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Reaching for the Stars — and Exoplanets

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Lupita Tovar’s life hasn’t gone as planned. 

The first in her extended family to finish high school, Tovar never expected to go on to a four-year college. She never imagined majoring in astronomy and physics, participating in research, presenting at conferences, or being published in academic journals. She assumed study abroad was for other students. Being honored as one of the Husky 100 and accepted to PhD programs? Unthinkable.

Guadalupe (Lupita) Tovar

“It’s all of my family graduating with me,” says Lupita Tovar. “This has been a huge accomplishment for them as well as for me.”

Yet as a UW undergraduate, Tovar has done all those things and more. After graduation, she will continue at the UW as a PhD student in astronomy and astrobiology.

As a teen in Kennewick, Washington, Tovar figured she’d get a job close to home after high school. What changed her mind was Esperanza En Educación, a one-day conference at the UW designed to encourage Latinx high school seniors to pursue higher education. Organized by the Multicultural Outreach and Recruitment team in the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D), the conference featured UW student ambassadors sharing their own Husky experiences.

“I remember talking to a student ambassador who was involved in so many things on campus,” Tovar says. “I thought that was incredible. But I told myself not to fall in love with the UW because it’s super competitive to get into. I didn’t want to be disappointed.”

Tovar did get in, with NASA Space Grant and Educational Opportunity Program scholarships easing the financial burden. For emotional support, she turned to the UW’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP). “There was a huge culture shock coming to the UW, with only seven percent of the students being Latinx,” says Tovar. “CAMP became my home away from home, that little comfort zone with people who look like you, have similar backgrounds, and share similar stories. It was instrumental during my first year.”

A CAMP advisor helped Tovar register for freshman courses. Tovar planned on majoring in business, but her advisor pointed her toward a fall quarter seminar, the Pre-majors in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP), that would prove instrumental in shaping Tovar’s academic career. The seminar, offered by the Department of Astronomy, introduces first-year students to scientific research. Tovar admits she had no idea what she was getting into when she signed up. “Right away we were reading scientific articles and coding, filling up our toolbox with tools we’d need to do a research project,” Tovar recalls. “I felt like I had been dropped into the middle of the ocean. It was all brand new.” 

Hearing the stories of students who come from a similar background to mine reminds me why I’m here, too.

Six weeks into the quarter, each pre-MAP student was paired with a graduate student mentor and a faculty member on a research project. Tovar worked with PhD student Giada Arney in the Virtual Planetary Lab of astronomy professor Victoria Meadows. At the end of the quarter, Meadows invited Tovar to continue with her research team. “That’s when I dropped the idea of a business major,” says Tovar.

Participants in the Pre-MAP seminar present their research to department faculty at the end of the quarter. That experience was daunting for Tovar, but great preparation for what was to come. The following winter Tovar presented her ongoing research — on the spectral effects of clouds and hazes on Earth-like planets — at an American Astronomical Society conference, answering questions in a poster session and networking with professionals. She would later be an author on two research papers published in academic journals.

 

Lupita Tovar discusses her research in a video produced by Undergraduate Academic Affairs to publicize the UW's 20th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Media credit: Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Tovar also took a leap of another kind — all the way to Europe. She signed up for a spring quarter study abroad program in Rome, led by an astronomy professor and an art history graduate student. Tovar had never imagined herself studying abroad, but the astronomy connection was a perfect fit. The program focused on astronomy, art history, and religion in Rome over two millennia.

“In the family I grew up in, you don’t just go to Italy for 10 weeks,” says Tovar. ”That was a whole new experience. It opened my eyes to a new world perspective and got me to explore areas beyond astronomy, but also to see how astronomy has evolved over time. And being Catholic, it was a blessing to go to the Vatican and see the Pope. It was a memorable experience.”

That study abroad was one of many UW experiences Tovar has shared with prospective and first-year students as a peer mentor for the CAMP program and as a student ambassador for the Multicultural Outreach and Recruitment team.  Both programs had been instrumental in Tovar’s UW experience, and she wanted to encourage others just as she had been encouraged.

“Being able to pay it forward to programs that made such a difference in my life has been a blessing,” says Tovar. “And sometimes you learn just as much as the students you are mentoring. Hearing the stories of students who come from a similar background to mine reminds me why I’m here, too.”

Tovar will be here quite a while longer. Before her senior year, she spent a summer at the Banneker Institute at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, an experience that convinced her to pursue a PhD. The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program provided support and guidance in navigating the application process. She was accepted to three graduate programs in astronomy and chose the UW for its strength in astrobiology. But before she starts the program, she looks forward to receiving her bachelor’s degree with her supportive family cheering her on.

“It’s all of my family graduating with me,” says Tovar. “My parents emigrated from Mexico and have worked very hard so their children could have opportunities for a better life. They are my biggest inspiration and have always told me an education is something no one can take from you. This has been a huge accomplishment for them as well as for me.”

To learn how you can provide scholarship support to students like Lupita, visit the College's website or contact Jessica Frederick at 206-616-3253 or jessimay@uw.edu