When pursuing a science degree, hands-on experience is critical. But for undergraduates, especially those in their first or second year, such opportunities are typically limited to lab classes. Getting that early real-world experience is a boon when applying to graduate school, especially for students from backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences.
In April, astrophysicist Jorge Moreno brought three of his undergraduate students from Pomona College in Claremont, California, to the Flatiron Institute in New York City for some education and inspiration. Moreno is a Flatiron Institute Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Advocacy (IDEA) Scholar, and the trip was part of his efforts as a scholar to increase diversity and improve equity and inclusion in the sciences. He applied to become an IDEA Scholar because of his passion for fostering diversity and access in the field of astrophysics and also his positive experiences collaborating with Flatiron Institute researchers, says Moreno, who is an assistant professor at Pomona.
The IDEA Scholar program, established in 2020, invites distinguished scientists who are passionate about increasing diversity and improving equity and inclusion in the sciences for extended visits at the Flatiron Institute. Scholars spend four weeks at the Flatiron Institute, engaging in activities such as kick-starting new collaborations, working on scientific projects, giving talks and seminars, organizing or participating in workshops and career development events, and mentoring junior scientists, as Moreno did during his recent visit.
“Pomona College is a predominately white institution, and these are three students of color,” Moreno says. The three students — first years Anbo Li and Gada Terefa and second year Khadi Diallo — visited the Flatiron Institute for two weeks. Along the way, Moreno gave them a crash course in astrophysics, providing them with scientific papers to read and coding challenges to tackle. “They’re on fire; I’m really impressed with them,” Moreno says, noting how quickly the students grasped complex concepts related to galaxy evolution and the Python programming language.
“It’s inspiring to see how scientists actually work in the industry,” says Li. “One of my first impressions was that everyone here seems relatively young; a lot of them I feel could belong in Pomona. So that was a shock to me, because that didn’t match my preconceived notion of scientists.”
Moreno chose his three students based on their abilities and also for being “the kind of students who go out of their way to help others” — because, he says, “collaboration is important.” He tasked them with a coding task to build a basketball simulation to teach object-oriented programming.
“Right now, it’s basically building the fundamentals,” Li says. “We haven’t gotten into the cool part yet.”
Once trained, the three students will work with Moreno on problems specific to astrophysics, such as those related to the halos of material that surround big and small galaxies. Moreno is an expert on simulating galaxy evolution. By studying halos in computer simulations, he and his students hope to find a way to infer more information about galaxies in real life, such as why some galaxies have relatively meager amounts of dark matter. “When a galaxy lacks dark matter, you expect that to rip the galaxy apart,” Terefa says. “That’s why there’s this bigger question of why these galaxies exist.”
Moreno says he’s excited to continue the work back in California and hopes that the Flatiron Institute inspires his students to keep working hard and broadening their horizons. “I’m actually a bit concerned they’re getting a biased view of astronomy,” he says: “They might think that every place is as wonderful as the Flatiron Institute.”