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“[My mom] was my savior,” says Jesus Perello. “She said, ‘Listen, you did not go this far just to quit.”
By Liz Boatman | February 16, 2023
Credit: Jesus Perello
Jesus Perello, who earned his doctorate in physics from Florida State University in 2021, is now a physicist at Los Alamos National Lab.
Jesus Perello Izaguirre’s favorite childhood memories are the gatherings his family held every Christmas in his hometown of El Progreso, Honduras. On Christmas Eve, eighty-some relatives would open presents together at the stroke of midnight, a tradition for many Hispanic families.
Life became harder after his father died, Perello says. For years, Perello’s grandmother, already in New York City, had insisted it was time to relocate. In 2000, his mother made the difficult decision to move the family to the United States. Perello was 9 years old.
The move would set him on a path toward a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics, earned through the APS Bridge Program — which helps underrepresented students of color pursue PhDs — and ultimately a career in the field.
By middle school, Perello knew that math and science were his strongest subjects. He’d always loved science; as a boy in Honduras, he scoured his family’s encyclopedia to learn about white dwarfs and black holes. And although most of his family worked in law and politics, he says, he was brimming with questions about the universe. Seventh-grade science was “where I would really pay attention, really focus,” says Perello.
By high school, Perello’s family had settled in Miami, whose vibrant Hispanic population made the city feel more like home than New York had. He joined the football team as a starting offensive lineman. During his senior year, he took his first physics class. “I loved it,” he says.
He loved it so much, in fact, that he asked his teacher to tutor him — not to catch up, but to learn college-level physics. Several days a week, prior to donning shoulder pads for football practice, Perello headed to a classroom to learn vector calculus and practice problems in classical mechanics.
After high school, Perello earned an associate degree in science at Miami Dade College. “I really enjoyed not just the observational side of physics, but the theory,” he recalls. He decided to enroll at Florida International University (FIU), where he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in physics.
“I was really attracted to nuclear physics,” he says. “I wanted to understand the universe better, and the only way to do that was to go to school.”
In 2014, the summer after his junior year, Perello got a taste of the field doing undergraduate research at Michigan State University. That summer, at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (now FRIB), Perello became fascinated by the strong force, the fundamental force that binds subatomic particles.
At FIU, Perello worked with his McNair Scholars advisor to tackle the GRE and navigate graduate school applications. Together, they planned for Perello to pursue his doctorate at a Bridge Program site.
In 2017, Perello transitioned to graduate school at Florida State University (FSU). “[It] was challenging on both ends — the academic side and the personal side,” says Perello. He moved to FSU early and joined Sergio Almaraz-Calderon’s research group. Almaraz-Calderon was a new hire, so his research program was new, too.
For Perello, hands-on, experimental nuclear physics research was a major change from the simulation work he had done at Michigan State. “When you work in the lab, you have to be a jack of all trades,” he says. Over the next six years, Perello learned the coding, electronics, and experimental design necessary to run neutron detectors, which he used to study the reactions that form elements in stars and take place in stellar explosions. “[FSU] was a fantastic school,” he says. “I had great professors.”
Earning his doctoral degree through the Bridge Program gave Perello flexibility with his path: He was allowed to defer his qualifying examination by a year, to get more coursework under his belt. When he failed the exam on his first two attempts, he questioned whether he had what it would take to make it, he says. That’s when his mom stepped in. “She was my savior,” he says. “She said, ‘Listen, you did not go this far just to quit. Either fail or keep going. But don’t just quit.’”
Perello doubled down on his studies and took the qualifying exam again. This time, he passed. For the former football player, it felt like a game-winning goal in double overtime, with a stadium full of family, mentors, and friends cheering him on.
In 2021, Perello graduated, got married, and was offered his first job as a nuclear physicist. “It was a great year,” he says. He remembers the joy on his mother’s face the day he graduated. “My mom couldn’t stop crying,” he recalls.
Now, as a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Intelligence and Space Research Division, Perello works with space-based radiation detector technology that can monitor international compliance with nuclear treaties, including the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Los Alamos has been involved in developing these detectors for 60 years.
At the APS Division of Nuclear Physics meeting in October 2022, Perello presented his team’s recent work with the SENSER CLYC experiment, which launched a satellite payload — complete with neutron and gamma ray detectors — in December 2021. The team received the Secretary of Energy’s Achievement Award in 2022 for the work.
He’s learning every day, he says — about nuclear fission, near-Earth space radiation, and solar activity.
With about half a year left in his current appointment, Perello is thinking about what comes next. Perhaps his path will take him to a U.S. defense contractor or even NASA, he says. But mostly, he’d like to stay at Los Alamos. “I really enjoy it,” he says.
Liz Boatman is a staff writer for APS News.
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