Wednesday, July 27, 2016

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Elizabeth Gutiérrez

Elizabeth Gutiérrez
2016 TAURUS Scholar

Cross-posted with permission of Prof. Caitlin Casey, Director of the TAURUS REU Program at the University of Texas, Austin. If you wish to cross-post a similar piece featuring a student of color, please contact Jorge Moreno: jmorenosoto AT gmail DOT com

This is the fourth of five blog posts focusing on our 2016 summer scholars.  This week we focus on Elizabeth Gutiérrez, who is working with Dr. Ivan Ramirez on stars' orbits in the Milky Way as part of the TAURUS program. Elizabeth will continue her undergraduate at University of Texas at Austin with a passion for astronomy. Here Dr. Ramirez talks about his experience working with and getting to know Elizabeth this summer.

Stars are born in clusters, families of tens of thousands of stars formed at the same time from a common gas cloud. At relatively young age, stars leave the gravitational bounds of their parent clusters and become part of the Milky Way galaxy. Reuniting stellar families is a monumental task for modern astronomy, but one which is critical for understanding how galaxies evolve. Elizabeth Gutiérrez is working on dynamical models of stars’ orbits in the Milky Way, along with information on chemical composition and stellar age, to bring us closer to achieving the ultimate goal of identifying groups of field stars with common origin.

Elizabeth grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her parents emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico in the mid-1980’s in what can be described as a classic American Dream story. Spanish was the main language spoken in Elizabeth’s house; Sunday’s Mass, the rodeo, opening up presents on Noche Buena, and eating rosca de reyes on Three Kings Day are some of the things she remembers experiencing as a child raised in a traditional Mexican-American home. She identifies herself as a Chicana instead of Mexican-American.

At the age of twelve, Elizabeth took a science course that sparked her interest in astronomy. Visiting the Adler Planetarium and watching the original Cosmos series at fifteen reinforced this interest. She remembers visiting the Hubble Space Telescope website and being further inspired by images of the distant universe. Finding beauty in the chaos of nature is nothing short of poetic, she says. In fact, Elizabeth enjoys writing poems inspired by the cosmos. In 2014, she won a prize for a poem she submitted to the AstroPoetry contest on the Astronomers Without Borders blog. In high school, she worked with her female physics and astronomy teacher, Marcella Linahan, who involved her students in research on young stellar objects. Marcella was an important role model for Elizabeth who further inspired her to pursue a career in astronomy. 

The early days of school were tough for Elizabeth, who had trouble reading and writing in English. During the Fall of 2014, she began her collegiate education at predominantly white university and quickly began to feel out of place in her classrooms where she would typically be the only student of color. She also felt unprepared in her coursework compared to her classmates and has experienced a hostile environment for people of color within her institution. She confesses to be still working on overcoming these challenges, but she is understanding that with hard work and perseverance she can successfully achieve her goals. She has also come to realize that she does not need to compromise her ethnic identity in order to become a successful scientist. 

Professional astronomy today is suffering from issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, and racism. Elizabeth is fully aware of these problems and adds to the list the lack of awareness and stigma associated with mental illness, anxiety, and depression, particularly when triggered by the academic environment, which she experiences herself. Nevertheless, she feels optimistic about the changes that are already taking place to improve these situations, many of which originate from the more important roles that younger scientists in the field are assuming. The recent rise in popularity of online platforms that one can use for support in these matters, such as the Equity and Inclusion in Physics and Astronomy group on Facebook, is encouraging to her, as is the fact that an increasing number of professional astronomers are speaking up openly about these issues on social media. She believes that accessibility to role models and mentors, both at the academic and personal levels, is key to the success for aspiring astronomers. Therefore, the more the better.

Both professionally and personally, perseverance is key for Elizabeth. She believes that success can only come after failure. Thus, her advice to young students of color interested in science or astronomy as a career is that they should never doubt in their abilities and understand that failing is part of the process. Also, for her it is very important to honor the sacrifices of your parents. “¡Echale ganas!” her father often tells her, and she lives by that motto.1

Elizabeth is interested in exploring multi-wavelength astronomy in the future, potentially investigating star and planet formation, areas in which she already has significant research experience. 

1 “¡Echale ganas!” is an untranslatable expression of encouragement which could be interpreted as “go for it!”.

*Jorge Moreno is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pomona College. He is the Chair of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

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