Putting More CUNY Students on Paths to (Study) the Stars

Professor Jackie Faherty (left), Rocio Kiman (Ph.D. '21, Physics) (center) and Kelle Cruz (right) on the day of her dissertation defense.

By Lida Tunesi 

When Rocio Kiman (Ph.D. ’21, Physics) started her work on low mass stars she only had a little bit of experience doing research. Today, Kiman is a postdoctoral scholar at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has plans to do three years of research at CalTech, too.

Eileen Gonzalez (Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History)

Kiman is one of two recent physics alumni now doing postdoctoral research in astronomy. Eileen Gonzales (Ph.D. ’20, Physics), who was awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Heising-Simons Foundation, is currently studying brown dwarf atmospheres at Cornell University.

Both Kiman and Gonzales were part of the Brown Dwarfs in New York City, or BDNYC, research group, led by Professors Jacqueline Faherty (Physics), Kelle Cruz (GC/Hunter, Physics), and Emily Rice (GC/Macaulay, Physics). Kiman cited the support she received from the group in launching her career.

“My advisers gave me encouragement, but also freedom to develop myself, through trial and error, with a little bit of direction whenever I needed it,” she said. “The group helped me develop as a scientist.”

The sense of community extended beyond research too. 

“During group meetings, we didn’t only chat about science,” Kiman said. “We were also encouraged to discuss what was going on our lives. They put a lot of emphasis in trying to make this nice balance between research and life.”

BDNYC is based at the American Museum of Natural History, where other Graduate Center professors who study the cosmos have appointments, too. This gives graduate students a chance to participate in the museum’s research community, events, and outreach efforts. 

“It’s a very vibrant environment,” Cruz said. “It promotes learning, and being aware of current events in astronomy. It gives students professional experience and expands their networks. There are not that many astronomers in the world but we have a critical mass of them all within NYC.” 

An Astrophysics Master’s Program Offers a Bridge for Underrepresented Students 

With a new astrophysics master’s program starting next fall, directed by Professor Jillian Bellovary (GC/Queensborough, Physics), the Graduate Center expects to help even more students reach the stars. 

“Our program is designed to prepare people for Ph.D. programs, industry jobs, and numerous other pathways,” Bellovary said. “I’m really looking forward to opening these doors for folks who otherwise don’t have access to opportunities like this. 

Significantly, admissions for the master’s program will not require a score from the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE, the standardized test commonly used in graduate school applications. A number of recent studies have shown that GRE scores are weak predictors of student success in graduate school, and that using a score cutoff biases admissions against women and minorities. The fee to take the exam can present another hurdle for potential students. 

“We want the master’s to act like a bridge to a Ph.D.,” said Professor Timothy Paglione (GC/York, Physics), chair of CUNY Astro, 15 faculty from nine CUNY campuses involved in astronomy and astrophysics research. “A lot of students, especially from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences, feel that they are unprepared, or they either don’t understand how to or can’t get into a Ph.D. program. But with graduate school experience they become excellent candidates.” 

Bellovary previously worked for the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which aims to improve demographic representation in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

“I’ve seen firsthand how programs like this can change lives,” she said. “I thought CUNY would be the perfect place to create a system like this and it seemed like a no-brainer to build a program based on such a successful model in a city as diverse as NYC."

The new program will carry forward the connections that the Graduate Center’s Physics Ph.D. program has with the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute, where Bellovary is a guest researcher. Over 20 scientists from the center will mentor students and teach master’s level courses. 

“I’m excited about giving folks the opportunity to delve more deeply into astrophysics,” Bellovary said.  

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing 

Submitted on: NOV 16, 2021

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