Cal-URSA (Undergraduate Research Scholarships in Astronomy) 

This program provides access to paid undergraduate research opportunities to work with postdocs and staff researchers in the UC Berkeley Astronomy department. Successful applicants will be able to rank their top three choices of projects/mentors and will be matched based on availability. In addition to research project descriptions, mentors will also include statements describing their mentoring style (e.g., frequency of meetings per week). Undergraduate researchers will work directly with mentors and their collaborators on the selected project for a maximum of 12 hours/week at a rate of $22.50 per hour during the Fall 2021 semester (maximum of 140 paid hours). Students will be expected to meet weekly with their mentors to discuss research progress and occasionally with other collaborators virtually or on campus. To facilitate interaction and community building with other undergraduates, researchers will also have access to the undergraduate research lab in Campbell Hall for the duration of the Fall 2021 semester. Some coding experience is preferred but not required to apply and no previous research experience is necessary.

Eligibility Criteria: This program is open to both UC Berkeley students and students from local Bay Area colleges and institutions (2-year or 4-year programs) within the 9 Bay Area counties. While our program is open to all undergraduate students majoring in physics and/or astronomy, we especially encourage individuals who identify with groups that have been historically excluded from STEM to apply (including but not limited to, e.g., racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ+-identifying individuals, first-generation college students, veterans, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds). All students are eligible regardless of residency or immigration status (e.g., DACA students, students holding F1 visas, permanent residents, etc. are eligible to apply). UC Berkeley students who qualify for federal work-study financial assistance are also encouraged to apply.

Please fill out the application below by August 1, 2021 to be considered for this opportunity. Selected students will be notified by mid-August and appointments will begin in early September 2021.

For questions, please contact

Application Link (open through August 1, 2021): 

Using the link above is preferred but you may also submit application materials via email. Please send the following materials as a single PDF to with subject line “Application 2021”:

  • Name
  • Preferred Name
  • Preferred Pronouns
  • Provide a 1-2 page statement describing your interest in astronomy, this program, and your top choice of projects. In addition, please share 1-2 challenges you have encountered, steps you took to navigate those challenges, and what you learned from those experiences.
  • Provide and unofficial or official transcript
  • In lieu of a CV or resume, please provide a list of up to 4 skills, hobbies, work experience, etc. that support your ability to carry out research. For each item, please include a short description of what you learned and what you accomplished.
  • Applicants should arrange for a letter of reference to be submitted by August 1 to by a person that can describe the applicant’s academic work, work preparation, and overall fit for this program. Please provide the email address, name, and place of work of your reference letter writer.
  • List your top three projects in ranked order.

Project Descriptions

(1) Mentor: Dr. Sofia Sheikh

Project: Pulsars are a kind of stellar remnant: highly dense, rapidly rotating balls of neutrons whose high magnetic fields shape jets of radiation at their poles. Due to their rotation, the radiation (often in the radio wavelengths) sweeps out like a lighthouse beam, causing them to look like blinking radio pulses from the point of view of the Earth. Most pulsars are incredibly regular in their pulses, and for many experiments are considered as perfect “clocks” or calibrators. However, some pulsars, known as nulling pulsars, occasionally “turn off” for a while before returning to their normal pattern. We don’t know why pulsar nulling occurs. To better understand this phenomenon, we will need better estimates of more pulsar’s “nulling fractions”: the amount of time that these pulsars spend in the off state. The proposed research will involve analyzing a huge library of pulsar observations taken as part of the Breakthrough Listen project and implementing a new method of estimating nulling fractions for this dataset. With this huge dataset and new estimation method, the project should result in the most precise measurements of nulling fractions ever taken.

Prerequisites: Over the course of the project, the mentee will learn Python and Unix – previous coding knowledge is not required. Knowledge of pulsars is also not required. The expected time commitment for this project is 5 hrs/week, with the understanding that a lot of that time early in the project may be spent reading relevant papers and learning programming and research skills.

Mentoring: I try to give my mentees projects that I’m already excited about, so I tend to be a pretty active mentor. For this project, I envision weekly meetings in addition to more frequent check-ins in whichever way works best for the mentee (e.g., Slack, email, Discord, virtual research notebook through Google Docs or WordPress). In addition, I did my undergraduate in physics and astronomy at Berkeley, so I know some of the challenges of doing the degree, in particular as a woman in STEM. I hope that my perspective can be useful to others navigating these majors along the same or other axes of underrepresentation.

Location: Can do in-person or virtual, depending on the mentee’s preference


(2) Mentor: Dr. Ken Shen

Project: Classical novae are explosive outbursts arising from thermonuclear burning in the surface layers of white dwarfs.  Even though there are ~10 observed per year in the Milky Way, we still lack a complete understanding of how they occur.  This theory project will focus on characterizing the outflowing material that is pushed out by the energy generated by nuclear burning.  We will begin by analytically calculating the thermodynamic variables in the wind to answer questions such as: is there a maximum envelope mass that can become a wind?  And how does this vary with the mass of the white dwarf?  Depending on the rate of progress and the applicant’s previous experience, we can extend the project by running a stellar evolution code and comparing the analytical results to a more realistic calculation.

Prerequisites: The project can be adjusted depending on the applicant’s previous experience and available time.  Some familiarity with stellar structure and numerically solving ODEs would be very helpful, but not strictly necessary.  If the applicant has more coding and research experience, a second stage to the project involving the use of a realistic research code can be added.  I expect sincere effort on the part of the researcher (>5 hours a week), but I understand the time demands of courses, etc., so I won’t require the maximum 12 hours/week.  That said, I will happily provide guidance to applicants who have the time (and energy!) available to work up to the maximum hours/week.

Mentoring: I attempt to strike a balance between hands-on and hands-off mentoring by letting the mentee determine how much direct guidance they want. In the past, this has ranged from just weekly check-ins to daily email exchanges and twice-weekly meetings. I do my best to gauge how my mentees are doing, but it is always best if the mentee can communicate when they need more or less guidance!

Location: I am entirely flexible based on where the applicant lives.  If coming to campus or San Francisco (where I live) would take too much time, I am fine with conducting all meetings over video chat.


(3) Mentor: Dr. Gaspard Duchene 

Project: One of the most important property of a star is its mass. For young stars that have not yet reached the Main Sequence, this is usually determined using evolutionary models which are affected by significant uncertainties and shortcomings. A robust method to improve on this situation is to study binary systems, whose orbital motion can provide precise estimates of the stellar masses. To achieve this, one needs to combine high-resolution  images that resolve the binary system during the course of its orbit, together with spectroscopic data that yield estimates of the temperature and luminosity of the stars. This project centers on new Keck adaptive adaptive optics images of a number of young binaries, from which we will measure the relative position and brightness of the components. Combined with previously published and archival observations, we will perform a fit of the orbital parameters for each system and estimate the mass of each component.

Prerequisites: The project will focus on data analysis. Previous coding experience (ideally in python) would be helpful but can be acquired during the course of the project. Solid progress can be made during the semester with ~6 h/week of effective work; more time should be considered if coding tools must be learned.

Mentoring: My general approach is to hold weekly meetings with my mentees, with meetings split between status updates and discussion of ongoing problem and new goals. That schedule can be adjusted based on needs, especially early in the semester when questions abound and it’ s so easy to get stuck for a week on what ends up being a small detail or an irrelevant issue. During the first few weeks of the semester, I will provide relevant readings to provide context to the project, as well as coding tutorials as necessary.

Location: I prefer in-person interaction, especially for initial meetings when the mentor-mentee relationship is established. Teleconferencing meetings can be used afterwards, although meeting in person regularly (once a month or more) would be ideal.