Their Turn to Launch Into Astrophysics

August 24, 2022

Five students embark on a master’s program designed to diversify an elite field.

Incoming Students Astrophysics 2022 (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)
Five students are about to begin the Graduate Center’s new M.S. in Astrophysics. From left: Imani Dindi, Vanessa Brown, Rosario Cecilio, Ryan Lebron, and Andrew Ayala. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Ryan Lebron, who is entering the Graduate Center’s new Astrophysics master’s program, became interested in astrophysics just two years ago, when he was well into a physics major at the University of Scranton. 

“I was in a mad dash to try and learn all sorts of new stuff about it,” he said. “Now, being able to dive deep into the topics that drew me in to the field, and actually get a degree specializing in astrophysics, feels like a dream come true.” 

Lebron and his four classmates are the first students to join the program. They include a sci-fi novelist, a former second-grade teacher, and an Oklahoman coming to New York City for the first time. All are students of color who have traveled unusual paths to a field that is known for its rigor and elitism. 

The program, taught in collaboration with the Flatiron Institute Center for Computational Astrophysics, is designed to give students from underrepresented backgrounds the research experience and professional skills to move into competitive astronomy, astrophysics, and physics Ph.D. programs and related careers. A $4 million grant from the Simons Foundation covers the students’ tuition and provides them with stipends and health care benefits. 

Learn more about the M.S. Program in Astrophysics

“It’s a burden or a weight off of my shoulders in terms of considering further schooling and my future,” said incoming student Andrew Ayala about having his expenses covered. A native New Yorker and graduate of Davidson College, Ayala has been a research analyst at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Hearing that the program was free was all Imani Dindy needed to apply. The Oklahoma State graduate is adjusting to life in New York from his hometown of Holdenville, Oklahoma, which he described as “a tiny speck in the center of the state.” Being in New York is weird, he said, but reflected, “In my younger years I would have never thought this would be possible for me and being able to study such a beautiful field is a wonderful opportunity.”

Ayala intends to go for a Ph.D. next, as does Vanessa Brown, who is on the verge of publishing a science fiction novella, and Rosario Cecilio, who taught second grade in the Bronx while earning a second bachelor’s degree in physics. 

“I see this as a steppingstone and an opening to a world that I’ve been eager to enter for a while,” Cecilio said.

The program took four years to move from concept to reality. “We had the seeds of the idea for this program in 2018,” said Professor Jillian Bellovary (GC/Queensborough, Physics, Astrophysics), who directs the program. “It’s kind of unbelievable that this is really happening.” 

In selecting students, Bellovary said, “We looked for students who showed a lot of potential but were missing a key opportunity in their path. For some, this was a lack of research experience, and for others, it was coursework that they needed. In each case, we saw a lot of promise, and if the person had had access to all the privilege and opportunity of their peers they would succeed. So we hope we can give them that.” 

Bellovary summed up why she started the program. “I’ve met so many people who have the passion and potential to be great scientists but either found out too late about the path to get there, or had obstacles to face along the way, or some other reason that the system has shut them out. I want to help create a system that allows everyone in.”

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