Not every college kid has a Stephen Hawking quote as their Instagram biography, but junior Samantha “Sam” Garza has an unusual passion for science which has already taken her to the Milky Way.
Garza came to the University of Dallas already knowing that she wanted to pursue a career in physics, but she was particularly interested in astrophysics and astronomy.
When Garza visited UD as a prospective student, her meeting with Dr. Sally Hicks, physics professor and Interim Dean of Constantin College, convinced her that UD should be her alma mater.
As a physics major, Garza has four basic requirements that she must meet to receive her Bachelor of Science: do research, argue a thesis, present her information, and complete comprehensive exams. She has traveled to several states to fulfill these requirements and contribute to significant research.
“Astronomers do travel a lot because of the several international collaborations that are needed to collect and process data,” Garza said. “However, as an undergraduate entering the field, I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to visit so many places across the country and meet so many astronomers.”
The summer after her freshman year, Garza was surprised to already find great research opportunities.
“I didn’t think I was going to get into a program in my freshman year,” she said. “I worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Dr. Robert Benjamin. We created a python program to map the distances to HII, or star-forming regions in the universe, and masers in the three kiloparsec arms of the Milky Way galaxy.”
In other words, she was mapping the innermost part of our galaxy.
However, Garza’s opportunities didn’t end with the Milky Way. The following winter, she attended a conference in Seattle to present her findings from UW-Madison with the American Astronomical Society (AAS).
“I really enjoyed getting to go to my first AAS conference in Seattle because it introduced me to how big the astronomy community is,” said Garza.
Garza spent last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia doing research with AAS, and received a grant from the National Science Foundation. Physics professors Hicks and Dr. Jacob Moldenhauer assisted Garza in this application process and provided her with letters of recommendation.
Garza’s data with AAS in Virginia was added to the Society’s Dense Extragalactic GBT and Argus Survey which maps the molecular gases of 36 nearby galaxies. “My research was part of their first internal data release,” Garza said, happy that she was able to contribute to this project. “When it’s finished, it will be the largest survey in this subfield of its kind.”
Garza used state of the art technology during her research.
“[AAS] has the largest rotating disk in the United States and it gives me a high resolution to work with,” she said.
Not only was she responsible for “cleaning up” data collected from a remote telescope, but she also used a wavelength radio.
“It’s actually located in the National Radio Quiet Zone so that we can pick up better frequencies from space,” she said. Garza’s data is especially accurate because the government heavily restricts all other radio transmissions in the nearby area.
Garza’s summer in Virginia was certainly not “all work and no play” though, because she was able to study with a cohort of other STEM students. The group had fun weekends together, traveling around the area surrounding their small college town to go hiking.
Before returning to campus for this spring semester, Garza made a quick detour to Hawaii. There she was able to present her research at an international conference of about 30,000 people—highschool students, Ph.D.-holding scientists, and everyone in between. During her week in Hawaii, Garza presented her research in an interactive display. Not only was she able to fulfill further requirements for her major, but she was able to make connections within the astrophysical and astronomical circles.
Presently, Garza is back on campus and is kept busy with classes and labs. This coming fall she plans to begin her applications to graduate schools, with the goal of earning a Ph.D. either in astrophysics or astronomy.
“I’m thinking I want to go to the University of Wisconsin, but we’ll see. My degree depends on which program I get into,” she said.
Besides planning on attending graduate school, Sam also plans on being active in physics outreach. In the future, Garza hopes to work with women in STEM. Currently, she is working on setting up a volunteer opportunity at UD where physics majors can work with local high school students to show them how a college lab operates.
“I think it’s important to foster the next generation of scientists, as well as to get the general public interested and supportive of scientific research,” Garza said.