Student to Research Gravitational Waves at CalTech
ANDREA ACOSTA | May 22, 2013 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Senior electrical engineering major Juan Castillo has been selected to be an undergraduate research assistant at the California Institute of Technology's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory this summer.
Senior electrical engineering major Juan Castillo has been selected to be an undergraduate research assistant at the California Institute of Technology's (Caltech) Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) this summer.
"I will be under the mentorship of staff scientist, Dr. Joseph Betweiser," Castillo said. "I've been familiar with his work and I couldn't be more excited to collaborate with him."
The LIGO project is an astrophysical observatory for the detection and study of gravitational radiation. The observatory uses laser interferometers – high-precision devices that measure the time it takes for laser light to travel between two mirrors – to detect ripples in space-time.
Castillo was awarded the Victor M. Blanco Fellowship from the National Society of Hispanic Physicists to support his work with the LIGO Summer Undergraduate Research program. He will begin his research in June at the LIGO location in Livingston Parish, La.
The observatory is being used by scientists to detect and measure ripples in the force of gravity created by violent events such as the collisions of stars and the vibrations of black holes at least 70 million light years away.
Advanced interferometers at LIGO require complicated software controls to operate, so Castillo will use the same software used to control the interferometers in a simplified simulation of a running interferometer to better understand both the hardware and the software.
"By using the actual control code, we can better discover issues specific to that code and distinguish them more easily from issues that may arise in the hardware of the interferometer," he said.
Scott Starks, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering, said he was excited when Castillo informed him about his acceptance to conduct research at LIGO.
"This program is very competitive because it draws applications from excellent students from all parts of the country," Starks said. "I know that both Juan and CalTech will gain much from his participation this summer."
As an intern, Castillo will be part of the largest and most ambitious project ever funded by the National Science Foundation, with capital investments of nearly $300 million. The experience will help him improve his strength in electromagnetics and quantum mechanics. It's an opportunity and a remarkable honor for Castillo, who discovered a love for engineering after following a much different track in life.
"I was actually working for a business degree, but I left school in 2005 to become a licensed insurance agent for the state of Texas, selling insurance," he said. "Although I had achieved some success in the business for the last five years, I had begun to feel detached to what I was doing and started to feel less and less inspired to work in this field."
Feeling unfulfilled in his career choice, he read a lot of science and engineering books as a pastime. His curiosity for electromagnetic field analysis, plasma physics and elementary particle physics began to take hold.
"Physics and astronomy was my hobby, and learning was something I took pleasure in as an activity," he said. "It was only a matter of time before I convinced myself to reenroll at UTEP and pursue my true love for science and engineering," said Castillo, who returned in the spring of 2010 to pursue a degree in electrical and computer engineering with a minor in physics.
"The reenrollment process was less strenuous than I had imagined, since UTEP was very welcoming to its returning students," he said. "I was ready to pursue a career that I had dreamed about as a student, but had lost because of a need to earn a living."
According to Castillo, his inspiration to pursue his passion for higher-level math, science and engineering came from his high school math teacher and mentor, Toby Tovar.
"Mr. Toby Tovar pushed me to dive deep in the questions of calculus and was able to relate the material to physics and general science," Castillo said. "I knew that my curiosity of how things operate could easily be translated to the world of engineering."
Just as Toby Tovar was an inspiration to him, Castillo hopes to also be an inspiration for many other students who are returning to UTEP to finish their degrees.
"I'm associated with amazing peers who decided to return to college after military service or a different career. We have many things in common that make us great students, such as stability, maturity and dedication," he said. "I would love to encourage students who have not returned to college, because they think it's too late, to not give up on their dreams."
Castillo quoted George Eliot to make his point: "It is never too late to become what you might have been."
He added, "Ten years from now, I see myself as a researcher and educator at an academic institution or research facility. My natural tendency to doubt, ask questions and learn how new things work fuel my pursuit to challenge my understanding of the world."