APS News | People and History

First a Bridge Program Graduate, Now a NASA Astrophysicist

Laura D. Vega has her eyes on the stars — the pulsating giants and red dwarfs, to be specific.

Published Dec. 8, 2022
Laura D. Vega graduated with her physics doctorate from Vanderbilt University in 2021.
Laura D. Vega graduated with her physics doctorate from Vanderbilt University in 2021.
Laura D. Vega

Astrophysicist Laura D. Vega remembers when she first fell in love with stars.

She grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and her parents, originally from Mexico, often took the family on road trips to Coahuila and Zacatecas to visit relatives. On those long, overnight drives, Vega — peeking out the backseat window — would watch the dark sky glitter.

“San Antonio is a big city,” she says. “You can only pick out the really bright stars … but in the desert, it’s just dark. You can really see the stars.”

Vega had questions — and she took them straight to the library. By sixth grade, she was tackling Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

Today, Vega is a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. As a member of the Stellar Flares team, in the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory, she studies the ultraviolet light from M-type red dwarf stars.

Vega had dreamed of working at NASA since she was a child. In college at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), she realized that, to make that dream a reality, she’d need research experience.

“I reached out to my Astronomy 101 professor, Eric Schlegel, asking if he had any opportunities,” she says. “I was open to anything.” She was in luck: Over the next several years, Vega helped Schlegel analyze X-ray data from two NASA telescopes. The projects put her on the fast track to NASA.

In her last semester, Vega attended a 2013 conference organized by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. There, she met David Ernst and Rodolfo Montez Jr., from Vanderbilt University, who told Vega about the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, an APS Bridge Program partnership. The program, which helps students earn master’s degrees from Fisk University and then doctoral degrees from Vanderbilt, has become a model for supporting students from underrepresented minority groups as they pursue advanced degrees in physics.

“I just fell in love with [the Fisk-Vanderbilt program],” she says. “I was like, this is what grad school is supposed to be like.”

So after earning her physics bachelor’s degree in 2013 from UTSA, a Hispanic-serving institution, Vega moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to start her master’s degree at Fisk, a historically Black university.

“That was what I wanted — my heart was set on it,” she says. “But I was also worried about moving from San Antonio. I had lived with my parents all my life.”

At Fisk, Vega researched a class of pulsating supergiant stars known as RV Tauri variables, including a star called DF Cygni. Discovered in 1926 by astronomer Margaret Harwood, DF Cygni was the only RV Tauri star in the original field of view of NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

The Kepler mission was NASA’s first intensive effort to find Earth-sized and smaller planets in the habitable zones of stars like our Sun. The telescope monitored more than 150,000 stars, including DF Cygni, to record their brightness over time — data which Vega used to complete her master’s thesis.

DF Cygni is still Vega’s favorite star, because of its connection to the pioneering work of astronomers like Harwood.

In 2017, after completing her master’s degree and publishing her first paper in The Astrophysical Journal, Vega enrolled in Vanderbilt’s astrophysics doctoral program through the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program.

Vega crafted a new project focused on U Monocerotis, a different RV Tauri star. U Monocerotis is the second brightest RV Tauri in the Milky Way, which only has about 300 of the pulsating giants. The star is actually a binary pair, and the larger of the two stars has twice the Sun’s mass but 100 times its size.

While Vega was at Vanderbilt, NASA published a story on her research on U Monocerotis, a star system in the Milky Way. In this illustration, the two stars orbit each other in an enormous dusty disk.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA/GESTAR)

When Vega faced a setback — she failed her first attempt at her qualifying exam, which would advance her to doctoral candidacy — she sought her friends’ support. “When you talk to your close friends or peers who are also in graduate school with you,” she says, you realize “we’re all going through similar experiences of successes or failures.”

Vega took the qualifying exam again and passed. “I felt relieved,” she says, “but at the same time, I was still wondering, was it real?”

In 2021, Vega’s research on U Monocerotis was published, and NASA featured an article on her work. A few months later, Vega walked across the stage to collect her diploma. Because of the pandemic, Vega’s advisor, Keivan Stassun, was not allowed to place her hood, an important tradition to many graduates. Vega had to hood herself.

But that night, when Stassun joined Vega’s family for a dinner celebration, he was able to place Vega’s hood around her neck. She was certain — it was real.

Today, Vega is a year into her postdoc at NASA-Goddard. She’s investigating the effects of red dwarfs’ ultraviolet flare activity on planet atmospheres, and it’s not easy work. “We have a large data set of simultaneous observations across many different telescopes,” she says. All the observations must be carefully coupled.

What’s next for Vega? “I hope to remain a scientist at NASA,” she says. “I’ll have to work hard to do that, but I have the motivation.”

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

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