On the South Pole With Yuka Nakato

June 22, 2020
Yuka Nakato On the South Pole
Yuka's team together with the telescope
Telescope structure
Research base on the south pole
South Pole landscape
Yuka and her colleagues braved bitter -50 windchills on their sprints to the sauna!
Yuka is all smiles on the South Pole

Written by Isabelle Snyder, UHP Communications Intern
Photos courtesy of Yuka Nakato

UHP student Yuka Nakato graduated this spring with BS degrees in both Physics and Mathematics. This past semester, she returned from a research trip to the South Pole.

“We were building a new cosmic microwave background (CMB) telescope called BICEP Array. The CMB is microwave radiation that we can see in every part of the sky, often referred to as the ‘oldest light in the universe,’” Yuka said.

“Studying the CMB can tell us a lot about the early universe. Specifically, our group is looking at the polarization patterns in the CMB, hoping to find patterns caused by something called primordial gravitational waves. If we do, this is a big deal because primordial gravitational waves could only have been caused by inflation. Inflation is a very rapid and brief expansion of the universe that we think happened right after the big bang. Inflation hasn't been proven yet, but if we succeed in finding evidence for primordial gravitational waves in the CMB, this would be strong evidence for the inflation theory.”

Yuka first got involved with the project at the end of her sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, when she asked her academic advisor for physics if she could join his lab. Although undergraduate students aren’t usually taken on, Yuka was given the opportunity to attend one of the meetings. She continued attending and was eventually given an official job in the lab.

Yuka’s been working with her team on the BICEP Array ever since. For her, the real work started the summer after her sophomore year, so it’s been a good two years. When Yuka first joined, they were primarily building parts for the telescope and test-building the mount of the telescope. Later, she got to work a bit more on the software/programming side of things, since she had previous experience with C++, Python, and MATLAB. Furthermore, over the course of Yuka’s time in the lab, the graduate students she worked alongside taught her even more valuable skills.

Living and working in the South Pole for a month was quite the change in scenery. Yuka and her team were located at an extremely high altitude, so altitude sickness was common upon arrival, and individuals lost their breath easily. The air was also incredibly dry, and a humidifier was necessary to avoid frequent nose bleeds. The Internet was only available for a few hours each day, and a total of four minutes per week were allowed for showers. The sun was always shining, as it was summer when Yuka visited. A day in her life included morning meetings at 7am followed by a trek over to the lab, and set meal times made life very structured. A run to the 200 degree sauna through -50 windchill was an exhilarating after-work tradition!

There were a few other projects going on at the South Pole, and it was fun to meet other people and learn about their work. Most other projects were from or affiliated with U.S. universities but included individuals from different countries. The BICEP Array is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Stanford, and the California Institute of Technology, so Yuka worked with graduate students from the various colleges as well as professors, postdoctoral scholars, and research scientists.

Yuka was part of the early season team, the “better half,” wherein their duty was simply to build the telescope. The second team had to deal with calibration. When Yuka left the South Pole, they had just about finished the mount, which was the main structure of the telescope. The second team actually ended up finishing the construction of the telescope and was set to start sending data at the end of February, 2020.

Yuka is considering going to graduate school and will most likely continue working on the Bicep Array project. We can't wait to see what's next for this bright young scholar!