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New Postdoctoral Fellows Add Expertise, Diversity to Physics Department

November 4, 2019 | By Melissa Miller

11042019-postdoc-coral.jpgCoral Wheeler logs in to supercomputers around the world from the porch of a physics building on the UC San Diego campus, taking advantage of the sunshine and an internet connection. Photo by Tatiana Diaz de Leon, UC San Diego Physical Sciences

Coral Wheeler and Alejandro Ruiz may be new to UC San Diego’s physics department but both have degrees from other UC campuses and hope to continue their careers at the University of California. Ruiz and Wheeler are recipients of the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship (PPFP). The program encourages extremely qualified scientists from underrepresented groups to pursue academic careers within the UC system.

“Our department is thrilled and honored to host and support two UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellows this year,” said Alex Frano, assistant professor of physics. “I am excited to work with Dr. Ruiz on his fascinating research activities investigating exotic magnetic and superconducting materials, as well as on joint efforts to help expand representation of scientists of Latin American heritage and other underrepresented groups.” 

While neither Wheeler nor Ruiz work in a typical lab setup at UC San Diego, they are both pushing forward at the boundaries of their fields. Wheeler is a theoretical astrophysicist studying ultra-faint dwarf galaxies. She logs in to supercomputers from her laptop to run simulations and construct mock galaxies. All she needs is an internet connection to devise theories that are then tested by observational physicists using telescopes.

“That was a huge part of me going into astronomy, like ‘Wow, these astronomers, they travel all over the world, they get to see all these cool telescopes!’ But coming from a math and physics background, my projects are very theoretical. I don't use telescopes.” she says.

Ruiz is a condensed matter physicist who is researching unconventional superconductors and quantum magnets. Ordinary superconducting materials, used to create powerful magnetic fields for applications like MRI machines and particle colliders, require very costly low temperatures to operate. Working at different national laboratories, Ruiz is trying to understand the behavior of materials that super-conduct at unusually high temperatures. This research could have great implications in power transmission, energy storage and medicine. He also studies materials that could be used to develop quantum computers, a technological step above supercomputers. 

“If you were to implement the quantum mechanical properties from these materials into a computer, you could do all this computational stuff much faster,” he says. “That would revolutionize how we process and store data.”

Though they are passionate about physics, both Ruiz and Wheeler are the only scientists in their families. Ruiz was born and raised in Cuba and moved to the U.S. after high school. Wheeler grew up in Minnesota at a time when girls’ hockey teams were few and far between—so she joined the boys.

“I knew I wasn't welcome,” says Wheeler. “Eventually my mom moved me to another team with a really nice coach. The kids followed his lead and treated me much better. However, even though I really loved playing hockey, I ended up not playing the next year. It was just too much stress.”

This same stress is a reason more women and people of color don’t stick with STEM fields through school and into academia. According to the American Physical Society, women earn only about 20 percent of both bachelor’s degrees and PhDs in physics. And even though Latinos make up 20 percent of the college-aged U.S. population, only eight percent of Bachelor’s degrees and five percent of PhDs go to Latino students, notes APS.

According to Dusan Keres, associate professor of physics, PPFP’s cultivation of a diverse group of young leaders and potential future UC faculty is the right step in enhancing diversity in STEM.

“We are fortunate to have Coral join physics and CASS (Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences) and strengthen the research in computational astrophysics at UC San Diego,” he said. “Coral's focus is on the smallest galaxies that are some of the oldest and the most dark-matter-dominated objects in the universe.”

Keres explained that dark matter is the dominant matter component of the universe known for its gravitational influence, but it does not produce light so its nature remains elusive.  

“Coral’s study can simultaneously shed light onto the process of the earliest star formation and the nature of dark matter, both extremely timely and exciting topics in astrophysics,” he said.

Keres added that Wheeler will also work on enhancing diversity among the future generation of scientists by leading activities that connect Graduate Women in Physics with the Undergraduate Women in Physics groups on campus, with a focus on career development and mentoring.

Wheeler and Ruiz are both acutely aware when they are the “only” in academic settings—the only woman, the only person of color, the only LGBTQ-identifying person. Ruiz knows that he’s asked to participate in more than the average number of committees and photo ops.

11042019-postdoc-alejandro.jpgAlejandro Ruiz travels to national labs to experiment with improving superconductors and supercomputers. When on campus in La Jolla, he compiles a lot of data. Photo by Tatiana Diaz de Leon, UC San Diego Physical Sciences

You do it because you want the next generation to have some role models that you didn’t have,” he says. “But it’s also taking time away from your own work, making you less productive.”

Wheeler and Ruiz have persevered despite those odds. Both credit their interest in science to excellent teachers early on in their education. And both are working toward becoming UC professors who can then inspire their own students. Each has a faculty advisor at UC San Diego who will support them through their postdoctoral years and into the next step of their careers.

The mentorship is very important,” says Ruiz. “They’re the ones that help you network, send you to conferences, introduce you to people that may be interviewing you when you do your faculty search. In terms of career goals that’s the most important part—making your name known.”

Earning the coveted UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship is an honor given to only a few dozen people every year across all disciplines and all UC campuses. Only a small fraction of applicants make the cut. The goal is to make the University of California representative of the diversity that exists in the world. 

If you have to go broke to come to grad school, only people from wealthier backgrounds will succeed,” says Wheeler. “Having better wages, benefits, child care and family leave helps with increasing diversity in academia. By creating and supporting this fellowship, UC is demonstrating an effort to improve the situation.”