This is the fifth and final scholar spotlight of our 2016 TAURUS Scholars. This week we focus on Isaiah Tristan, a rising junior and astrophysics major at Rice University. Isaiah's mentor, Dr. Brendan Bowler, sat down with Isaiah to get to know more about his goals, aspirations, and his work on exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars.
Isaiah’s interest in the field of exoplanets stems from a desire to place our solar system in context with other planetary systems and from its close ties to atmospheric sciences here on Earth. Climatology, meteorology, and atmospheric chemistry— fields first developed for the terrestrial climate— are now being applied to study the atmospheres of other worlds outside our solar system and will play an increasingly larger role in the future. More broadly, Astronomy has appealed to Isaiah for most of his life because of its ability to empirically address fundamental questions about our origin and existence. Contributing to the body of scientific knowledge and helping underprivileged students lacking opportunities their peers may have had are a few of his career goals.
Isaiah is a second-generation Latino American. Born, raised, and educated in Houston, his fascination with astronomy began at a young age despite the smothering light pollution of the metropolis at night. His spark with astronomy began in third grade during elementary school science classes and later ignited in high school when he purchased a 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. A long list of inspiring teachers in high school and faculty mentors in college have helped steer him on his current track as an astrophysics major starting his junior year at Rice University.
This summer Isaiah’s research in exoplanets at UT Austin as part of the TAURUS REU program centers on the origin of free-floating planetary-mass objects. Over the past decade and especially the last few years, a growing population of apparently isolated planets with masses of about 5 to 15 times that of Jupiter have been uncovered in the solar neighborhood. These objects may have formed just like stars from the collapse of molecular clouds, or they could represent planets ejected from their birth environments through dynamical interactions with other planets or passing stars.
Isaiah is investigating a third unexplored possibility: that these vagabond planets may in fact be gravitationally bound to previously unrecognized stars on ultra-wide orbits. He is searching for and statistically validating co-moving host stars to uncover extreme solar systems with separations spanning thousands of times the Earth-Sun distance. In the process he is mastering the Python programming language and acquiring tools for professional development both in academia and the private sector. The summer is now nearly over; having independently re-discovered the previous record-setters, Isaiah has recently uncovered several new and exciting systems that may pose challenges to classic models of star and planet formation.
Despite reading about problems with inequities in the physical sciences, Isaiah is fortunate that he hasn’t experienced overt setbacks from his background. But the transition from high school to college was an especially challenging time for him; he felt ill-prepared for much of his new coursework and it seemed as if he had to work harder than most to succeed. Having now overcome many of these struggles, Isaiah is better equipped to empathize with feelings of unpreparedness and imposter syndrome later in his own life and even among his own students in the future.
Graduate school in astronomy, teaching at the college level, data analysis in the private sector, and science writing are a few of the career options Isaiah is considering. Having just finished his second year at Rice, he has plenty of time to decide and now has research experience to help with that process. We will be fortunate as a field and as a community if he continues on in research or teaching.