Thursday, June 29, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Andrew Cancino

This is the second of six spotlights on the 2017 TAURUS Scholars.  Adolfo "Andrew" Cancino is a senior at Missouri State University where he majors in physics.  His advisor in the TAURUS program, talked to him about his experience, background, and aspirations for the future.

When you meet Andrew, the first thing you will probably learn is that he likes to be called Andrew. Shortly after that you may learn that he's lived all over the country—as a self-proclaimed army brat—and in fact he's even travelled all over the world, too. But it's family, not geography, that determines what's the closest thing to home for him, and that's why he landed at Missouri State University, even though he went to high school in California and briefly considered UC Irvine for college.

The road that would eventually bring Andrew to Austin this summer for the TAURUS program probably started in his senior year of high school. He decided to take an AP class for the first time that year (well, actually, four of them), and this was looking to be a bad decision. The worst was AP Physics. But fortunately for our story, he had an awesome teacher that helped him turn the tide by meeting with Andrew during lunch breaks and after school. Not only did she simply get him through it, she sparked Andrew's interest in physics for the first time. 

By the time he arrived at MSU, Andrew was determined to pursue a degree in physics. It still wasn't the subject that came easiest to him, but it was the most interesting, and Andrew had become used to overcoming such challenges through hard work and persistence. In fact, when I asked Andrew to give one piece of advice to a starting physics/astronomy major, he simply said "put in the work." For example, he says he's bad at coding, but he's found that when he has kept trying things pay off. When he had to choose a concentration for his physics major at MSU, he didn't have previous experience in astronomy, but that's what he choose because it sounded the most interesting. So far he's really enjoying it. He successfully applied to the NASA Space Grant Consortium and has also been working for Prof. Peter Plavchan on exoplanets and circumstellar disks. This is what has kept him busy since last summer, when he isn't taking classes or at his regular full time job outside of school.

While Andrew has only been here with us in Austin for two weeks, his experiences here and at MSU have already left him with a greater appreciation of astronomy research endeavors. For one, the idea that there is still so much that we don't know, and that he could be the first person to discover something that hasn't even been imagined yet, is deeply inspiring. But the first thing Andrew actually said that he's come to really value is the incredible network of people that make up the astronomy community. He already felt connected to so many people through his work at MSU, and now at Texas this is growing wider. It's not surprising then that Andrew's favorite part of the TAURUS program are the weekly seminars led by students and postdocs. It's not just that he says he's learning about a dizzying array of topics that are instrumental to astronomy, many of which haven't been covered in his normal classes, but that it's a connection to peers and mentors here at Texas who are choosing to spend their time to share their knowledge and experiences. It's a great source of encouragement.

With nearly seven weeks of the TAURUS program ahead of him, Andrew has big plans. He's really looking forward to the trip to McDonald Observatory. He is also curious about being part of the process of writing a paper, from start to finish, for the first time (as well as having his name immortalized in print, of course). Beyond that, Andrew is hoping to get a thorough background on all things astronomy in Texas, as he's heard the same rumors I have that there is more to astronomy than exoplanets [citation needed]. Above all, Andrew hopes to make lasting connections with people that will buoy him in the years to come, no matter what path he follows.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Scholar Spotlight: Adrianna Perez

We are thrilled to share with you the first of our 2017 TAURUS Scholar Spotlights!  Adrianna Perez is a senior at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she majors in Physics.  Adrianna participated in the Banneker-Aztlán Institute last summer working with Dr. Jill Naiman and Prof. Jorge Moreno and joins us for TAURUS this summer.  Adrianna is also a CAMPARE and Cal-bridge Scholar.  She was interviewed by her research mentor, Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

CLH: Can you tell me about yourself? What is your story?

AP: I’m from California, live in Bellflower. Basically my whole life in Bellflower, went to Bellflower high school, graduated from there. Right out of the high school, I went to Cal State Dominguez Hill as a first generation college student with already my Physics major declared, although I was still unsure whether that was what I wanted to do. I took Physics in high school, and I did really well in it and I thought it was fun, so I went with that :). I was like, OK, I like Physics, so I feel like that’s a good place to start.

So I went to Dominguez Hills, start taking my Physics classes there, and really started to like it. The problems were harder at first. So I was a little, oh no, what if I can’t do this. But I just kept working at it, got better at it, and really started to like it. And then, just space was cool, so that’s how the Astronomy part came in. But we don’t have an Astronomy department at my school, so I wasn’t really exposed to it. 

It wasn’t until Dr. Moreno came to my school and gave a talk about his galaxy mergers, that I learned about research in Astronomy. And he mentioned the Banneker-Aztlán Institute, and I was really interested. So after his talk, I spoke to him. He encouraged me to apply. So I did that and got accepted, and then went to Harvard, and really liked it. Now I’m positive that I really want to be in Astronomy.

CLH: Can you share a little bit about of your future and career goals?

AP: I think a lot about becoming a professor, but I’m not entirely sure. I know I want to go to graduate school and get a PhD. After that, maybe do a postdoc, and after that, get into academia, or try to be a faculty member. I feel like I might go down that path, but I’m still open to the possibilities. You don’t necessarily have to go to academia, there are other options. But I feel like, that is where I will end up.

CLH: So what brings you to the TAURUS program, and how do you think the TAURUS program will help you to reach your career goals?

AP: I was interested in TAURUS because at AAS, Dr. Moreno was telling me that Caitlin was gonna be here and the TAURUS people were going to be here. So we had a joint lunch with them, the Banneker-Aztlán people had lunch with the TAURUS people. I got to speak with the previous scholars and I asked how they liked it, and they were all really happy and excited and tell me all these great things. So I’m like, wow that sounds really good. Especially because I really liked Banneker and I wanted to be in something that’s similar. Because I know some REU can feel more competitive, and lonely. You’re just in the office, working by yourself and nobody wants to help you. So I didn’t want to be in that kind of environment. I wanted to be in a place that would feel similar to the one I was already in. And the previous scholars spoke very well of it. I met Caitlin there, and spoke with her. She said, sure, go apply! So I applied. I heard the program had a goal of diversity and inclusion and I really liked that. That’s up and coming in Astronomy, people are trying to change that. So I would like to be in part of the program where that is included.

CLH: So how would success in this TAURUS program look like to you?

AP: I hope to make many new friends. And I hope to get somewhat far in the research, and just to be able to answer that question now. And I want to give a good talk at the end! :) I want to have a nice talk with nice pictures, and explain myself well. I used to have a pretty big fear of public speaking. So I want to be able to communicate, and give a presentation without running off the stage. :)

CLH: I heard from Dr. Moreno that you gave an extremely good talk at the final presentation last year. Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. I worked really hard. We had a speech class once every week. But I would go a bit earlier, that way, I will practice before everybody else would come to, just to get comfortable saying it on stage. I can handle speaking in front of a couple people, but when the group gets bigger than five, then it’s like, oh no! 

CLH: Yeah, the community here would definitely help and provide feedback, and you can give an even better talk in the end.

AP: Yeah, I hope to top my previous talk, and that would be a success to me.

CLH: Just to change the gear a bit. How do you learn best (e.g., hands-on experience, reading literature about a topic, verbal explanations, process diagrams, etc.)? What is the most useful kind of assistance your mentor can provide?

AP: I think I learn the best from reading and listening. So I can read something and if I don’t understand it right away and get some kind of verbal clarification, that would be good. Sometimes drawing pictures helps a lot. But I don’t know if I would consider myself a hands-on person. Because I normally don’t like to build, or do things from my hands, I feel uncoordinated. :) So that doesn’t work too much.

Something I like is smaller celebrations. Even if it’s like a small goal, like I read half the paper, or I got a plot to work. These small things are what make me feel good. Yes! It might not be something big or fancy, but it’s progress, and I feel that’s worth celebrating.

CLH: Can you talk about what challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

AP: I’ve already briefly mentioned the public speaking one. I feel like it’s my biggest obstacle. Because I can get really shy, nervous, and anxious sometimes, and withdraw into myself, don’t talk to anyone and go out much. When you need any help, you should be able to ask. If you don’t ask, then nothing will happen. That’s the biggest obstacle is to come out and say I need help.

CLH: What are you most proud of?

AP: I am proud that I can make little movies. Something that makes me proud is that I make little bunch of snapshots, and compile them up into a little movie. I think it’s really cool.

CLH: If there are other freshman or sophomore students who are interested in following your path, what advice would you give to them?

AP: I feel like I was lucky that Dr. Moreno came to my school, especially because it is small. But for other places, I feel like you would at least want to look into places you would be interested in doing research. If somebody is interested in going to Harvard or here at UT Austin, then I’d say try to get in contact with somebody here or I would put them in contact, introduce them to somebody. Let them talk about what that student’s research or career goals are. And hopefully, they will get a better idea if that’s what they want to do or not.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TAURUS @ Python 101

Jackie Champagne leads the TAURUS python workshop.
Week one is now in the history books!  Last week, our TAURUS scholars saw an intense week of orientation, logistics, meeting with their supervisors, launching their projects, and possibly most important of all, they started to learn python.  Python is now one of the most useful programming languages for astronomers with the dawn of astropy a few years ago.  Because it's free, fairly user friendly and used by many professions, many young astronomers are choosing python over other programming languages that have been favored in the past.

Learning a new language is always hard.  Especially if it's your first programming language, python can feel overwhelming!  Definitely when you're installing it off the bat and asking the python path to just work without any headaches.  With the help of our graduate student experts -- Jackie Champagne and Sam Factor -- python was successfully installed on the TAURUS workbooks and we were ready to go for python 101!

Jackie Champagne, our local python champion, led three independent tutorial sessions on python in the first week of TAURUS to make sure the students were off to a good start.  She designed the material especially for folks just starting out in astronomy research with important tasks like reading in data files and plotting data points and histograms.  Our sessions were filled with great questions and were also well attended by other UT astronomers who might've wanted to learn python themselves.  Dare I say there were a few faculty members in attendance?

Well done TAURUS scholars on a fantastic first week and onward to eight more weeks of glorious science with your newfound programming skills!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Welcome 2017 TAURUS Scholars!

TAURUS 2017 Scholars with Prof. Casey atop RLM with a panoramic
view of Austin.
Today the crew at UT was thrilled to welcome the second class of TAURUS scholars to the department!  It's amazing to think it's been a full year since we welcomed the inaugural class; we've come so far and it's a great feeling to be back where we started with an entirely new class of scholars.  I'm sure the 2017 class will help take the program even farther, growing in new directions we haven't anticipated.

Like last year, selecting scholars was a process taken very seriously by the faculty and researchers at UT.  The demand for summer research positions is incredibly high in astronomy, and there were many deserving students who we could not select to become a part of our program.  This is where our mission statement comes to mind -- that we aim to elevate and amplify the voices of students who excel, work incredibly hard, and aspire to be the future face of astrophysics, and our commitment to those from traditionally underserved backgrounds works towards a future ideal of a more equitable scientific community for all of us.

This year's scholars include (as pictured from left to right):
Pa Chia Thao, Mt Holyoke College
Aldo Sepulveda, UT San Antonio
Jonathon Brown, MIT
Adrianna Perez, Cal State Dominguez Hills
Andrew Cancino, Missouri State University
Alexander Fortenberry, University of the Virgin Islands

In the coming weeks, we'll get to know these scholars closer with in-depth profiles! But in the meantime, you get to learn about their first day on the job.

As usual, the first day of TAURUS was packed full with activity after activity: from "orientation" and an overview of the department to a brief tour of RLM and the roof (see picture!) to a few marches across campus to retrieve the illusive UT ID cards, we covered a lot of the basic logistics today.  There was also some fun, with a department meet-and-greet complete with a suite of 72 cupcakes to satisfy the afternoon sweet-craving.  The cupcakes gave us a great excuse to mingle, and let the TAURUS folks get to know the local experts: the UT Austin undergraduate researchers.  Tomorrow, let the science begin!