‘We are all connected’: Building bridges to careers in astrophysics

Fri, 06/21/2024

An award-winning nonprofit co-founded by a Yale astronomer creates opportunities in astrophysics for students from Central America and the Caribbean.

When he’s not searching for links between black holes and galaxy formation, astrophysicist Antonio Porras Valverde likes to build bridges between young scientists from marginalized communities and the wider world of academia.

Porras Valverde, a Heising-Simons postdoctoral fellow in Yale’s Department of Astronomy, is co-founder of Cenca Bridge Inc., a nonprofit that organizes mentorship programs, conducts professional development workshops, and seeks out remote research opportunities for college undergraduates from Central America and the Caribbean who are interested in astrophysics. Begun in 2016, Cenca Bridge now has more than 100 undergraduate students participating in its programs.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently awarded Cenca Bridge with its Astronomy Development Prize, which honors individuals and organizations that use astronomy as a tool for development and capacity-building, especially in underserved regions.

Cenca Bridge is a well-conceived and well-executed platform for remote astronomy research and has paved the way for an impressive number of opportunities for aspiring astrophysicists across Central America and the Caribbean who have had very few opportunities before,” IAU noted in its announcement of the prize. “Its students apply successfully to graduate programmes worldwide, not only in astronomy, but also in other STEM subjects.

In addition to advancing the frontiers of astrophysical research, Cenca Bridge has also fostered a culture of collaboration, mentorship, and inclusivity within the astronomical community.”

Porras Valverde was born in Florida, grew up in Costa Rica, and returned to the United States as a teenager. He says there were rough patches as he adjusted to academia and the world of science research; that was part of his personal motivation for helping to launch Cenca Bridge (the group’s formal name is The Central American Caribbean Bridge in Astrophysics).

I’ve grown more confident in the way I do science, and part of that was because I found a community,” he said. “I found people who supported me. That kept me going.”

Porras Valverde spoke with Yale News about Cenca Bridge, his research, and his thoughts on mentorship. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Did you want to be a scientist when you were growing up?

Antonio Porras Valverde: I grew up in San Jose, Costa Rica, wanting to be a soccer player. It never occurred to me I could be a scientist because I never met one in real life. My high school math teacher motivated me to participate in Math Olympics competitions. It was that — along with a fascination for understanding humanity’s origin and purpose — that led me to study the universe.

What research are you working on here at Yale?

Porras Valverde: I am a theorist in galaxy formation with interest in black holes. I am working on understanding how supermassive black holes grow in such a short period of time. My Ph.D. work centered on the connection between galaxies and their dark matter halos, but the more I learned from galaxies, the better I appreciated the existence of massive black holes.

Recent discoveries with the James Webb Space Telescope are revolutionizing our understanding of the co-evolution between black holes and galaxies. My work focuses on modeling black hole growth, implementing physics that we think are happening in the real universe.

Let’s talk about your academic journey. What was your first experience with scientific research?

Porras Valverde: After finishing high school at the age of 16, I moved to the U.S. to study English. I began taking English as a Second Language [ESL] courses at Northern Virginia Community College, where I also took my first calculus and classical mechanics courses.

Before I transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [UNC] as an undergrad, I first completed a research experience for undergraduate [REU] internship at the University of Toledo studying diffuse molecular clouds in the interstellar medium. This was the first time I was exposed to astronomy research.

I had been thinking about astronomy research in a Hollywood way — that it was about looking into telescopes. I didn’t know that math and programming were such a big part of it. The jargon and scientific references felt overwhelming at first. But although the tasks were not as I had imagined, I knew I had found my place.

What was your biggest challenge?

Porras Valverde: During my first semester at UNC, I failed multivariable calculus and electromagnetism. I was so ashamed to fail a math course I decided to switch my major to math. I needed to re-assure myself, and within a year I was getting A’s in math. I began doing fluid dynamics research modeling jellyfish swimming using codes solving the Naiver-Stokes equations.

My last year as an undergraduate, I had another chance to do astronomy research. I got accepted into the National Astronomy Consortium summer internship at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory [NRAO]. There, I decided to change my career path once again. I learned about the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program, where STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds have the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree to prepare them for a PhD. I completed my physics masters at Fisk University, and later my Ph.D. in astrophysics at Vanderbilt University.

How did you get involved with Cenca Bridge?

Porras Valverde: For a long time, I battled with trying to make my work in astronomy significant to the general public. How does studying galaxies and black holes contribute to solving issues like climate change or poverty?

My best solution was to use my computational and educational skills to teach students transferable skills that may help them land a better job. I began doing some mentoring on my own and this led eventually to networking with colleagues in astrophysics from elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean.

Four of us co-lead Cenca Bridge — Valeria Hurtado [a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, who is from Nicaragua], Yahira Mendoza Moncada [a master’s student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who is from Honduras], Gloria Fonseca Alvarez [a postdoctoral fellow at NOIRLab, the U.S. National Science Foundation National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, who is from Nicaragua], and me. We are passionate about bringing astronomy education into the region.

How do you go about this work?

Porras Valverde: We build support through peer mentorship, highlighting role models, and paid research internships. We are the only organization that financially supports students for remote internships in astronomy research in Central America and the Caribbean.

Who are some of your role models and mentors?

Porras Valverde: One source of motivation that I see as a pattern in my life is the number of strong women who have taken me under their wing. That includes my grandmother, mother, my undergraduate research adviser Laura Miller, Ph.D. advisor Kelly Holley-Bockelmann. And now at Yale it is Priya Natarajan and Meg Urry.

And now you are an award-winning role model. How does that feel?

Porras Valverde: My nonlinear academic path and social upbringing provides so many ways to connect with students. As [the late American Chicana feminist scholar] Gloria Anzaldúa has mentioned, we are all connected.

My motto is, we cannot prioritize scientific discoveries while ignoring the humanity of the people we work with.