Wednesday, August 29, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Analis Lawrence

The fifth TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer focuses on Analis Lawrence, who recently graduated from Florida International University with a major in Physics and minors in Astronomy and Mathematics.  She will be attending the University of Florida as a graduate student in the Physics Department in the fall of 2018.  This summer Analis is working with Prof. Brendan Bowler on the Galactic kinematics of exoplanet host stars using Gaia, as part of the TAURUS research program at The University of Texas at Austin. He sat down with Analis recently for this interview.

BB: What inspired you to pursue a career in astronomy or science in general?  What draws you to science in the first place?

AL: A general passion for learning inspired me to pursue a career in astrophysics. But I have been most enchanted by reading and hearing about Albert Einstein’s work and his thought experiments on gravity, space, and time. I’ve been interested in science since a young age but not physics and astronomy until later in my academic career when I started going to schools that were STEM-focused.  Exposure to physics for me came once I took a high school physics course, and later in college, when I got involved with the astronomy club at the Florida International University.  I also became interested in astronomy through documentaries. 

BB: Please tell me more about yourself. What do you do for fun?

AL: For fun, I enjoy endurance running, playing and watching tennis, and painting when I have the time. My normal routine is a six-mile run in the mornings, which I do a few times each week.  I also enjoy spending time with my friends and my loved ones.

BB: In your opinion, what qualities makes astronomy so unique and compelling?

AL: What makes astrophysics so compelling to me is our insignificant size in the universe, yet how much space and time there is to explore.  It’s easy to forget until you look up. I like that astronomy ponders big questions that are truly amazing, from the origins of the universe to the nature of black holes to the question “Are we alone?”  What I find most appealing is space-time physics and cosmology from a theoretical perspective, which is the direction I aim to pursue in graduate school.  I’m looking forward to exploring the theoretical astrophysics groups at UF.

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?

AL: I am most grateful for two REU’s at the University of Chicago. During the summer of 2016, I calibrated a photomultiplier tube for a liquid Xenon detector for their dark matter group with advisors Luca Grandi and Richard Saldanha. And the summer after, with Hsiao-Wen Chen, I carried out a statistical modeling study on highly ionized oxygen in star-forming galaxy halos. I then compared my model to observations of low-redshift galaxies from Hubble.

BB: What mentors, teachers, or role models have been the most inspiring to you in your life?

AL: All of my teachers, coaches, parents, and family have been inspiring in my life.   My most influential mentors have been in college, especially the particle physics and astrophysics professors at FIU.  My mentor at FIU was Dr. Boeglin who studies nuclear physics. And Dr. Webb’s astronomy lectures and star parties first got me interested in the field as early as freshman year.

Documentaries and books by theoretical physicist Brian Greene have been especially captivating, and I have loved listening to his World Science Festival discussions with scientists and philosophers.  I appreciate the way he’s able to simplify complex concepts for the public.  All of these helped inspire me to change my major. 

My high school physics teacher Mr. Smith also jumpstarted my interest in physics. He gave me an appreciation for critical thinking and brought much energy and enthusiasm to learning physics.

BB: What challenges and obstacles have you faced in your career? How have you overcome these challenges? 

AL: Attending schools in an underprivileged area has made me a hard worker and has taught me to try to think outside of the box, or to better realize that there is no box. Other schools tended to have more, enhanced resources for learning, and students there may have been introduced to physics earlier in their careers.  But I was fortunate to attend schools with great STEM programs and teachers who exposed me to new opportunities and an interdisciplinary education.  

BB: You’ll be heading to the University of Florida for graduate school next month— congratulations!  What are you most looking forward to at UF?

AL: I am mostly looking forward to meeting the faculty in the astrophysics theory group and the possibility to explore the different research opportunities, including LIGO.  I’m also looking forward to TA-ing and meeting my fellow grad students.

BB: What advice would you give to high school and undergraduate students of color interested in following your path?

AL: Keep your curiosity alive and be yourself.  Always work hard.

BB: What are your future and long-term career goals?

AL: I hope to become a professor. My interests are in space-time, black holes, and cosmology. Somewhere along the line, I want to help fix the minority and gender gap in physics education and careers.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Gerlinder Difo Cheri

The fourth TAURUS scholar spotlight of the summer focuses on Gerlinder Difo Cheri, a rising senior at the University of the Virgin Islands. Gerlinder is working with Andrew Vanderburg this summer, searching for evidence of planetary destruction around the burned out remnants of stars like our Sun.

Gerlinder Difo Cheri joins us at the University of Texas at Austin from more than two thousand miles away in the US Virgin Islands. Coming to UT Austin poses both challenges and opportunities by virtue of the university’s sheer size: the number of students at UT Austin (about 51,000) is a bit more than half the total population of the US Virgin Islands (100,000). This summer, Gerlinder is making the most of the opportunities and resources in pursuit of his goals and ambitions.

Gerlinder grew up on a steady diet of science- and technology-related media. He recalls being inspired at an early age by scientists he saw on television, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, who “just went out and solved things.” Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy seemed natural to him. “How can you not be interested in astronomy?” he asks. These science and engineering role models drove him to enroll at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and begin studying computer science.

Once he arrived, Gerlinder found the professors at UVI to be valuable role models as well. Before enrolling there, his role models were scientists and engineers (fictional or otherwise) he saw on television, ranging from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Tony Stark. But when he arrived at UVI, for the first time he met people who lived on his island and were pursuing his passion. Gerlinder found it indispensable to ask his professors about the challenges and struggles they faced.

Despite Gerlinder’s interest in astronomy, he was unable to dive in to the subject when he first enrolled at the UVI because the school did not offer any astronomy courses at that time. So when UVI offered their first astronomy class ever, Gerlinder immediately signed up. From there, Gerlinder took a leap and applied to be a TAURUS scholar at UT, which brought him here.

“The future of astronomy is beautiful and expansive,” Gerlinder says. He sees and values how astronomy can capture the public imagination, like how his imagination was captured as a child learning about science and technology from communicators on television. He recognizes, however, that initiative is required to overcome barriers. When asked what advice he might give to a younger student in a similar position to himself, Gerlinder says “You have to actively search for what you want to do, and don’t just wait for it to fall into your lap." If you take the first step, you might just find yourself studying the stars.

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

TAURUS Scholar Spotlight: Oscar Cantua

The third TAURUS Scholar Spotlight of the summer is about Oscar Cantua, who is a physics major at the University of Texas San Antonio, just 100 miles down the road from UT Austin.  Oscar is working with Dr. Jorge Zavala this summer on the characterization of some of the Universe's most luminous and dusty galaxies.

Oscar Cantua joins TAURUS from a familiar institution that is also a part of the UT System: the University of Texas at San Antonio. Despite being less than 100 miles from his hometown and in the same educational system, Oscar says that this summer's research experience represents a new world of opportunities to pursue his future career in astronomy.

Oscar’s interest in astronomy goes back to his childhood, when he first moved to the US from Mexico and used to read a lot of books to learn English. He realized that science books, and particularly astronomy-related storiesm were the most interesting to him. Some years later, astronomy went from being a hobby to a potential professional career after he spent a summer working at the NASA Johnson Space Center (yes, NASA!) as part of the Texas High School Aerospace Program. Now at UT San Antonio, Oscar is a physics major with a minor in astronomy. 

Oscar is part of the UT San Antonio's Top Scholar program, which combines a comprehensive four-year merit-based scholarship with personalized experiences in academics, leadership and community service. Thanks to this opportunity, he was able to get involved in scientific research early in his college career, analyzing data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the nature of binary systems in nearby galaxies, under the supervision of Prof. Eric Schlegel. This summer, Oscar is jumping wavelengths from the very short and energetic part of the spectrum to the longest-wavelength observations achieved with the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, in order to identify and study the most distant dusty star-forming galaxies in the Universe.

Looking back on the past, Oscar realized that it has not been easy to reach this point in his professional life.  He is a first-generation college student, living far away from his family, and having to work while studying. Now he is closer to his dream of going to graduate school, not only with passion and enthusiasm for astrophysics but also with abundant knowledge and experience. 

Oscar's advice to young people, particularly to those belonging to underrepresented groups like him, is simply "never stop chasing your dreams.”

Spotlight shared by Prof. Caitlin Casey, director of the TAURUS program.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP)

Applications from URM students encouraged.

We are pleased to announce that the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program is now accepting applications for new students at

The LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program (DSFP) is a supplement to graduate education in astronomy, intended to teach astronomy students essential skills for dealing with big data. You don't need to know anything about data science to apply, you just need to be excited to learn! 

The DSFP consists of three, one-week schools per year over a two year period. On top of teaching our students the skills they need for modern survey astronomy, we also aim to create a collaborative, supportive learning environment, and work to empower our students to teach the skills they learn to others. We strive to create an inclusive program, and particularly encourage applications from students from traditionally underrepresented groups in astronomy. 

Please visit to learn more!

Lucianne Walkowicz, Director
Adam Miller, Program Director