Physics Student Returns from Summer Internship at MIT
By Brian Hiro
If Lorena Aguirre goes on to become a famous astrophysicist, perhaps she can look back in gratitude to her father and his fascination with “Star Trek.”
Growing up in Escondido, Lorena and her dad, Manuel, would watch old episodes of “Star Trek: The Original Series” – a show that went off the air in 1969, almost three decades before Lorena was born – and she would marvel at the exploits of Captain Kirk, Spock and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew.
The show made her want to learn more about science and to explore the mysteries of space. It made her want to become the first person in her family to go to college.
Now a senior applied physics major at Cal State San Marcos, Lorena this summer received a considerable boost toward achieving her “Star Trek”-inspired life goal when she participated in a 10-week astrophysics internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s premier institutions of scientific research.
The internship was part of the CAMPARE program, a network of 23 California State University schools and California community colleges from which students are recruited to participate in undergraduate summer research projects. Within CAMPARE, there is a newer program called CHAMP (CAMPARE-HERA Astronomy Minority Partnership), which gives students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM an opportunity to study cosmology and radio astronomy at one of seven universities – including MIT – partnering on the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) project, a state-of-the-art radio telescope being built in South Africa.
“I’ve always been interested in astrophysics, and I’ve only done condensed matter physics,” Lorena said. “I didn’t think I was going to get into the program, but I thought if I don’t try, obviously I’m not going to get anything.”
Lorena was one of only four students from CAMPARE universities selected to do their research at MIT. After a one-week radio astronomy “boot camp” in New Mexico designed to give the interns some of the skills they would need to succeed in the program, Lorena headed off to Cambridge, Mass., where she was given a $5,000 stipend and provided with an apartment near campus. Outside of a couple of trips to Mexico – her mother is from Mexicali, just south of the U.S. border near El Centro – Lorena never had been outside California.
“The first two weeks, I felt like I was in denial,” she said. “It was a weird experience, but I got to live independently in my own apartment, go to work. It was awesome.”
Under the guidance of Jacqueline Hewitt, the director of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, Lorena tested and compared two radio telescope designs as part of improvements to the HERA project. HERA is a telescope that’s designed to detect a particular wavelength of light emitted by hydrogen atoms during what’s called the Epoch of Reionization, which scientists believe started about 400 million years after the Big Bang. By analyzing the data, scientists hope to answer the question of when and how the first stars formed out of cold clumps of hydrogen gas and started to shine – when, in other words, was our “cosmic dawn”?
Besides her work with Hewitt at MIT, Lorena and the other interns took a trip to West Virginia to visit the Green Bank Observatory, the largest fully steerable telescope in the world, and test one of the antenna feeds.
“That was an awesome experience because there was no phone service, no Wi-Fi, nothing,” Lorena said. “We couldn’t even drive cars with sparkplugs in the area because it’s a radio quiet zone. The little town, Green Bank, has a population of about 160, so there was only one small convenience store.”
Lorena returned from MIT armed with an abundance of fresh knowledge and a substantial lift in self-confidence. She was the only one of the four interns who isn’t an astronomy or astrophysics major; CSUSM is testing an astrophysics class for the first time this semester, and Lorena, of course, is taking it.
She also has begun applying to graduate school programs, with MIT as her first choice. Coming from a family where college never was thought of as an option, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. and aspires to become an astrophysics professor.
In her career objective, Lorena has a good model in Stephen Tsui, an associate professor in physics who has been her faculty mentor since she transferred from Palomar College two years ago.
“When we first met, we talked about her ambition to become an astrophysicist and chatted a little about our common fandom in ‘Star Trek,’ ” Tsui said. “She reminded me of my friends back when I was in college.”
Like Lorena, Tsui says he was inspired to be a physicist by watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as a kid. Professor and student still talk about the show frequently – Lorena sometimes calls Tsui “Captain,” and he calls her “Cadet.” An artist on the side, Lorena even drew a picture of her lab group set on the bridge of the Enterprise-D from “The Next Generation” series.
With "Star Trek" as her guide, and a career in astrophysics possibly in her future, Lorena is clearly on track to live long and prosper.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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