Friday, March 25, 2016

Student Highlight: Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, University of Colorado graduate student and
Beth Brown Memorial Prize recipient, speaking at the 227th AAS meeting.


Christopher Moore is a a fifth-year graduate student in the Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  His Ph.D. thesis research focuses on two areas of instrumental space physics: as a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, he works with collaborators at the Micro Devices Lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help develop, fabricate, laboratory test, and space flight-test (via sounding rocket) new Ultra-Violet (UV) optical coatings for future NASA satellite missions. His second area of research has been the development and testing of X-ray detectors for the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) CubeSat, which launched in December 2015 and will study the Sun's corona in soft X-rays. Chris earned the 2015 Beth Brown Memorial Award for best astrophysics oral presentation, and was also a selectee for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Congressional Visits Day (CVD) that year. He is also an inaugural member of the AAS Early Career Advisory Board. He has been NASA Student Ambassador since 2011 and active in community and science outreach for several years.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being a recipient of the Beth Brown Memorial Award! How did it feel to receive that award?

Moore: Thank you!! I felt honored to win the Beth Brown Memorial Award at the 2015 National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) Conference. The version of the award that I won is for the Best Oral Astrophysics Presentation. I practiced that presentation many times. It was rewarding to know that other individuals felt that it was a high quality presentation and worthy of an award. But the Beth Brown Memorial Award is not about me, it is in honor of the great life that Beth Brown lived. I did not know her, but after winning the award I looked up information about her. All the websites that I found spoke highly of her. She was a lively person that inspired many individuals through her outreach and interaction with colleagues. The Beth Brown Memorial Award winner gives colloquia talks at Beth’s alma maters, Howard University and the University of Michigan and everyone I met at these two places that knew Beth, spoke about what a great person she was. It was a testimony to how impactful she was with the short time she had. I just hope that I can represent her well as a recipient.

Burgasser: Please tell me about yourself; what is your story?

Moore: I grew up in Calumet City, IL, which is on the outskirts of Chicago. It is a city with mostly African Americans and Latinos/Mexicans, and the rest composed of Asian Americans and Caucasians. So I grew up around different types of people and developed a respect for different cultures. In high school, sports was my main priority, not necessarily academics. Mostly because it was not very apparent to my classmates - and I - what opportunities a good education could provide. I was on the football, basketball and track teams in high school. I made the decision in my junior year of high school that I wanted to go to college, but not any type of college - a large four-year university. I focused on my classes during my senior year of high school and applied to a few universities. I decided to attend the University of Iowa for financial reasons and had to work very hard to improve my academic skills so that I could succeed in my undergrad classes (due to the lack of preparation from my high school education). After a summer internship in heliophysics at the University of Colorado, I knew that I wanted to continue with my physics and astronomy undergrad major. After much more hard work, determination and some help from others, I graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy, and a minor in Spanish. I have been in graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU-Boulder) ever since. 

Burgasser: Tell us a little about your research.

Moore: I recently finished a Comprehensive Exam project (Comps 2) investigating what effects that magnetic field structure on the solar surface (called the photosphere) can have on the emergent intensity, and also how that structure also relates to spectrally derived abundance estimates of oxygen and iron. I used numerical simulations to investigate these effects. My PhD research is two-fold. I have a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF) to help develop high-reflective UV mirror coatings for the next generation of UV-Vis-IR astronomical space telescopes. This is a collaborative project with Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). We grow thin films one atomic layer at a time, with a technique called Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD). I go to JPL regularly to assist in the depositions, film characterization and environmental tests. I test the UV performance at CU-Boulder in our special vacuum test facility.

The second half of my PhD research involves the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) cubesat. I help test and characterize the X-ray detectors, use physical models to predict the solar X-ray distribution, and study how we will better understand the outer atmosphere of the sun (the corona) from future MinXSS measurements. I am particularly interested in the short term evolution of physical quantities (temperature, density and magnetic field) of active regions (strong concentrations of magnetic fields that protrude through the solar surface and extend high into the atmosphere). Additionally, future MinXSS data can be used to better understand solar flares (large magnetically driven eruptions in the solar atmosphere) and their effect on Earth’s upper atmosphere. 

Christopher Moore (left) and fellow graduate student James Mason in
Cape Canaveral at the MinXSS CubeSat launch in December 2015

Burgasser: You’ve done several internships at NASA research centers; how did you get involved in these, and what keeps you coming back?

Moore: I have done three official internships at NASA Goddard SpaceFlight Center as an undergrad and have spent many months (over 6 so far) at JPL as a graduate student. After my first two summer internships at the CU-Boulder Laboratory for Atmospheric and SpacePhysics (LASP), my mentor Dr. Phillip Chamberlin sent me to a conference to present my findings. Dr. Brian Dennis was in the group that I presented to, was impressed with my presentation, and offered me an opportunity to work with him at NASA Goddard in the Solar Physics Laboratory. The next summer I received an offer to intern in the Detector Systems Branch. I took it and interned there the next two summers. NASA is like a playground filled with diverse research projects and brilliant minds to tap into. I kept coming back because of the breadth and depth of the research opportunities provided there.

Burgasser: You’ve also been involved in a few outreach programs in Colorado and your hometown of Chicago. How did you get involved in these, and why do you do this work?

Moore: Being from the Chicagoland area, I was exposed to many things that could deter one from desiring to pursue higher education. I know that these distractions can take future opportunities away and thus I strive to help keep youth on track to a better life. I go to grade schools in Chicago and the surrounding areas on the south side to help inspire students to pursue their dreams and assure them that they can do whatever they set their mind to. Other programs that have much more contact time that I have been involved with are SPOT in Iowa, Impact the Youth in Colorado and a newer program called Men & Women of Color Leadership series. In general, I am asked to participate in these programs, but speaking to kids in the Chicago area is the one activity that I am most proactive about, because I know how fragile many of those kids’ situations are.

Burgasser: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy?

Moore: Not one specific person or any particular event. I have always been interested in the stars, the few that I could see through the bright Chicago lights. In general, I like to learn how things work, and physics attempts to describe how everything works. Since I studied physics and like stars, I figured that I could pursue a career trying to understand the physics of stars.

Burgasser: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career so far? How did you overcome them?

Moore: Many… too many in my opinion. Some are on a larger societal level, from grade school to high school to college: the typical deterring and oppression of a marginalized group in society by the dominant group. On the science level, there have been other types of ‘subtle’, passive/aggressive-type of barriers put in place to inhibit progress. Different types of obstacles and challenges need different tactics in order to circumvent them. In summary, being very careful, smart and aware of my surroundings and situations have helped me tremendously. It is unfortunate that such obstacles exist, but that is the reality of our world. Advice to the younger generation: do not let anyone or anything prevent you from achieving your dreams. I can divulge more about this in personal conversation if anyone is interested.

Burgasser: People of color are severely under-represented in our field. Can you point to any factors (specific programs, individual mentors etc.) that helped you succeed? 

Moore: That is a fact and it is a saddening one. People of color are under-represented and marginalized not only in our field, but in many aspects of society also. I was not involved in any particular science program, but as a sophomore in high school I was in the Alpha Phi Alpha Leaders of Tomorrow program. They taught us about personal responsibility, accountability, how to graduate high school, how to apply to college, college financial aid, etc. My high school had a relatively low graduation rate, so if you graduated high school it was a big deal. Thus, the Leaders of Tomorrow program was critical in keeping me in high school, so that I could graduate and eventually go to college.

Early in my undergrad career, the presence of a black physics professor, Prof. Vincent Rodgers. and one of my upper division physics peers, were examples showing me that African Americans could obtain degrees in physics and succeed. That was all the external motivation that I needed, because I was determined to obtain my goals of being successful.

Burgasser: Can you share any ideas you have for making astronomy a more equitable and inclusive community? 

Moore: At the simplest level, if everyone keeps an open mind with respect to other cultures, ethnicities and background that can be a good start. Astronomy, science and career opportunities in general should be accessible to everyone willing to put forth the effort to participate. From my experiences in life, this is rarely the scenario. I continue to participate in outreach (astronomy, science and just life advice) to many different types and groups of people. In terms of formal education (B.S/A., M.S., Ph.D.) in astronomy specifically, I think more can be done to modify how physics and astronomy are taught. I have been part of a Professional Development Program (PDP) based out of the University of California Santa Cruz that focused on inquiry-based learning and has direct involvement with improving science education in Hawaii. I think changes can be made to the ‘typical’ graduate admissions process, to highlight attributes that non-traditional students may have that can be beneficial for graduate programs. Finally, more emphasis can be put on hires of individuals not already dominant in the field or plentiful in the current departments. It is kind of like cooking and creating a new stew to add to the menu. By altering some of the ingredients in the pot, and adding more variety to the constituents, we can have a more flavorful stew that can have an array of perspectives to answer current and future science questions.

Burgasser: What advice would you give to students of color interested in following your path?

Moore: Follow your dreams, never give up and only you can dictate your goals and your career.

Burgasser: Any final words?

Moore: If you want to find out more, you will just have to ask me when you meet me.

*Adam Burgasser is a Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and is currently chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

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