Celebrating Science and Hispanic Heritage Month: A Conversation with Hector Arce

October 14, 2016 | 11:26 am
Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter ArrayPhoto: European Southern Observatory/CC-BY 4.0
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Diversity strengthens science. It’s more than just a matter of fairness and equity—diverse groups of people create better science. Yet it should come as no surprise that people of color continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering. Some people and organizations are doing their best to change that.

People from Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant contributions to scientific knowledge for centuries. During Hispanic Heritage Month, I sat down with Yale astronomy professor Hector Arce for a wide ranging discussion about his life and beliefs about the role of the scientist in society. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

How and why did you first get interested in science, and particularly astronomy?

Yale Astronomy Professor Dr. Hector Arce. Photo: Dr. Arce

Yale Astronomy Professor Dr. Hector Arce. Photo: Dr. Arce

I always found science interesting in school. I remember always being interested in how things worked and being fascinated with the natural world (stars, planets, volcanoes, etc.).

My parents and grandparents were key in fostering my interest in science. My interest in astronomy was mostly influenced by my grandfather. He was a physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and an amateur astronomer. He built his own telescopes and I got to use some of them as a kid. I was fascinated by what we could see through those telescopes.

My grandfather had a picture of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico hanging from the wall. From this I learned that astronomers could actually work in observatories—even in Puerto Rico. You could say that the Arecibo Observatory (until recently the largest radio telescope in the world) inspired me to study astronomy. My grandfather and father, who was a chemistry professor at UPR, were examples who made me think that it was possible to become a scientist.

Tell me about your research, and why non-scientists should find it exciting.

My research is part of a larger effort in the astronomical community to understand how stars, like our sun, form. If we want to know how our own solar system formed, as well as the many other planetary systems that have recently been discovered, we need to study how stars and planets form in other parts of our galaxy.

A molecular cloud is an accumulation of interstellar gas and dust. Molecular clouds are the raw material of stars and planets. Pictured is the Horsehead nebula, part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. Photo: NASA

A molecular cloud is an accumulation of interstellar gas and dust. Molecular clouds are the raw material of stars and planets. Pictured is the Horsehead nebula, part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. Photo: NASA

I study the physical and chemical processes that take place in the regions where stars form (typically referred to as molecular clouds). My research focuses on observations of the gas and dust in these star-forming regions. I mostly use radio and millimeter wavelength telescopes to conduct my research, as well as data from infrared and optical telescopes.

Of the different processes that take place during the formation of a star, I am particularly interested in the high-velocity outflows and winds powered by young stars and their impact on the surrounding environment and on the star formation process itself.  I also study how the dense gas in molecular clouds evolves and “comes together” to form stars.

You have been involved with elementary, middle, and high school programs since you were a graduate student. What about these experiences have been most meaningful to you, and what has been most surprising?

The experiences with each age group have been somewhat different. To me it has always been very gratifying hearing how elementary school kids express their awe and amazement when they see beautiful images of different astronomical objects and learn what these images actually mean. Elementary school kids are typically not shy and it surprises me all the different questions they can come up with.

I have had great experiences working with high-school students. I taught a group of students from low-income backgrounds, and who had no previous experience in computer programming or conducting research, how to conduct a research project using real astronomical data. It was great to see their enthusiasm, and commitment to the project. I was very proud of them when I saw all they had learned and accomplished at their final presentations.

Part of the reason I like to be involved with programs for school kids is to let them know that anyone with the right interest, passion and skills can become a scientist regardless of racial or economic background. One does not have to come from a family of academics (as I did) to be a scientist.

Inside the platform of the massive Arecibo Radio Telescope, once the largest radio telescope in the world. Photo: Arecibo Observatory/Paulo Friere

Inside the platform of the massive Arecibo Radio Telescope, once the largest radio telescope in the world. Photo: Arecibo Observatory/Paulo Friere

What challenges have you faced when working with public institutions around science education and outreach efforts?

The most frequent challenge is the lack of funds. Everyone that I have worked with believes that science education and public outreach is important. However, even though everyone considers these important, in many cases they are not important enough for institutions to secure funding for such programs, especially at schools with high Latino populations. Many schools can easily find money to pay for sports-related after-school programs, but not so much for science-related clubs and extracurricular activities.

Sharing your expertise with the media is one way to engage with the public. I saw that your work was featured on 60 Minutes. What did you think of that experience?

That was part of a research project I led using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the largest astronomical project on Earth. The results from this study were announced in a press release which was covered by many different news outlets worldwide.

I was glad that the news outlets in Latin America were particularly interested in this discovery. The team members were mostly from Latin America and the study was done with a powerful new telescope located in Chile. I was interviewed by journalists from Puerto Rico, Chile and Venezuela. What I liked the most about this experience was the interest that the news generated in the public, especially with young students. I received several emails from high-school and university students wanting to know more about astronomy and my work.

How do you balance the pressures of academic expectations with your work outside the classroom?

The way I feel about the “work outside the classroom” is that this is not some extra thing that I have to do. I feel this is part of my job. I feel that it is my duty to disseminate what we know about our universe to the general public, and to convey the importance of science to all. In addition, some of the government funding to conduct my research requires that I conduct education and public outreach activities.

How is the science community doing with regard to making sure that Latinos have equal opportunities and representation in scientific careers?

I think things have started to improve. There is a more or less consensus that diversity is important for science, and in recent years there has been an increase in the number of programs that are trying to create more diversity.

For example, over the past few years several post-baccalaureate programs have started in different universities. These one or two year programs aim to give recent college graduates the opportunity to have experience in graduate-level research and courses in order to prepare them to succeed in graduate school. Most of these programs target minorities and first generation college students who feel they are not quite ready to apply to or begin graduate school.

In addition, different scientific and professional societies (like the American Institute of Physics) are actively discussing ways to diversify the sciences and are promoting their scientific fields in minority-serving institutions. Also, some national labs have started offering more research opportunities to students that come from minority serving institutions.

Many of these programs have only been around for less than 10 years, so they have not had time to sufficiently increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. However, I think they are helping slowly but surely.

You’ve been involved with the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in Science. How do these organizations benefit science and society?

One way these organizations benefit society is by sponsoring programs that help with the increase of underrepresented minorities in the sciences. This is essential if we want to have a scientific workforce that looks like the general population of the United States.

Government agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey reach out to Latino/a and Native American scientists at the SACNAS annual conference. Photo: USGS

Government agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey reach out to Latino/a and Native American scientists at the SACNAS annual conference. Photo: USGS

These organizations connect students and young scientists with mentors, who are usually more experienced scientists, across the nation. It can be quite hard to maintain a productive academic scientific career and it can be even harder if you are the only person or one of the very few people of color or women in your cohort. Sometimes good advice and mentoring is all that is needed to keep a student or young scientist focused and interested in continuing with a scientific career.

Do you think it’s a scientist’s responsibility to be out in the community? What advice or guidance do you offer younger scientists and students who want to pursue advocacy or community engagement?

I certainly think it is a scientist’s duty to educate the public about different science issues and to help train the future scientists of the world. Even more so, if part or all of the funding to conduct research comes from federal agencies, we have an obligation to taxpayers not only to conduct our research responsibly but also to disseminate our findings and help the general public understand what we do and its importance to society.

My advice to younger scientists and students that want to take part in community engagement is to start small. If you want to participate in an education or public outreach program, but feel that you have little time, start by being involved with an established program that needs help with certain science specialties. For example, one could first just volunteer to give a talk to or lead a hands-on project with children in school or in an after-school program. As one gets more experience, then one can start identifying specific needs that the population being served and start organizing and launching new, more focused programs (e.g., coding workshops, teaching students how to conduct research, etc.).

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Over the past few years, interest in connecting science to Hispanic Heritage Month has grown considerably—even the White House held “Somos Geeks,” in 2015. NASA has a great group of resources and a video series for students and others to learn more about Latino/a contributions to science. If you know of other resources or ideas of other people or projects you think deserve attention, please do share!