She's Into the Coolest Stars

February 13, 2019

Ph.D. student Eileen Gonzales is rare among astronomers both for her interest in the celestial objects known as brown dwarfs and her background.

Eileen-Gonzales-200 indoors with arms folded

Growing up in Virginia Beach, Graduate Center Ph.D. student Eileen Gonzales (Physics) “just liked going outside and looking up at the stars.” Her mother encouraged her to be an astronaut, but Gonzales found another route to the stars: astronomy.

More specifically, Gonzales studies dwarfs — the celestial variety. These objects are too small to conduct the nuclear fusion associated with stars, but still far larger than planets and able to emit their own light. Gonzales studies their atmospheres, trying to learn what types of molecules are in abundance and how their atmospheric structure is composed.

Dwarfs have intrigued Gonzales since college, when the “tiny couple of paragraphs” she read about them in her introductory astronomy class piqued her interest. She ended up writing her final essay about brown dwarfs.

For her master’s degree at San Francisco State University, she studied exoplanets, as no one there studied brown dwarfs. Aptly, astronomers dub these different types of substellar objects “cool stars.”  

In New York, though, she has found a rare and welcoming community of brown dwarf astronomers based at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and affiliated with CUNY. The research group calls itself BDNYC, or Brown Dwarfs in New York City, and is co-led by three women. They are Professor Kelle L. Cruz (GC/Hunter, Physics), Gonzales’ doctoral adviser and an AMNH research associate in astrophysics; Jackie Faherty, senior scientist and senior education manager in the departments of astrophysics and education at AMNH; and Professor Emily Rice (GC/Staten Island, Physics), an AMNH research associate in astrophysics.

Mostly female and racially diverse, BDNYC offers a distinct research culture. “You don't deal with a lot of those issues that other people go through in grad school,” Gonzales says, pointing out the lack of “sexist interactions,” which she has encountered elsewhere.

Buoyed by this environment, Gonzales is emerging as a role model for other aspiring African-American astronomers. Last fall, at the annual meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, Gonzales was honored with the American Astronomical Society’s Beth Brown Memorial Award for Best Oral Presentation. With the award, she will give talks at Howard University and the University of Michigan, focusing on her path into research astronomy.

Another advantage of the group and The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. program is working at AMNH, which Gonzales describes as “the most unique graduate school experience.” There, she mentors high school students who conduct research with her, and when time allows she meanders through the museum’s myriad displays and exhibitions, taking in all there is to see, from the famed dinosaurs to the “entertaining” groups of children who fill the halls.

When not in New York, Gonzales is variously in the United Kingdom working with a collaborator whose computer code she is using to crunch the vast amounts of data she analyzes, traveling for conferences, or occasionally at the Magellan Telescopes in Chile, where she says she can still summon the little-girl wonder that drew her to her field and her calling.

Photo by Denis Finnin, American Museum of Natural History.