02/22/2016 04:22 pm ET | Updated 1 day ago

Lucia Perez, Aspiring Astrophysicist


Photo Caption: Lucia Perez and Dr. Medupe with the 16" telescope at North West University in Mafikeng, South Africa.

In my last blog post, New Year, New Focus: STEM Alumnae from Women's Colleges, I shared my 2016 blogging intention for spotlighting STEM alumnae - to inspire the next generation of STEM women while bringing to light the connection between women's colleges and in-demand STEM professionals. So, without further ado, the first amazing STEM alumna I'm spotlighting is Lucia Perez.

This aspiring astrophysicist received an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Wellesley College in 2014 and is now a Ph.D. student in the astrophysics program at Arizona State University (ASU).

When Lucia received a Fulbright Student Research Fellowship, she decided to take advantage of an outstanding opportunity to study with a leading astrophysicist in South Africa. After learning that the program offered her a unique opportunity to acquire additional experience in her field before starting her Ph.D. program, Lucia decided to take a leave and immerse herself in a different culture and country.

I asked Lucia about her fellowship and she replied:

"I'm working under Dr. Thebe Medupe, who is perhaps the most prominent black South African astrophysicist. He specializes in theoretical astroseismology (which is the branch of astrophysics that uses the pulsations within stars to determine their properties).

He and I are working on studying the pulsations of Herbig AeBe stars, which are a kind of young and very hot star with preplanetary dust clouds. We're combing through our personal stores of images of large pulsating stars, and later this year we'll use the telescopes at SAAO (the South African Astronomical Observatory) and our local 16" telescope to get more information about our candidates. We're hoping to discover and explore new Herbig AeBe stars, or learn more about known ones!"

Dr. Medupe promotes astrophysics in the community; he created a program that encourages the study of astronomy by teaching research skills to black South Africans. Come March, Lucia will be helping to recruit students for Medupe's program. She is especially interested in promoting diversity in astrophysics and STEM fields.

Now, some of you might be wondering about Lucia's interest in studying astrophysics. Initially, she planned to major in physics. In high school, she discovered that physics was interesting as well as challenging. Lucia liked figuring out how things worked, and her affinity for mathematics helped. Although physics was a hard class for her in high school, she kept at it, and soon became proficient.

Lucia's decision to switch majors from physics to astrophysics came after taking an astronomy class -- a class she enrolled in "just for kicks" her first semester in college. This introductory course hooked Lucia on the idea of applying physics and mathematics to the study the universe. And the interdisciplinary approach resonated with her.

"How much there is left to learn about the universe, and how many different ways there are of getting those answers. Astrophysics brings together physicists, statisticians, chemists, biologists, philosophers, and more to answer the deepest questions we have about the universe."

I asked Lucia what insight she has for girls interested in astrophysics and career options for astrophysics majors.

"Take as much math as you can; learn physics as early and as often as you can; and go for it! If you want to do it, you can do it. It'll be hard, but you can do it. You might feel like you can't do it, but I'm here to tell you, you can!

There's a myth that to be a physicist you need to be a genius--but that isn't true! You just need to be curious, decent with a computer, and willing to try new things. I think a lot of young women will see a B or C grade and tell themselves they can't do it, which is so tragic considering how many boys will get a B or C grade and power through to become the next generation of scientists.

As a field, I like how inquisitive and broad astrophysics is. It's welcoming to amateurs and newcomers, and it offers so many opportunities to travel around the world and collaborate with others. I'm getting to spend a year doing great research and meeting other scientists in South Africa on a Fulbright Fellowship!

With a degree in astrophysics, you can really do anything! You gain excellent quantitative skills and problem solving from physics, and diverse coding abilities from applying the physics to astronomy. You can go into banking (particle physicists use the same coding programs as Wall Street does!), or engineering, or any other career that uses math. Getting a degree in astrophysics teaches you how to think about difficult abstract things using quantitative tools--those kind of skills can take you anywhere."

And, if you're thinking of studying astrophysics, or any STEM subject for that matter, find a college where you feel supported, like Lucia did at her alma mater.

"I fell in love with Wellesley within hours of stepping on campus. It is so beautiful, and I immediately felt at home amongst the other students, and I was welcomed as an intellectual. (Their incredible financial aid and academic record also helped!)

With regards to the all-women environment: it's exactly what made Wellesley so incredible! I went to an all-girl's school from seventh grade on, and I loved the care that the teachers gave to each student and the environment of community and encouragement. I felt like I mattered as an individual, and that people believed in my ability to succeed.

When college application time came, I was hesitant to apply to women's colleges; but I applied to Wellesley at my counselor's insistence, since the application was free and Wellesley is amongst the top five liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

When I visited Wellesley during the Spring Open Campus weekend and met students and other prospies (prospective students), I got that same feeling that I mattered and that Wellesley wanted me to succeed and that it would support me in that. I could immediately see what a strong feeling of community and intellectual curiosity came from every crevice of that gorgeous campus, and I could see myself being happy and thriving there. I didn't feel that at any of the other schools I visited."

I hear comments similar to Lucia's all the time, and that's one of the reasons I encourage all college-bound high school girls to investigate women's colleges. On my blog, Advantages of a Women's College, is a comprehensive list of schools.

It's going to be fun watching Lucia's career unfold. I asked her what options she's thinking about and she said, "I like the idea of being able to do scientific research while doing outreach and science advocacy, especially out in popular culture. Or, I might end up working for NASA as a mission scientist or working on large astrophysics problems with one of the national laboratories."

If you would like to be included in this project or simply want to learn more, feel free to contact me. The best way is via the contact gadget found on my blog.