. I want to advise, conduct, and legislate science policy in the government. I am interested in science, technology, and especially the analysis of astrophysical and space projects, international law, and matters of national security which concern these variables.

SRAS: So I suppose that by directing science policy on a government level that you hope to make high-tech jobs more available to low-income children?

TS: Yes. The government needs to be more open to spreading the education and practice of science and technological research throughout the population, rather than having it concentrated in elite sectors that are unreachable to the average person.

SRAS: Your interest in Russian, I would guess stems from your interest in space as Russian was the first language spoken in space and Russia is still a world leader in space technology and research. How did first begin learning Russian? Did you begin in college or were you self-taught in from books in West Virginia?

TS: Yes, that is pretty much correct. Russia was and still is a huge player in the area of space technology and research. Plus, when I was growing up (I was born in the late 80’s) Russia was a popular subject when it came to nuclear non-proliferation, which is a topic that science politicians are hot on the trail for. I picked up the majority of my Russian from college.

SRAS: Your academic program while abroad was also quite unique. Can you describe it for our readers?

The Crab Nebula, which contains the Crab Pulsar.
Pictured above is the Crab Nebula, which contains at its core the Crab Pulsar, a neutron star that emits gamma and radio waves. This image was captured by the Hubble Telescope, an optical telescope. Image from See their online tour of the pulsar and nebula.

TS: I work at the astrophysics lab at West Virginia University researching pulsars. I wanted to go to Russia to study pulsars with the radio telescopes at Pushchino, which are very powerful. All of the data received from a range of smaller individual telescopes is combined, making them as powerful as one large 1000 meter telescope. I also wanted to study the Russian language in St. Petersburg. My boss at WVU had a contact in Pushchino and emailed her, asking if I could work with her for a month. She agreed.

To fund the program, I applied for and was awarded the Boren Scholarship, which gave me the financial means to travel to Russia. I then enrolled with SRAS to study Russian in St. Petersburg, at St. Petersburg State University during my second month in Russia. This helped me achieve my second goal for the study abroad experience, but also helped considerably with issues such obtaining my visa. I also arranged with SRAS to help produce some material for their site and for other students that might be interested in going to Pushchino in exchange for a small discount on this second portion of my trip.

While at the observatory, I went to work every day studying pulsars with Dr. Tatyana Smirnova, who served as my advisor in Russia, and other scientists at the facility. I worked in Russian and English. We spoke English mainly, but the computer programs were in Russian, and so was the keyboard. Scientists around the world are required to submit their international scientific papers in English, so the ones I read were in English and not Russian (though I did read about the RadioAstron project from a Russian manuscript) and most of scientists with international ambitions speak English.

Specifically, while at Pushchino, I studied the astrophysical phenomenon of scintillation, fine structure components of the pulsar’s pulse emission, plasma properties of the interstellar medium (ISM) between the Earth and the pulsar, and the plasma properties of the pulsar.

SRAS: Wow, so does that research currently have practical application? Or is it pure science?

TS: All basic research has practical applications. Without basic research (like astronomy or physics), you would never have the scientific basis for applied research, and thus we would never have the technology which is today a major part of our lives (like GPS, laptops, bombs, jet aircraft, etc.). Doing science is like building a house. You must lay the foundation, walls, and roof (basic science) before you can move in the furniture (applied science) and then actually move in and make your hard work lead to a more comfortable existence. Astrophysics is a field of basic research. Pulsars – what I study at WVU and what I studied at Pushchino – are one of the most extreme objects in space (akin to black holes in their gravitational and quantum properties). Understanding such extreme conditions is the first step to recreating them on Earth and making the processes work for us in practical situations with new technologies.

SRAS: It sounds like you kept very busy while in Russia. Did you get a chance to get out and explore Russia?

Tabitha near the telescope array.
Tabitha in front of the telescope array which provided the data she used while researching in Russia.

TS: Mostly, I spent my time exploring the town of Pushchino (which you can walk from end to the other without a problem, but which has lots to explore). I was living with a Russian student who is my age, along with her sister. For a weekend, we headed off to Moscow to do some personal exploration.

I also was in Sweden for another weekend to meet up with my boyfriend (whose family is originally from Sweden). I kept myself occupied the other two weekends in Pushchino by exploring the town, taking pictures, and working.

SRAS: What advice would you suggest to other students who might be interested in doing research as you’ve done?

TS: I would suggest, if you are interested in going the same route as I did, to begin doing research at your own institution in the United States. Perhaps ask your supervisor if they have contacts in Russia. If not, then get involved in the research that your major is specialized towards, and look for where a hot spot for research on that topic is in Russia, and try to contact somebody there. You will most likely have the best luck seeing where your particular “akademgorodok” is located. These are entire towns that were built during soviet times specifically for scientific research. For instance, Pushchino is the biology science town of Russia (though the astrophysics observatory is also located there). In my opinion, this is the cheapest method (you only need to pay airfare, rent (which is really cheap at Russian dormitories), and food. If you’re lucky the institute sponsoring you may chip in, usually if they play the primary role in arranging your experience, there will be no structure for what most expect from a “study abroad program,” such as tours, translators helping you, structured Russian classes, etc. I would suggest a program like the SRAS to look after you, and keep you occupied and busy with classes, and to help you with those annoying Russian visa procedures.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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