Emerging Scholars: A Side Trip to the Stars

A Side Trip to the Stars

Miguel F. Morales

Title: Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theory
and Computation, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Education: Ph.D., Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz; B.A., Physics, Swarthmore College
Age: 33

Dr. Miguel Morales says there was always a distant chance that he would end up in academia. His father, now a Unitarian minister, came very close to being a professor, making it to “all but dissertation” status in American studies.

But it was Morales’ grandfather who set him on the path towards astrophysics.

“Whenever the family had parties, my grandfather would haul the telescope out and we’d look at the planets. And I guess that’s where it all began — just a matter of taking a winding path and following your nose,” he says.

That path has led Morales to the halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a postdoctoral scholar and a research scientist at the MIT-Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. It has taken him to Harvard University, where he’s on his second postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theory and Computation. The path has led him to teeming cities across the United States, Europe and Australia to present research. To collect that research, Morales’ personal path has also taken him into the lonesome silence of remote places like the western Australian desert, where he spent months examining the depths of space using the immense radio telescopes at the Mileura Widefield Array.

The work Morales does in the field of radio astrophysics involves not just “looking at a time of the universe before the first stars had formed,” explains his mentor and friend, Dr. Jacqueline Hewitt, director of the MIT-Kavli Institute. Morales is also leading the development of the instrument, the All-Sky Monitor (ASM) transient survey engine, that’s doing the cosmological observations.

“Miguel’s work has been critically important in pushing this project forward. He’s got a lot of energy, and he’s just plain smart,” Hewitt says.

From an early age, there was always a fascination with science, but Morales says he ended up in physics almost by accident. He entered Swarthmore College leaning toward biology but not wanting to exclude engineering as a possibility. So he took physics, one of the early prerequisites for engineering, and immediately warmed to the professor, Dr. Paul C. Mangelsdorf.

Morales calls Mangelsdorf one of those teachers of a lifetime — rigorous, but inspiring. So he took a second class, then a third. “And pretty soon, I had a degree” in physics, he says.

Morales won an academic scholarship from Swarthmore and was one of the first 100 Ph.D.s produced by the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship program. But rather than going straight to graduate school, he took what seemed at the time to be a detour. He moved to Milwaukee with his then-girlfriend, now wife, to teach physics, chemistry and astronomy at a prestigious private high school.

It wasn’t a detour, Morales says now, just a side trip. “I was pretty sure I would go back [to academia], but I wanted to take a little time off.”
His experience in Milwaukee taught Morales that he loved teaching, but he increasingly found himself missing the research as well. Within three years, the couple packed up and moved to California, where Morales would earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

UC-Santa Cruz proved to be an excellent fit for Morales, whose enthusiasm and curiosity quickly won over his classmates and colleagues.

“The word that keeps coming back to me is creativity,” says Dr. David Williams, Morales’s graduate advisor at Santa Cruz. “That’s something that’s underrated in science, and I think it’s something Miguel is particularly strong at.”

For example, Williams says, “We had long used computer simulations to calculate the sensitivity of the experiments we build. Miguel had the idea of animating them, creating movies that would show the particles interacting both in the atmosphere and in the detector.”

It had never been done before, but Morales didn’t let that stop him. He set about finding a visualization lab, collecting the data from the simulations and processing them so that they could be animated. The college is still using Morales’ idea.

“These movies really have been a wonderful tool in interacting with the public about the science we do,” Williams says.

By Kendra Hamilton

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