Luis Welbanks, a graduate of PrepaTec State of Mexico, has received a fellowship from the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP).
Luis Welbanks, a graduate of PrepaTec Estado de Mexico, has received a fellowship from the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP).
The NHFP supports outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research which contributes to NASA Astrophysics, using theory, observation, experimentation, or instrument development.
Luis was in competition with more than 400 applicants from different parts of the world to win the fellowship.
“This fellowship is the most important one in the world of astrophysics and is available to people from all over the world. The area of exoplanets is not the only one that matters to NASA, so it’s good to know that they think my research is important and urgent, as very few people receive this after a three-year PhD. Obviously, I didn’t expect them to give it to me. I was really surprised when I received it. This is recognition, a sign that the topics I’m proposing we investigate are related to NASA’s objectives,” he says.
Luis is currently researching new chemical species on other planets.
“Scientifically speaking, what interests me is knowing what the atmospheres on other planets are made of, what chemicals are present. The way we do it is by observing the eclipses of planets orbiting other stars. When a planet passes in front of them, there’s an eclipse, and when the light from the star passes through the atmosphere of these planets, we can see the fingerprint of the chemicals that are present, as well as clouds, aerosols, and temperature,” he explains.
These types of observations have allowed Luis, and the research groups he works with, to find lithium on an exoplanet for the first time, as well as water on most exoplanets, although in smaller quantities than previously thought.
“There will be new telescopes, new opportunities to see planets in different wavelengths with more precision. That will give us new observations for which we will need better models so we can know if there are signs of life on other planets or not. We may find ozone on another planet, but we need all the details to be able to compare it with Earth. We want to be sure that when we make a statement of such magnitude, we are considering all the effects possible on those planets. If we are alone in the universe, we should think about how important life on Earth is and how lucky we are to live here,” he says.
When Luis graduated from PrepaTec Estado de Mexico, he faced a dilemma: there were no physics degrees at Tecnológico de Monterrey.
“The problem was that the campus didn’t offer a physics degree, so they suggested that I start with Electronic Technologies, which shares a common core with physics. But back then, I was stubborn about wanting to be an astrophysicist and few universities offered that degree.”
Pursuing his dreams, he emigrated to Canada to study at the University of Calgary, where he won a scholarship and graduated with a double major in astrophysics and physics, both with honors.
“I’ve been living abroad for just over 10 years. It’s difficult to be away from home, but it’s always been about fulfilling my dream. I’ve been really lucky to get the chance to work with people who are leading the field.”
His passion, perseverance, and discipline have led him to win multiple scholarships allowing him to continue his studies abroad.
He received a grant from CONACYT to study a master’s degree in physics at the same university. There, he worked with the Quark Nova Project, which is a group dedicated to the investigation of supernovae and quark novae, the explosion of a neutron star that produces a quark star.
Later, for his doctoral studies, Luis won the Gates-Cambridge scholarship, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and is the main international postgraduate scholarship program at the University of Cambridge.
The objective of his doctorate was to characterize the atmospheres of other planets, to understand their chemical composition.
“In a way, almost through luck, the area of exoplanets had a lot in common with the origin of things. Fundamentally, understanding if we’re alone on the planet and being part of that investigation for humanity is something unique. I honestly believed that nothing was going to happen with the Gates-Cambridge scholarship. I was the only Mexican selected to study astronomy. It’s a huge privilege because no one in the country, no physicist, has ever been awarded that scholarship,” he says.
The graduate shares the following tools that PrepaTec provided him with and have been useful throughout his career, most of which he developed during his internship.
“Critical thinking has been fundamental, as well as teamwork and leadership. I developed those through cultural programs.
“My internship was in a theater and I was part of the production staff. I learned to handle relatively large projects, making sure that there was good communication, and that they were completed properly and on time.”
The obstacles that Luis has had to overcome along the way include being the first to do several things, as this puts a lot of responsibility on his shoulders to ensure there are more opportunities in future for Mexicans in these areas.
“I’m in a position I’d never dreamed of being in. The obstacles I’ve overcome are the opportunities that have brought me here.
“I’ve been the first to do several things. That’s a great privilege, but it comes with a lot of responsibility not to let people down and show that we Mexicans are capable of doing it. I hope that there are more opportunities for people like me in ten years,” he says. (Mariana Perales / Estado de Mexico Campus)