Robin Roberts: Astrophysics/Earth-Sun Connection

Robin Roberts

Astrophysics / Earth-Sun Connection
B.A. September 2011
Thomas W. Smith Academic Fellowship
National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Participant

Today, Robin Roberts, Bachelor’s degree in hand, is a student in the Ph.D. program in Physics at the CUNY Graduate Center as a CUNY Science Scholar (full tuition and stipend support). But in 1995, although already a senior, she had to drop out of college (Wake Forest University in North Carolina where she was a Biology major), because of financial restraints; at the time, she was sure she was leaving school for good. She joined the workforce, finding a job as a field scientist. In a meteoric rise, she was promoted from Lab Technician to Bench Scientist to Assay Specialist (a position created specifically for her) to Head Biologist-Lead Bench Technician at a nationally-known brand’s Research and Development Bio-sciences Department. Buoyed by her success, she returned to school, City College, in 2006, entering CUNY Baccalaureate half a year later. Only now her interests were no longer in biology, they were in space science – she wanted a career as an astrophysicist. “I want to study planets, but not our own familiar set; rather, I want to discover and study habitable planets like the Earth, to find such planets from remote distances and, ultimately, how to get to them. Also, I find the more exposed I am to quantum mechanics and the study of black holes, the more I find I am drawn to them. I would love a position at NASA, a NASA contractor, or a research institution such as a planetarium or observatory.”

In the summer of 2007, Roberts began working as an intern at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). For the fall 2008 semester, she was able to capitalize on her work there to create an independent study in planetary studies that, among other things, involved creating a gravitational-specific simulation project, a “stepping stone” she says to the kind of work she hopes to do on the graduate level. Then, spurred on by her research advisor to explore other research and funding opportunities, she was accepted for a nationally competitive paid internship through the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (NSF REU), which gave her the opportunity to work with a groundbreaking team at AMNH; this was the first time that two CUNY students had made the NSF REU roster.

In fall 2007, Roberts was selected as a Thomas W. Smith Academic Fellow by CUNY Baccalaureate; the fellowship allowed her to move from part-time to full-time studies. In recommending her for the Smith Fellowship, Prof. Charles Liu, Astrophysics, College of Staten Island, described Roberts as “intelligent, enthusiastic and highly motivated; she is making a serious run for a degree in space science and a research career in astronomy and astrophysics and she will make scholarly contributions to the field.”

After two semesters of research at AMNH, Roberts was offered a full-time position as a Research Assistant. About her readiness for this position she said, “I am thrilled at the prospect of doing what most undergraduates can only dream about. By allowing me to create my own degree structure, my coursework has prepared me for this opportunity.” So far she has worked on a number of projects including Project 1640, installed at the Palomar Observatory in California, and the Gemini Planet Imager where she operated and collected data on the experimental testbed in the Museum’s Astrophysics Laboratory/ Instrumentation Clean Room; the testbed was installed at an observatory in Chile in January 2010. In 2009, Roberts became a sub-advisor for other students who were chosen for NSF REU positions.

For her concentrations, Roberts took undergraduate and graduate courses at City, Hunter and CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. She has been mentored by Prof. Alexios Polychronakos, Deputy Chair, Physics Department, City College and Deputy Executive Officer, Physics, CUNY Graduate Center.