Some of the brightest minds in astrophysics are like undiscovered exoplanets. They are out there, but no one knows about them just yet.

For some of these students, no one in their family has ever gone to college, let alone measured the masses of neutron stars. Fates and circumstances haven’t aligned with their talents.

Each of these alumni is a first-generation college graduate

The trick is seeking such people out, and then mentoring and encouraging them. After all, “many talented students have had fewer opportunities than their wealthy peers,” says UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, who has made it part of his life’s work to recruit, nurture, and champion such students.

“Some haven’t had role models in the sciences who look like them,” he says. “Many have lived in a society that told them they weren’t good enough.”

When Ramirez-Ruiz launched the Lamat Summer Research Program on High-Performance Computing in Astrophysics in 2009, he was throwing out a wide net, hoping to snare the most talented community college students, as well as current UC Santa Cruz students, and make them part of the astrophysics community. The Lamat program also places a special emphasis on attracting Latinx students who are skilled in the sciences but want to delve more deeply into research.

Many Lamat students are transfers from community colleges; others have been at UC Santa Cruz all along but were looking for an immersive program to ramp up their astrophysics skills. And the results, so far, have been remarkable.

Consider this year’s exceptional cohort of four recent Lamat grads:

• Andrea Antoni, who became one of UC Santa Cruz’s most celebrated astrophysics undergrads after returning to college in her mid-30s;

• Martin Lopez, who went from struggling community college student to pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard;

• Monica Gallegos-Garcia, who found a second home in UC Santa Cruz’s scientific community; and

• Krystal Ruiz-Rocha, who discovered, in science, “a world of absolute wonder.”

Ramirez-Ruiz has an outsized pride in every one of these students, who truly live up to the program’s name. “Lamat” means “star” in the Mayan language.

And the program has yielded a phenomenal statistic: Lamat-trained UC Santa Cruz alumni helped increase the number of Latinx students in top astronomy graduate programs across the country from 2 percent to 5 percent in seven years.

“Ultimately, my legacy is not the work that I do,” Ramirez-Ruiz says. “It is really the students I can generate, and that is the greatest legacy you have now—being able to train students in a way of thinking that will make them into transformative scientists themselves.”

Here are their stories.

A door opens

At 39, Andrea Antoni (Kresge ’18, astrophysics) is more than a decade older than many of her cohorts in the astrophysics program at UC Santa Cruz, but the long deferment of her ambitions has, if anything, redoubled her focus.

“She is probably one of the best students we have seen in our program,” said Ramirez-Ruiz, noting that she has had graduate school offers from Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and Caltech. She was also the recipient of a prestigious 2017 Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduates in the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering and earned a 4.0 GPA.

While attending West Valley College in Saratoga, Antoni found out about “STEM Transfer Day,” in which community college students can learn about opportunities at UC Santa Cruz. That’s how she first heard of Ramirez-Ruiz, her future mentor, and learned that UC Santa Cruz is one of the few remaining campuses in the UC system to offer guaranteed admission for qualified community college students.

On campus, she picked up a Lamat program flyer, applied, and was accepted into that scientific “boot camp.” The experience was a revelation.

“A lot of people, according to society, don’t have value, and that’s not the case,” she says. “Enrico especially recognizes that there are people who can be strong scientists but aren’t going to come to UC Santa Cruz naturally, inevitably, because their nontraditional paths don’t lead directly here. You have to go out and find those students.”

In the Lamat program, Antoni came to realize that the skills she developed in her life outside of astronomy and academia “absolutely translated” to success in research. “This was incredibly empowering because the thing that I loved (physics) turned out to be something that I could do well.”

She also realized that her research and classroom work reinforced each other in surprising ways. “Banging my head against the wall and putting wildly different physics concepts together to solve real problems really primed my ears for thinking in the classroom,” she noted.

Antoni was born in Cincinnati, but the family moved to the Bay Area when she was 5. Her mother was a waitress at Red Lobster. Her father hung drywall.

“The only people I knew who had a science degree were my dentist and my doctor,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college.”

And yet there seems to be something innate about her drive to be a scientist. “When I was a little girl, I definitely pictured myself in a lab coat. I saw Doogie Howser and I thought, ‘That’s what you do if you like science!’”

Watching their parents working hard, Antoni says, “my sister and I just assumed that’s what you did: Work hard, teach yourself the skills you need, become the boss.”

But Antoni had to miss part of high school because of problems at home. After she became a single mother at 18, on her last day of high school, she went to work at Togo’s, initially as a sandwich maker, but ended up a graphic designer and serving as the brand director for the company’s Aqui Cal-Mex division.

With help from a supportive partner, and while her daughter was still in high school, Antoni completed the transfer requirements for a physics major before coming to UC Santa Cruz. Though Antoni has worked very hard on campus—and she and her sister are the first in their family to go to college—the years have passed like a dream.

“I get paid to do science!” she says, referring to her grant money.

“I just can’t believe people are willing to do that. I can have a job where people pay me to do physics? That is just the most beautiful thing. How lucky I was that life opened this door for me.”

Antoni plans to begin at UC Berkeley this fall to pursue her Ph.D.

Leap of faith

Martin Lopez (Crown ’18, astrophysics) is a quiet and humble man of faith; every time he mentions a blessing in his life, or talks about plans for the future, he quickly adds the words, “Thank God.”

Clearly, Lopez has a lot to be grateful for. He has gone from failing community college to pursuing a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Harvard starting in the fall of 2019. His transformation from a struggling student to an outstanding scholar was, literally, a matter of faith.

Lopez, a New Yorker and a first-generation college student, did not give much thought to school or the sciences when he graduated from high school in 2008. He enrolled in a community college, but mostly to please his parents. After dropping out with a GPA of 1.1, he moved to San Jose to enroll at an art institute and pursue a career in video games, only to be told that he could not draw and should seek another profession.

Astronomy students

Astronomy professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz with Lamat students (now alumni) Monica Gallegos-Garcia (at blackboard), Martin Lopez (center), Andrea Antoni (center-left), and Kyle Rocha (Oakes ’18, astrophysics; left), photo by C. Lagattuta

While enrolled at another community college, he took a class called Islam 101 to satisfy his GE requirements. It ended up changing his life. “I decided to accept Islam and become Muslim after the class ended, thank God,” he says. “Islam urges us to educate ourselves and benefit and contribute to the society around us, and my perspective and attitude toward school were transformed.”

In fact, excelling at school became an act of worship. After transferring to UC Santa Cruz, he was accepted into Lamat, an impressive feat in itself. In a typical year, Lamat receives hundreds of applicants for only a few positions. But for those determined few, the program came with full funding for summer research throughout their careers at UC Santa Cruz. For Lopez, the program also led to an invitation to join a research group with Ramirez-Ruiz, who pushed the students to think critically, even while bolstering their confidence with strong support.

“Lamat was my first real exposure to astrophysics and any idea of how research worked or how to do it,” Lopez said. “I didn’t know how to read a paper, how to search for papers, or even know what the point of reading them was.” As for Ramirez-Ruiz, “he pushes all of his students to think critically and believes in us,” Lopez said. “He believed in me as a student with no background whatsoever and no research skills and helped me and mentored me through my journey at UC Santa Cruz.” Aldo Batta, a postdoctoral scholar, also guided him throughout his time at UC Santa Cruz.

“Lamat,” Lopez says, “was an immeasurable blessing.”

Research launchpad

For Monica Gallegos-Garcia (Oakes ’18, astrophysics), the Lamat summer program was her first real exposure to astrophysics research—and posed a formidable challenge in the beginning. She was a first-generation college student, and it took a little while just to find her footing in academia.

“Many times, I would stay on campus working for late hours because I was stuck on a problem,” says Gallegos-Garcia.

But all that hands-on research experience would be a boon for Gallegos-Garcia, who has decided to attend a Ph.D. program in astronomy/ astrophysics at Northwestern University.

Though she enrolled at UC Santa Cruz as an astrophysics major, Lamat took her work to a whole other level. In the process of learning about astrophysics, “I got to familiarize myself with its ups and downs and many long hours of frustration, but I also got to know the wonderful community that doing research within Lamat comes with,” she said. “Because of this I would say that the Lamat program launched my science research because it gave me a very raw look at what it was really like.”

Now she is becoming a star in her own right, studying, among other things, “the very violent deaths of stars that are disrupted by a supermassive black hole’s gravitational field.”

Gallegos-Garcia is first author of a paper entitled “Tidal Disruptions of Main-sequence Stars of Varying Mass and Age: Inferences from the Composition of the Fallback Material,” which was published in the Astrophysical Journal this year.

Understanding the workings of the universe

Krystal Ruiz-Rocha (Stevenson ‘16, physics) plans on continuing research in astrophysics and pursuing graduate studies. This coming year she is going to participate in the renowned Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program.

A Salinas native, she is the first in her family, on her father’s side, to attend college, and the first to pursue a STEM field. And yet her connection to the sciences was strong, immediate, and unbreakable even when she was a child.

“I loved the way science allowed me to understand the world around me,” Ruiz-Rocha said. “The act of learning something new filled me with absolute wonder. My inquisitive nature only heightened as I grew older, and I strove to learn as much as I could.”

In Lamat, “I learned a great deal more about research practices and methods, and how to explain complex topics to my peers and people with no knowledge in astronomy,” she says.

In fact, it was Lamat that gave her the tools to understand the workings of the universe, and motivated her to major in physics. Lamat also exposed her to students from diverse backgrounds—something that was sorely lacking in her physics classes, she said.

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz two years ago, Ruiz-Rocha continued her work on campus; her mentor, Ramirez-Ruiz, hired her as a junior research assistant.

Changing the cycle

Ramirez-Ruiz believes in these students. He also believes in the inherent wisdom of “going out into society and trying to bring in the top students from all walks of life.”

In the process, Lamat is doing more than just preparing these students for success.

“These students are the most talented in the whole department, and that is just so refreshing,” he said. “And I can guarantee you that when they become professors, they will be mentors, too. And if you mentor a first-generation student, you can change the whole history of their family. Rising up to the top and coming back as mentors of others—that is the only way to change the cycle in this country.”

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