Cross-posted from the TAURUS Blog (Director: Prof. Caitlin Casey, UT Austin)
This week’s TAURUS interview is with Aldo Sepulveda, an undergraduate student from the University of Texas San Antonio. Aldo is working with Dr. Brendan Bowler to determine the orbits and host star masses of directly imaged exoplanets.
BB: Can you talk how you first became interested in physics and astronomy?
AS: I’ve always enjoyed math and science. As a child, those were always my favorite subjects in school. During my first semester at UTSA we were required to take AIS (Academic Inquiry and Scholarship) and that’s where I was reconnected with the part of myself that really liked science and math. My experience in that course inspired me to want to pursue a career in science as a life goal. Astronomy and physics are simply the areas of science that fascinate me the most.
BB: In your TAURUS application you had mentioned your interest in exoplanets. Can you talk about how that came about?
AS: Earlier this year Dr. Nancy Levenson from the Space Telescope Science Institute gave a talk at UTSA all about the James Webb Space Telescope and all the cool science it will accomplish. I talked with her a bit about exoplanets and she told me about all the things JWST could clarify, like models of planetary atmospheres. So it’s because of that experience that exoplanets in particular were in my head.
BB: Have you experienced any challenges during your education, and if so how have you overcome them?
AS: Being a first generation college student was a challenge (my parents don’t have college degrees) because I didn’t know anyone who had been through college before. So everything that I know now, especially for a career in academia and graduate school, I had to find out on my own in college. So that was tough. However, I think of it as a double-edged sword because it’s also turned into extra motivation; knowing that there’s a lot I still don’t know has made me seek out advice and information about careers in astronomy and graduate school. For instance, finding out about summer research programs was part of this drive. So although it was a challenge at first, it ended up giving me extra motivation that’s become very helpful to me.
BB: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that you’d like to share— for example, something that’s happened along your academic or personal trajectory?
AS: There’s one thing that comes to mind: recently home life got stressful and was interfering with my college work and my well being. Early last semester I decided to move to an apartment close to UTSA to escape from that. I’m proud of that decision because it was a necessary act of self care, and my ability to focus on college has substantially improved from that decision.
BB: Thanks for sharing that. You arrived early this summer to attend the AAS meeting in Austin. That was nice because we were able to meet each other before the summer program started. Can you talk about what motivated this and what you learned from your first astronomy meeting?
AS: I was accepted into TAURUS so I knew that I was going to go to the AAS meeting in the winter to present research. I looked into the AAS because of that and I noticed there was a summer meeting in Austin one week before this program starts. It was too lucky and convenient of a date to pass up. So of course I was going to go! One particular motivation was that I wanted this meeting to be the first exposure to a scientific conference as opposed to a winter one where I would be presenting research.
I learned a lot from the meeting. It was a remarkably wide spectrum of knowledge; it had everything from tips and advice for astronomy careers to the importance of public outreach in science to the fact that solar wind is a result of thermal pressure temporarily winning over gravity. I learned all kinds of things there. It was a great experience and I’m glad I went. I’m looking forward to the winter meeting. I’ve never been in an environment like that, surrounded by so many people doing astronomy. It was lovely. I really felt like that was my first exposure to the world of astronomy.
BB: I enjoy the AAS meetings too. The science is great, you always learn something new, and it gives you ideas for your research. It’s also a great networking opportunity to meet new people and form new collaborations. Wait until you see the much larger winter meetings!
Can you talk about what your research or personal goals have been throughout this summer? What do you continue to hope to achieve for the remaining few weeks of the program? What would success look like for you in the TAURUS program?
AS: My primary goal was to get my first research experience. Starting on day one, I already felt like this was a success. Some of my other goals included learning everything and anything I can, doing a good job on the research project, and boosting my overall confidence— which is a personal goal that was important to me for the summer. Every week that I’m here I learn so much and gain more experience. I’m really happy to be here this summer.
BB: Do you have a better feel for what the research process is like?
AS: Yes! That was a big motivation for seeking out these summer programs to begin with. Certainly with programming experience; I had taken one introductory programming class, but now I feel like I can actually use that and apply it not just to a homework assignment but to an actual task we want to accomplish related to our research goals. I also feel that my general understanding of the research literature has improved compared to the start of the summer.
BB: What are your future and long-term career goals?
AS: After I complete my undergraduate studies, my next goal is to enter a graduate program and earn a Master’s degree and PhD degree in astronomy. I don’t think I’ve told you that yet! I was interested in graduate school as soon as I knew that that was part of becoming a scientist and having a career in academia, but it wasn’t until last semester that I felt like I wanted to pursue a PhD in astronomy. But at this stage I’m leaving my specific career options open. Right now I feel like I’m learning and training for academia, but I know that that’s not the only option. Ultimately as long as I find a career related to astronomy in some way, and I can support myself with it, then that’s certainly going to make me happy.
BB: Having been through 5 weeks of research, do you plan to apply to REU programs again next summer?
AS: Heck yeah! I’ve heard that it’s good to find out early whether you like research to know whether you want to go down that route. I’m relieved that I’ve been enjoying this and I want to keep at it.