Gazing at the Stars, Bringing Others Along on the Journey

Marcel Agüeros founded a Columbia program to increase the number of minority students earning a Ph.D. in the STEM disciplines.

Carla Cantor
October 02, 2019

Marcel Agüeros never dreamed of becoming an astronomer.

“I grew up in Manhattan, and there weren’t many dark, starry nights to inspire me,” Agüeros said.

Things changed during the summer of his junior year at Columbia College, which he spent at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico,  “an hour from my abuela’s house.”

He had first visited Arecibo as a 12-year-old. “But now I was part of the team using its huge radio dish to listen in on what was happening out in the universe,” he said. “It cemented my desire to be an astronomer.”

Now a professor at Columbia University in the Department of Astronomy, Agüeros studies how stars like our sun change over time. He examines how those changes might affect the planets around them. “We’re going to find another Earth soon,” Agüeros said. “My work is part of figuring out how likely that planet is to host life.”

Agüeros also directs his department’s outreach efforts. Columbia astronomers host free public lectures and stargazing events. They visit local public schools. A decade ago, Agüeros created a program to show teachers from around the city how to use telescopes, knowledge they could bring back to their schools. “It’s a great way to excite students about science in general and astronomy in particular,” he said.

In addition, Agüeros founded Columbia's Bridge to PHD Program that to help underrepresented minorities get into science Ph.D. programs. “There are far too few women and students of color in our fields,” he said. “It’s a problem that I am committed to fixing.” In 2015, Agüeros received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. President Obama praised his groundbreaking research and his desire to ensure that minority students become tomorrow’s leaders in science.

“I didn’t realize it as a kid, but even New York’s bright, cloudy nights are an amazing resource,” Agüeros said. “Watching the moon go through its phases or spotting Venus shining brightly after sunset is magical. It connects us to one of humanity’s oldest activities: contemplating the universe and our place in it.”