Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Student Highlight: Carl Fields

Carl Fields, ASU Astrophysics and Physics major and recipient
of the Beth Brown Memorial Award and Carl Rouse Fellowship

Carl Fields is an dual Astrophysics and Physics major at Arizona State University, who will be earning his Bachelors of Science degrees (with Honors) this May.  His research interests include compact objects, astrophysical sources of gravitational waves, and supernovae progenitor evolution, explosion, and nucleosynthesis. He is a lead developer of MESA-Web, a web-based interface to the widely-used Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA) stellar evolution code. His undergraduate thesis, "Properties of Supernova Progenitor Stars" has already lead to two publications, one in press and one currently in review (as first author). A native of Phoenix, AZ, Carl has given back to his community through extensive outreach efforts to local schools and churches, and is a mentor of current Physics majors at ASU.  Carl has won numerous awards and distinctions, including the Beth Brown Memorial Award for outstanding undergraduate poster at the National Society of Black Physicists national meeting, and the Carl Rouse Fellowship in support of research on gravitational waves, which he conducted at Caltech.

Burgasser: Congratulations on being a recipient of both the Beth Brown Memorial Award and the Carl Rouse Fellowship! How did it feel to receive these awards?

Fields: Thank you! Winning the Beth Brown Memorial Award was truly an awesome feeling. It was my first time attending an NSBP conference and I had worked really hard on my research project. Not only being able to present my work, but also being acknowledged for it, was a great feeling. Being awarded the Carl Rouse Fellowship was a huge surprise to me. I was informed that I was selected to participate in the LIGO Summer research program, which itself was an amazing opportunity, but was not actually informed that I was a Rouse fellow until halfway through the summer! When I found out, I was ecstatic. I felt extremely honored to receive such prestigious honors and was very thankful to the AAS, Caltech, NSF, and NSBP for supporting my research in gravitational-wave science.

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

Fields: I was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ. I attended pre-school just a few miles away from my current institution, Arizona State University. Growing up I was always fascinated with science and technology. I can even recall days dissembling my Playstation just to see if I could put it back together. I went to high school in Mesa, AZ, where I took my first physics class. I didn't actually know what physics was before taking the course but I knew it had to be better for me than the other option, taking chemistry. The experience I had with my first introduction to physics set me on the path I am on today. While I had always had a general interest in science, and in particular astronomy, it was not until this experience that I truly considered physics as a possible career path. I worked in high school to make my way to college so that I could continue to study physics. Being the first from my family to attend college presented many challenges during my journey, but I was fortunate to have the support of those around me to reach that goal. Entering ASU, I began contacting professors about conducting research, and started working on a project with my current advisor, Frank Timmes. Under his tutelage, I learned how to program, conduct research, and many other important aspects about being a scientist. The successful partnership between my advisor and I has led to my progression as a scientist and helped me reach the next stage of my academic career. Currently I am choosing where I will attend graduate school to obtain my Ph.D in Physics/Astronomy. I am very thankful for those who helped me along the way.

Burgasser: Tell us a little about your research interests.

Fields: My research interests vary. I am interested in compact objects (such as white dwarfs and neutron stars), astrophysical sources of gravitational waves, and supernovae. My research has been in stellar evolution. Specifically, modeling supernova Type 1A progenitors using the stellar evolution code, MESA. Extending upon this, I wish to move towards 3D hydrodynamical simulations of supernova explosions. This is a very interesting topic to me and is full of very interesting physics, such as gravitational wave emission and neutrino transport! I also have a particular interest in the nuclear astrophysics aspect. A large part of my undergraduate research was considering nucleosynthetic processes in low to intermediate mass stars and I look to build upon that in graduate school.

Burgasser: How does it feel to be involved in gravitational wave research at such an exciting time for the field?

Fields: I really enjoyed working with LIGO. It was an exciting time to be working at Caltech as everyone prepared for the first observational run of Advanced LIGO. I was surrounded by an awesome and supportive REU cohort that made the experience worthwhile. While deciding to participate in the LIGO SURF program at Caltech, I was also considering a summer project at the Univ. of Chicago. However, I choose to work with LIGO because I felt that it would broaden my research horizons and help me gain context outside of my current research. I'm very happy I made this decision and recommend the program with my highest endorsement!

Burgasser: You’ve also been involved in several outreach programs in and around Phoenix. Tell us about them: How did you get involved in these, and why do you do this work?

Fields: Outreach has always been very important to me. After having such an influential experience in my high school physics course, I knew that I wanted to do my part to return the favor and hopefully inspire others as well. During my time at ASU I have been involved with EPICS, a multidisciplinary club that uses the collective skill sets of ASU students to tackle local and global problems. I got involved in this program through an elective course at ASU and continued in a volunteer capacity afterwards for several months. After this work, I began volunteering as an instructional fellow of the Western School of Science and Technology (WSST) in Phoenix. I chose to pursue this opportunity because I felt that it would put me at the forefront of inspiring the next generation of scientists. WSST is a public charter school that focuses on providing quality education to students in predominantly low income households or other inhibiting socioeconomic factors. My goal was to show the students that pursuing higher education is a possibility and to hopefully inspire them to continue toward their goals. I am not required to do these activities and have never been paid for my time. However, it is my hope that one day I will be the reason that someone discovers their passion for science and has the adequate resources to pursue it.

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

Fields: My high school physics teacher, Mr. Chad Jacobs at Skyline High School in Mesa, AZ had a huge impact on my decision to pursue science. Deciding to pursue science was not the norm in my family. It would have been more common to pursue a trade or vocational school. Having the support from my family and the staff at my high school made my decision to pursue physics possible. 

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

Fields: One of the most difficult challenges in my career has been supporting myself through college. Often times I have had to hold multiple jobs while focusing on schoolwork, conducting research, and volunteering. While this has not been much of a career challenge it has definitely shaped me into the scientist I am today. Another persistent issue is having to handle the fact that I am the only one that looks the way that I do. Attending large conferences are amazing at demonstrating the growing, inclusive community we have in astronomy. However, in normal day to day roles this is not so. For instance, at ASU I will be one of three African American BS physics students graduating this year and the only BS astrophysics. Coming to terms with being 'different' has been a challenge, but I would say that through the conferences I've attended over the past few years and the people I have met, this issue has begun to fade.

Burgasser: As you have personally experiences, 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? 

Fields: I would say that finding adequate help at ASU during my early undergraduate years was 
very difficult. If it weren't for the help of a handful of awesome graduate students, I probably wouldn't be doing this interview right now. However, the Sundial Project at ASU is a new program that has addressed this and offers research mentoring and also seeks to foster an inclusive community for physics and School of Earth and Space Exploration students. I am glad to be a part of this project 
and to see it address issues that could inhibit success among minorities or underrepresented groups at ASU. My current research advisor, Frank Timmes, has had a tremendous influence on my success as a scientist. He worked with me since I first approached him about research during my sophomore year and has always made me feel valued as a young scientist. The support of other faculty within the School of Earth and Space Exploration has also made my time at ASU enjoyable and allowed me to 
grow as a researcher.

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

Fields: I feel that it is important to inspire the next generation of scientists. I think that engaging with all groups of students through outreach and volunteering is the first step of many towards making astronomy more inclusive. We will not start to see an increase in representation until we have an increase in interest.

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

Fields: The field of astronomy is one of the most active and progressive of the sciences. The programs and opportunities available are starting to remove the barriers previously in place. If you 
have a passion for astronomy, I urge you to pursue it. I assure you that you will be entering a welcoming community of hardworking, kind people, actively working towards change. :)

*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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