Cristina Torres, a Harlingen native, never expected to return to the Rio Grande Valley. But that’s where she is now, a research assistant professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
After splitting her time between the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and the
Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Livingston, La., she decided she wanted to work at a Hispanic-serving institution.
“I was the first to graduate college in my family,” said Torres, 36.
She also wants to introduce more minority students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a segment of the population Torres said is underrepresented in those fields.
According to the College Board, only 16 percent of Hispanics who enter the sciences complete their degrees in those academic pursuits. That’s almost one-half of the completion rate for Asian and Caucasian students.
A child’s fascination, Torres said, is similar to a scientist’s pursuit of answers.
“Children’s natural behavior is that of a scientist and somehow that’s lost,” she said.
A scientist’s perspective
Torres has not lost that natural curiosity.
She is part of a team of UTB faculty and students that recently traveled to a secluded Andean peak in Argentina where they are gearing up to try to build a large enough telescope that can capture the image of kilonova, an exotic astronomical phenomena that wiktionary.org describes as having the luminosity of 1,000 novas.
Wikipedia describes a nova as “a star showing a sudden large increase in brightness and then slowly returning to its original state over a few months.”
The project, called the Transient Optical Robotic Observatory of the South, is a collaboration between Texas A&M, Cal Tech and the National University at Cordoba in Argentina.
Though the observatory the team is working on is an ambitious project, it’s not one of a kind. They are competing with a project of the same scale by another group of Argentine and Brazilian students.
However, the two teams are also up against an even larger foe: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a project that has tens of millions of dollars in funds, but it is not scheduled for completion for several years.
Torres’s project is the David to the LSST’s Goliath to rank them on a biblical scale.
“What can we do on the cheap, with a bunch of friends?” Torres said. “What if we get lucky?”
Torres likens the idea to Marie Curie’s discovery of polonium and radium and Curie’s research in the field of radioactivity.
“If you see it first,” Torres said, “you get the credit of the first observation.”
She said that in order to be the first the team needs to get its telescope up and running before the LSST begins working. To do that, her team is in the process of applying for grant money, she said.
The possibility of a scientific discovery took Torres and UTB graduate student Samanta Fuentes on a precarious car ride up a snowy mountain to examine the region where the observatory will be located.
“It was a treacherous ride up the mountain to get there,” Torres said. “I honestly thought we were going to die.”
More than 15,000 feet above sea level, in Cordon Macón, there is an empty dome waiting for a telescope to be built. That dome belongs to the Brazilian and Argentine team.
Team UTB was on this trip to check out an adjacent patch of land where they can build their own dome. According to Torres, UTB will largely be involved in the robotics programming portion of the project. Because the dome’s site is in such a harsh and remote habitat — on a mountain cliff with below zero temperatures — the telescope needs to be programmed in a way that allows for remote control.
The mountain, Torres said, has been declared a scientific preserve by the local government of Salta, the province where it’s located. The area is unique because of the air’s relationship with the mountainside and the lack of clouds.
“They call it ‘God’s fan,’” Torres said.
An astronomical event would not be visible in Brownsville the way it is in the Andes, according to Torres and Fuentes.
“Here, the atmosphere is thicker, a lot thicker,” Fuentes, 25, said. “In the mountains, there is more visibility.”
Pinpointing a kilonova could possibly lead to information about the Big Bang Theory, Fuentes said.
“When you look at the sky at night you see a bunch of stars,” Fuentes said. “But the light you are seeing is actually very, very old.”
Altitude sickness dogged Fuentes most of the time, but she said, “The sky is the most beautiful sky that you will ever see.”
Science for science’s sake
Though Fuentes is close to finishing her second year of graduate work at UTB, she wants to pursue a doctoral degree. For now, she is planning to somehow combine this project and her eventual work for her doctorate.
This kind of research, Torres said, is an integral part of a student’s learning process. Students don’t learn as much from textbooks as they do from actual activities, she added.
So far four students have been involved in the research, Torres said.
Though professors on campus are unsure of what the next phase will be in regards to UTB’s transition to the merger with UT-Pan American to become a new university in the Valley, Fuentes said this project is in direct line with the system’s idea of a university that leads to the Americas.
She called it a “binational” project.
The project began as an idea sketched out on a piece of paper by Mario Diaz, director for the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at UTB, Torres said.
Torres describes her involvement as .
And though she admits any discovery is a long shot, she said it’s science for the sake of science.
“I personally believe research projects should teach students how to be creative,” Torres said.