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Travel Grants Help Grad Students Take Their Research Around the World

Image: Rachel Beetz

Rachel Beetz

In the northern fjords of Iceland, during the darkest days of the year, Rachel Beetz set out to capture the movement of the stars. Every night for 30 days—one moon cycle—she positioned her camera to take a long exposure photograph. The patterns of movement, or “star trails,” would become her launching point for composing a new piece of music.

Beetz is a doctoral candidate in music at UC San Diego and the Iceland trip is part of her dissertation project. She received the Skammdegi Air Award, a three month mid-winter residency program from Listhús in Ólafsfjorður. The culmination of her work will be a 30-hour sound installation at UC San Diego in which visitors can listen to the sounds of the stars. She will present half of the installation at the Natural History Museum in Ólafsfjorður Feb. 13 as a part of the Skammdegi Festival given by the residency program.

“It’s been a really great experience in creating my own music,” she said. “But it would have been hard to make this trip without financial support.”

Coupled with her award from Listhú, Beetz received a $500 travel grant from the UC San Diego Graduate Student Association as well as support from the Department of Music, making it possible for her to pursue an ambitious and unique project.

Image: Rachel Beetz

Beetz is one of 45 students, out of more than 180 applicants, to receive a travel grant this winter. The awards, which range from $300 for in-state travel to $500 for out-of-state or international travel, are given out quarterly to help graduate and professional students present their research across the nation and around the globe.

After a month of photographing the night sky, Beetz, who plays the flute, started the process of turning her photos into music. She began by stacking the photos on top of each other in order to map the star trails—the movement of the stars in the sky. Then she translated the star trails into a score for the flute. Each star corresponds to a musical note, within the range of notes that she can play glissando. She has even involved the locals in her project.

“I’m also a knitter, and knitting is a big tradition in Iceland,” she explained. Beetz has been hosting knitting circles with locals to create hundreds of white “snowballs,” to which she will later add tiny LED lights. “The idea is to have hundreds of these hanging from the ceiling of the installation, like stars in the sky.”

Beetz’s sound installation will run from March 7 to 9 at the experimental theater in the Conrad Prebys Music Center at UC San Diego.

Established in 2014, the Graduate Student Association’s travel grant program aims to give more students the opportunity to share their work outside of campus, primarily at academic conferences. In its first year, more than 200 grants were awarded.

“Presenting at academic conferences is a crucial component of the graduate student educational experience,” said Lindsay Freeman, president of the Graduate Student Association. “Sharing the innovative research and development we do here at UC San Diego not only highlights our strength as an institution, but also provides graduate students the chance to grow as speakers and presenters.”

Thanks to his travel grant, Wei Huang, a materials science graduate student, will attend the Materials Research Society Spring Meeting and Exhibit, which will take place March 28 to April 1 in Phoenix, Ariz. Huang is studying the properties of strong biomaterials, specifically the horns of bighorn sheep and horse hooves.

Image: Wei Huang

Wei Huang

Both horns and hooves can absorb large impact loads, he explained. “By understanding how nature designs materials with high impact resistance, we hope to find new inspiration for designing synthetic materials with those properties—helmets, for example.”

Huang is looking forward to the conference as an opportunity to gain new perspectives of his work, as well as to learn more about the materials science field in general. The Materials Science Research Society is an interdisciplinary organization comprised of more than 16,000 researchers from academia, industry and government. The organization’s spring conference draws attendees from around the world and across scientific fields to share research and technology relating to materials.

“This conference will be a very good opportunity to present my research to well-known scholars,” said Huang. “Discussions with them will give me insights to help guide my future work. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the cutting-edge research happening in my field.”

The travel grant program is funded by the Office of the Chancellor, Graduate Division, Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Student Fee Advisory Committee. Applications for travel grants are accepted quarterly. To give students equal opportunity, grant recipients are randomly selected from the full pool of eligible applications. To learn more about the grants, application process and the list of winners, visit the Graduate Student Association website.