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SETI Institute Honors Two Exceptional Undergraduate Interns

SETI Institute Honors Two Exceptional Undergraduate Interns

Kierra Wilk and Madeline Garner
REU Award of Excellence recipients, Kierra Wilk and Madeline Garner

During the recent 2021 Drake Awards ceremony, the SETI Institute also had the opportunity to recognize two remarkable undergraduate students, Kierra Wilk and Madeline Garner. Kierra and Madeline participated in the SETI Institute's longstanding Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in 2020 and 2019, respectively, and each received the REU Award of Excellence. Kierra did her internship virtually during the 2020 pandemic with Janice Bishop, using CRISM data to study aqueous outcrops at Ius Chasma on Mars. Madeline completed her internship with Kathryn Bywaters developing solid-state nanopores for detecting biosignatures. Due to pandemic closures, the 2020 Drake Awards were postponed, and we couldn't recognize Madeline at that time. Both students did outstanding work during their REU internships and are continuing their scientific, academic studies.

Thanks to SETI Institute advisor, Srinivasa Vedanarayanan, for his generous support for the REU Award.  His contribution will provide an enhanced experience for the winners and encouragement to many, serving the expansion of the pipeline for future SETI Institute scientists.

“I’m delighted that thanks to Srinivasa’s generosity, we have the opportunity to recognize outstanding young researchers who join us in the summer for our REU internships, “ said Bill Diamond, CEO of the SETI Institute.  “All of our interns do extraordinary work, but Kierra and Madeline’s projects were truly exceptional.  I am also grateful to our scientists who devote so much time each summer to mentor these undergraduates and provide inspiration for their future paths,” said Diamond.

“The SETI Institute REU Award of Excellence was established in 2019 to honor the member of our group of interns who gave the most outstanding presentation at the end of our summer program,” said Matthew Tiscareno, Senior Research Scientist and Site Director, SETI Institute site, NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). “ The winner goes on to represent our program at the national REU Symposium, where they have further opportunities to present their work, to receive instruction on how to effectively pursue a career in science, and to network with peers and with established scientists.  Madeline attended the 2019 REU Symposium, but the 2020 symposium was canceled due to the pandemic.  We hope that Kierra will attend the next symposium that takes place, alongside our 2021 winner.”

Following the Drake Awards ceremony, the students participated in a "backstage" event hosted by Jill Tarter. They shared their experiences with the audience and discussed their hopes for future scientists.

 “As a member of the jury panel, judging the students’ final presentations, I want to again congratulate Madeline and Kierra for their excellent research and for how eloquently they spoke during the Drake Awards event,” said Pamela Harman, Director of Education at the SETI Institute.   “Both 2020 and 2019 competitions were filled with incredible student efforts.”

Kierra Wilk

Kierra Wilk – 2020 SETI Institute REU Award of Excellence winner

Kierra Wilk is a current senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and will be graduating this May with her Bachelor of Science in Geology and a minor in Astrobiology. Kierra participated in the SETI REU program virtually last summer, where she was using CRISM data to study aqueous outcrops at Ius Chasma, Mars. She is also the recipient of the 2020 SETI REU Award of Excellence. This upcoming fall, Kierra will be starting her Ph.D. in planetary science at Brown.


Madeline Garner

Madeline Garner - 2019 SETI Institute REU Award of Excellence winner

Madeline participated in the 2019 SETI Institute's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. During that time, she worked with Dr. Kathryn Bywaters on solid-state nanopores for the detection of biosignatures. A current student for the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and Scott Perl's Origin and Habitability Laboratory at JPL. Starting this fall, she will begin her Ph.D. studies in the molecular biosciences program at Montana State University. Madeline is interested in applying and developing molecular and microbiological techniques for in-situ identification and characterization of biosignatures in extreme environments. These techniques and environments have applications for searching for life on other worlds. Her other interests include the utilization of microbiomes and plant production for life-sustaining systems. 

The REU program at the SETI Institute has been running since 2006 and is for highly motivated students interested in astronomy, astrobiology and planetary science. They work with scientists at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center on microbiology, planetary geology, observational astronomy and SETI. During the 10-week program, students participate in a week-long field trip to Hat Creek Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is the location of the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array (ATA), and to Lassen Volcanic National Park. At Hat Creek, students engage in a collaborative radio astronomy project focused on the ATA. At Lassen, a field experience studying hydrothermal systems will allow students to consider habitability and other topics in astrobiology.

After conducting the REU program virtually in 2020, the 2021 program will include some onsite programming, with the 13 2021 students traveling to Mountain View, CA, for the program.

The SETI Institute REU program provides a 10-week internship experience for a group of undergraduate students.  Each student carries out an individual research project in one-on-one collaboration with a scientist at the SETI Institute.  They also participate in program activities including, field trips, science talks, and discussions about future career options, and they receive instruction and practice in presenting their work to an audience.  Our program is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Madeline is the inaugural winner of this award.  

Congratulations to Kierra and Madeline! We look forward to hearing about your future accomplishments! And to the incoming REU students, we are looking forward to welcoming you to the SETI Institute!


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