A decade of student success in gravitational waves

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When alumni Haroon Khan and Denyz Melchor enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, neither expected to study black holes colliding billions of light-years from Earth, driving ripples through the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves.

“Black holes! They’re so cool. Everything about space has always fascinated me since I was a kid,” said Khan, a NASA engineer. “I realized that the more we learn, the less we realize that we know about space.”

Melchor had no idea that black holes, a cosmic body so powerful that nothing, not even light can escape it, really existed in the universe – that is, until she joined the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy (GWPAC).

“They’re very sci-fi and I wondered how they could be real. Light goes in but can’t go out,” said Melchor, currently a doctoral candidate in astronomy and astrophysics at UCLA.

Khan and Melchor are examples of GWPAC alumni whose curiosity about the cosmos led them to study gravitational wave science at CSUF. For a decade, the campus center has fostered research, education, and outreach in the field of gravitational wave astronomy, physics, and astrophysics.

Faculty, students, alumni and donors celebrated the center’s 10th anniversary on September 30 with a scientific meeting and alumni event on October 1.

GWPAC is led by Joshua Smith, Professor of Physics and Dan Black, Director of Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy; Jocelyn Read, associate professor of physics; Geoffrey Lovelace, professor of physics; and Alfonso Agnew, president and professor of mathematics.

Denyz Melchor
Physics graduate Denyz Melchor

“The most exciting part of going to the GWPAC anniversary event was having my mom with me to hear how hardworking I was as a CSUF student,” Melchor said. “She was overflowing with pride when Dr. Lovelace sat down with us to tell her how proud he was of my accomplishments. Immediately after the celebration, she called my dad to rave about it all, who was equally proud.

Over the past decade, more than 50 GWPAC student researchers have graduated from Cal State Fullerton. About half entered or completed doctoral programs and the rest pursued STEM professions or teaching careers.

Khan ’17 (BS in Electrical Engineering, Minor in Physics) explained that GWPAC exposed him to opportunities in the scientific world, where he worked on simulating binary black hole collisions and creating visualizations.

“Before I discovered GWPAC, I had no idea about undergraduate research and the doors it would open,” he said.

Khan works at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley as the lead electrical engineer on the Vertical Motion Simulator, a critical NASA simulator used to develop new aircraft and spacecraft and to train astronauts. Khan also worked on NASA’s Artemis mission to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface.

Harun Khan
Alumnus Haroon Khan

“Studying gravitational wave science has changed my life in many ways. First, it has taught me how to conduct cutting-edge research with collaborators around the world,” said Khan, who is working on a master’s degree. in Astronautical Engineering from USC.

“I also learned math, physics, programming, presentation and technical skills that I wouldn’t have acquired in my classes. I believe being a researcher at GWPAC directly led to my job at NASA – my childhood dream.

Melchor ’20 (BS Physics) is a first-generation college graduate whose parents immigrated from Mexico. She has received numerous scholarships, including a 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholar Award and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which have made graduate studies possible.

These accolades, along with her undergraduate research at GWPAC, Monash University in Australia, and Cornell University in New York, propelled her on the path to earning a Ph.D. She has also participated in programs for underrepresented students, including the McNair Scholars program, and has co-authored publications.

Melchor’s career goal is to teach and work in research at a university and mentor first-generation students like her.

Both Khan and Melchor credit the mentorship and support of GWPAC faculty members for helping them achieve their academic and professional goals.

“They gave me the feeling that I can pull it off,” said Melchor, whose current research focuses on the dynamics of stars near supermassive black hole binaries.

“I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved – and what I’m going to achieve.”

GWPAC researchers contribute to cosmic discoveries

In 2012, with the inauguration of GWPAC, which included speakers such as renowned theoretical physicist and 2017 Nobel Laureate Kip Thorne of Caltech, the center’s success was not guaranteed. After all, Albert Einstein himself predicted that the gravitational waves produced by the collision of black holes and neutron stars would be too small to detect.

“Yet these measurements have been made, and our faculty and students at GWPAC have played a leading role in these most exciting discoveries,” said Marie Johnson, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, during her remarks at of the scientific meeting.

Since the first discovery in 2015, GWPAC faculty members and students have contributed to 90 gravitational wave events resulting from the merger of black holes and neutron stars, and have developed techniques and technologies to make advance the field of gravitational wave science.

“Together, our faculty members have imagined, created and sustained something wonderful here at Cal State Fullerton,” Johnson added. “With all of their incredible scientific contributions, what these professors are most proud of is the success of our GWPAC students. The center, with significant federal and philanthropic support, has provided exceptional opportunities for these students.

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