Marcel Agüeros

Marcel Agueros

Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Columbia University


  • Postdoctoral Scholar, Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory, Columbia University
  • Doctoral degree in Astronomy, University of Washington
  • Master’s degree in Physics, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge
  • Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy, Columbia University

Could you explain your research in layperson terms?

These days, I spend most of my time examining the relationship between a star’s age, its rotation rate, and its magnetic activity. We know that these things are related: as stars age, they rotate more slowly, and they become less magnetically active. But we don’t really understand how rotation gives rise to magnetic fields, or how the interactions between the two evolve.

We would like to understand these interactions and their dependence on time just because we’d like to work out the underlying physics, but also because it has interesting implications for the likelihood that a given star can host a life-supporting planet.

What do you remember best about GSEE?

I feel like I [found out] about [GSEE] sometime in my third year. I certainly wish I had known about GSEE earlier. When I did learn about it, and attended a few of its events, I made friendships that provided me with a supportive network outside of my department that was tremendously helpful in getting me through graduate school. I really appreciated the sense of community that GSEE fostered.

I also really liked the acronym, so much so that in 2005, when my friend Kevin Covey and I were putting together a proposal for new program for entering first-year students at the UW, we decided to call it the Pre-Major in Astronomy Program, or Pre-MAP, in a clear homage to the other MAP on campus.

What is the state of diversity in your field?

In my field, astronomy, the number of African Americans receiving a Ph.D. each year has essentially been unchanged for 30 years: there’s one a year, nationally. The year I received my Ph.D. from the UW, two other Latino/as received a Ph.D. in astronomy in the entire country. On average, a given astronomy or astrophysics department produces an underrepresented minority Ph.D. once a decade.

Those numbers are astonishing, and to me, unacceptable.

What was your experience of diversity in graduate school?

It didn’t take me very long as a graduate student at the UW to realize that we had a diversity problem, nor did it take me very long to appreciate that it wasn’t just a problem at the UW— science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) fields have been struggling for decades to train and retain underrepresented minorities in anything resembling their numbers in the population at large.

As a graduate student, I started working to change the numbers. As I mentioned above, I helped create Pre-MAP, and helped run it for a year. Pre-MAP has now been around for more than a decade, which is a testament to the astronomy department’s (and the university’s!) commitment to broadening participation in STEM at the UW.

Describe your efforts to increase diversity in your field and in your institution.

When I got to Columbia as a post-doc, there was talk about starting a post-baccalaureate bridge program to help underrepresented minorities successfully transition into graduate programs. When the resulting Bridge to the Ph.D. in the Natural Sciences Program was officially launched, I was hired as its first assistant director, and then after a couple of years I became its director.

In total, 36 people have now completed the Bridge Program, and 32 of them have gone on to graduate programs (or will shortly begin graduate school), and to date three have earned a Ph.D., in astronomy, biological sciences, and psychology. We are now preparing to start working with our ninth cohort of Bridge participants, who will be engaged in research spanning biophysics, applied mathematics, neuroscience, and earth sciences. I’m looking forward to watching them grow over the two years they will be with us, and I’m also excited to have them educate me about the science they will be doing. Translation agency Lingvobalt – lithuanian translator

Changing the face of science is slow work, but it’s necessary and rewarding.