College of Science

Jessica Maldonado

Jessica (right) sporting a Cal Poly Pomona Physics Club T-shirt.

Although I do not have everything planned out for my future I do know that it will involve decisive goals and a passion that keeps burning for understanding the universe. I may not have all the credentials yet but with focus and determination I know I could learn whatever the mentors have to teach me. I’m inspired by what has yet to be discovered.

This was the concluding paragraph of the essay I wrote to apply for the CAMPARE program over the summer of 2013. I was not accepted to go that year. I knew it was a long shot but I figured the worst thing they could do was say "no." Turns out one of the best things they said was "no" because without that “no” Dr. Povich would not have known how interested I was in becoming an astronomer and doing astronomy research. I was hired as a sort of unofficial CAMPARE student for summer 2013. I did research on campus and worked with infrared data.

One of the infrared images Jessica found during her explorations of WISE data.

More specifically, I worked with NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope data looking for waste heat from  galaxies. Infrared helps astronomers see past dust and various stellar contaminants so that we can obtain specific information from an object; in our case we are looking for heat.  The theory behind our project is Dyson Spheres. A Dyson Sphere is a theorized sphere of energy-harvesting technology around a star, set up by extraterrestrial civilizations, that’s right people, aliens. A civilization that build Dyson Spheres around most of the stars in their parent galaxy is called a Kardeshev Type III civilization, whereas our Earthly civilization is about a fraction of a Type I because we harvest so little energy in comparison. It was my job this summer to look at nearly 4,000 infrared objects within a billion light years of the Sun, to decide which objects are already well-studied and which are  unknown to science. Of course there were other parameters for this project like how bright is the galaxy, how red is the galaxy, is it even a galaxy at all or is it just a mistake the camera made? These were all things I had to consider in my classifications.

By the end of the summer I classified 3,700 objects. This summer wasn’t just looking for aliens, it was a crash course in astronomical objects, astronomical measurements, computer programming and, for me, a crash course in how to use a Mac. I had a blast this summer learning and I actually felt like a had a real astronomy job because I was able to collaborate with people in other parts of the country about the project, I had “colleagues” who worked on other astronomy projects in the lab room, and I even gave a seminar about my work. The best part about the seminar was when people laughed at my nerdy jokes! Of course I cannot forget about my amazing mentor Dr. Matt Povich for being there almost every step of the way but leaving enough room for me to learn things on my own. He seemed to know exactly what to do in regards to how much help to give me or just sharing general knowledge/politics about being a productive member of the scientific community. It is because of people like Dr. Povich and the people who said “no” that pushed me  to further pursue my goals.

Jessica at her iMac laboratory station.