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Physics Grad Pursues Doctorate in Gravitational-Wave Science

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I decided to come to Cal State Fullerton because my mom and aunt attended the university and loved it. When I visited, I fell in love with the campus, particularly the Fullerton Arboretum. My choice also made the most sense as it is very close to my hometown. However, when I got to CSUF, I learned quickly that it was so much more than a sensible choice — it was a gem, with the heart being the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. I can’t imagine my undergraduate experience taking place anywhere else.

The people in the Department of Physics have been incredibly welcoming throughout my journey. The faculty and staff have always been happy to help with class questions or career advice, as well as provide encouragement when times were difficult. Having a diverse group of faculty members is another thing that makes the department so unique. I always looked forward to the Friday colloquia, in which professors at CSUF or other institutions around the world come to talk about their research. The sense of community shines through with these collaborations.

I found my research home at the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy (GWPAC) in early 2019. I knew that I wanted to join this group, but I was far too nervous to try — until an introductory physics class where I was encouraged to talk to Dr. Geoffrey Lovelace. He told me about gravitational waves: ripples in spacetime due to accelerating objects like colliding black holes, and how we can observe gravitational waves from events like this with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). As a member of GWPAC, I got to work alongside students working in different areas of gravitational-wave physics, including work to simulate colliding black holes (led by Dr. Lovelace) to improve gravitational-wave detectors’ astronomical reach (led by Dr. Joshua Smith), and to use gravitational waves to learn about extremely dense dead stars called neutron stars (led by Dr. Jocelyn Read).

Research has been the most incredible experience. It has opened my view of the universe and what an undergraduate like me could contribute. It has also opened possibilities after graduation: 21 GWPAC alumni are entering or attending Ph.D. programs and 17 are working in industry at companies such as Northrop Grumman, Apple and NASA. In addition to opening career pathways, thanks to this group, I have made amazing, lifelong friends. 

I’m grateful that financial support through the generosity of donors made it possible to pursue my research and leave my restaurant job to focus fully on my physics studies. Since I could focus more time on physics, I was able to present my work at conferences, including the American Physical Society’s national virtual meeting in April — and my grades went up, too.

My work has been supported by National Science Foundation grants and the kindness and generosity of the late Nicholas Begovich and his wife, Lee. Students in GWPAC have also been supported by Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and the Dan Black family. I would like to warmly thank them all for their support. On behalf of all students who have been financially supported in their research by kind donors, thank you so much for your support in our curiosity and for bettering our undergraduate experience. I am so incredibly grateful to receive this support and to be able to focus on my degree and research.

Last semester, I applied to Ph.D. programs across the country and I have decided to attend Syracuse University, where I will pursue a doctorate in physics and continue to work in gravitational-wave science. I am excited to begin my graduate degree and eventually become a professor to mentor and inspire the next generation of eager scientists. I am also happy to take my experiences from CSUF with me as I take my next step towards my goals.

Submitted by Sierra Thomas, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics

Sierra gave this speech at the spring College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Virtual Awards Celebration, which recognized graduating students, scholarship and award winners and donors. Watch her speech here.

Debra Cano Ramos