People: Gregory Villar III

Gregory was a physics major who graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 2009 and is currently working at JPL and applying to Astronomy graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. He has done a number of Astronomy research projects as an undergraduate. He first participated in a research project with Dr. Joe Carson of JPL and Dr. Alex Rudolph of CPP searching for Brown Dwarfs around nearby stars using the Palomar 200” telescope near San Diego, California. He subsequently worked with Dr. Raghvendra Sahai at JPL and Dr. Mark Morris of UCLA, developing a morphological classification scheme on young planetary nebulae, one possible end state of a star. Gregory's position at JPL is Systems Engineer, working on the mission that launched Mars Curiousity in November 2011. You can read about Gregory's work at JPL here. This is his story.

It was a clear night in December of 2006 and I remember standing inside the extremely large structure. I was waiting cold and anxiously in the dark. After a few minutes, I heard the gears start to turn and quickly looked up. I watched in awe as the slit of the dome opened and revealed the beautiful night sky. The moonlight gradually illuminated the inside of the dome, and my admiration progressed as I watched the massive 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory be positioned. This breathtaking moment confirmed my aspirations of becoming an astronomer.

Research in astronomy began sophomore year of my undergraduate career. Dr. Rudolph announced a research opportunity to work with Dr. Joseph Carson, a former student of his that was doing postdoctoral research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2006, I was selected to be a part of this project. Our task was to search for brown dwarfs, sub-stellar objects that did not have enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion. During the course of our research, we had the amazing opportunity to visit the Palomar Observatory and use their 200-inch Hale Telescope and take data. A majority of the work done on the project was done from Cal Poly where we reduced the images taken at Palomar. In 2009, a paper was published in the Astronomical Journal regarding our research and I was included as a co-author.

With the brown dwarf research under my belt, I was able to acquire a NASA scholarship in 2007. I was awarded NASA’s Motivating Undergraduate in Science and Technology (MUST) scholarship that included a summer internship at one of their centers. This led me to my next research project in astronomy. I worked at JPL with Dr. Raghvendra Sahai, collaborating with Dr. Mark Morris of UCLA, developing a morphological classification scheme on young planetary nebulae, one possible end state of a star.

Palomar 200" telescope.
Photo courtesy of Palomar Observatory.

About 100 young planetary nebulae were studied using high-resolution images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and were classified according to their sizes and shapes. In addition, I was calculated the ages of these objects. I presented my work at the 213th American Astronomical Society Meeting and it was very exciting being able to participate in a professional conference in my field. Currently, we are in the final stages of submitting a paper on our research.

In the fall of 2009, I was in NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program. Here, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Glenn Orton studying the 2009 Jupiter impact. Fortunately, I was able to remotely use NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility. My assignment was to develop atmospheric models that matched our observations in order to study the effect of the impact on Jupiter’s atmosphere. A paper has just been submitted to Science reporting our preliminary results.

After obtaining my PhD in astronomy, I would like to continue conducting research. I am definitely open to doing post-doctoral work anywhere, even abroad, in order to experience a new environment. One day, after contributing a great deal to the astronomical community, I would love to continue my research and also teach by obtaining a professorship at a University. Through teaching, I can continue to share my love and knowledge of Physics and Astronomy to younger generations.

Gregory is featured in a video on the website of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The video is entitled "Student of the Stars".

Gregory also has a physics blog. Read it at www.100wordsofphysics.com.
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