Meet our Students

Curious about what life as a grad student in our group is like? Here are interviews with some of our current students: Anicia, Kenny, Vanessa, and Amy.


An Interview with Anicia Arredondo

Q: What year are you and where did you go to undergraduate?
A: I’m a 4th year student and I got my B.A. in Astrophysics from Wellesley College in 2016.

Q: Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.
A: I use telescopes to study asteroids in the main asteroid belt. Particularly, I study asteroids that contain trace amounts of water and are close enough to the edge of the asteroid belt that they could escape and come towards Earth (called near-Earth asteroids). I use spectroscopy to study the light reflected off of these asteroids to determine their composition and to link near-Earth asteroids to their original asteroid families in the main belt. When an asteroid comes hurtling towards Earth and threatens to kill all of humanity (not actually going to happen in our lifetime), I will know what it is made of and how to stop it.

Q: What made you decide on UCF for grad school?
A: The number one deciding factor for me was the weather. I had previously lived in Boston for 5 years and was tired of snow. Also, when I came to visit campus, all of the grad students seemed like they genuinely liked each other. That type of community was something that was important to me since I was leaving all of my friends and family to come here.

Q: Talk about your best experience so far.
A: A great experience I had in 2019 was the opportunity to go to the Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC) conference in Geneva, Switzerland to present some of the results from my research. Most of my collaborators are European, so I finally got to meet the people I had been working with for my first 2 years. While I was there, I got to explore Geneva and meet astronomers from all around the world.

Q: What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?
A: I’m a big sports fan so I like that Orlando has an NBA, MLS, and NWSL team. Also, Tampa is a short drive away and has an NFL, MLB, and NHL team. Tickets are generally really cheap, so there’s always something to do on a Saturday night. Orlando also has a lot of good breweries, and I spend most of my weekends trying to fill out my Central Florida Ale Trail map.

Q: How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?
A: Coming from a 9 to 5 job, I had to adjust to the fact that I sometimes have to do work on evenings or weekends. I also had to remember very basic school things like how to take notes in class and do integrals.

Q: What are you plans for after graduate school?
A: I am applying for NASA postdocs to study near-Earth asteroids. I want to be on mission teams that go to asteroids and mine them for resources.

Q: Do you have some insight about what it takes to succeed in grad school?
A: I think the most important skill in grad school is time management. While I was taking classes, I did my best to start assignments early so that I never got bogged down by classwork. In my research, I also tried to hit the ground running in my first year, so that I could do candidacy at the end of my second year. Grad school is totally manageable as long as you keep your cool and stay focused.

Q: Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?
A: Grad school is all about learning, so don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Also, homework is much more fun when you have homework parties with other people in your classes.


An Interview with Kenny Gordon

Q: What year are you and where did you go to undergraduate?
A: I am a 2nd year grad student. I got my B.S. in Physics with minors in Astronomy and Mathematics from James Madison University in May 2017.

Q: Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.
A: In short, I am a theoretical planetary astrophysicist studying exoplanets. What this basically means is that I use computer programming to model the signals that we would see from these distant worlds. Specifically, I simulate how different atmospheric and surface (if present) properties of an exoplanet affect the polarization of the light that it reflects or emits. My current project involves using spacecraft data to model the Earth as an exoplanet, running the exoplanet-Earth data through a code to determine its linear polarization spectrum, and comparing this modeled spectrum to observations of the linear polarization of the Earthshine, in an attempt to better constrain theoretical models of terrestrial exoplanets.

Q: What made you decide on UCF for grad school?
A: I knew I wanted to study and characterize exoplanets, so I looked into a bunch of different Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Planetary Science programs. UCF was listed among the top growing departments for planetary science, and when I looked into the research offered here, I was thrilled to see that Dr. Karalidi had just joined the department. Her expertise on exoplanet and brown dwarf modeling really intrigued me, and I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss her research more over the phone. I also really liked how even though UCF is one of the largest campuses in the country, the Planetary Sciences Group is the perfect size. Everyone seemed to know each other well, and the friendliness and camaraderie that was displayed when I visited really sealed the deal.

Q: Talk about your best experience so far.
A: During the last week of July 2020, I got to attend and present a virtual poster at the Exoplanets III online conference, which was my first ever international conference. Even though everything was virtual, the organizing committees did a fantastic job at keeping the conference very inclusive, interactive, and sociable. They set up different informal “lounges” in Zoom and different Slack messaging channels, so I was able to meet and talk with individuals from all over the world during all of the breaks and virtual poster sessions. It was a great experience to be able to share research and learn about what so many other exoplanet scientists are working on!

Q: What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?
A: I think the location is the best part of living near UCF. I have always been a huge Disney and Harry Potter fan, so being less than an hour from both Disney World and Universal is a huge plus for me. But aside from the theme parks, you also have easy access to downtown/city life for bars and other night life, Kennedy Space Center and the rest of the space coast where you can view live launches, and tons of beaches (Cocoa is my favorite) to relax at! There are tons of places to explore in this area.

Q: How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?
A: The hardest adjustment that I have had to make was re-evaluating my priorities when it comes to my free time. Before returning to academia, I worked a full-time job as a systems engineer for the government for about a year and a half. I would work my 40 hours a week, 5 days a week, but then have all of my evenings and weekends to myself. Grad school on the other hand is a little more demanding, and now in addition to my classes during the day I have homework, studying, and research, which takes away from some of my personal time. However, I still make time to relax, hang out with friends, and have fun!

Q: What are your plans for after graduate school?
A: I intend to continue my exoplanet research at a space organization, either government or private industry, but preferably at a NASA center. Having previously worked (as a student employee) at a Planetarium, I would also like to be involved in or even set up some outreach programs where I can continue to share my love of astronomy with the community and hopefully get more kids involved in and passionate about the STEM fields.

Q: Do you have some insight about what it takes to succeed in grad school?
A: Perseverance and time-management are probably the two most important aspects for success in grad school. There will definitely be periods of ups and downs in every semester, and sometimes work might come in waves where you might have no assignments due one week but then a ton of assignments due the next week. Just stick to it, push through, and you will come out better in the end. Find the balance between research, coursework, and personal life, and you will do fine.

Q: Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?
A: Keep yourself organized, and definitely stay on top of tasks! I have an agenda book where I lay out what assignments are due when, and I keep notes to myself about certain tasks. Make friends with the other students in your cohort, and work/study together for classes as much as possible. Also, do not be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help! No one will ever think less of you, and in fact, your other classmates more than likely have the same questions!


An Interview with Vanessa Lowry

Q: What year are you and where did you go to undergraduate?
A: I am 3rd year in the physics, planetary science PhD program and I graduated with a B.S. in physics with a math minor at UCF in 2017.

Q: Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.
A: My work up until now has been in asteroid dynamics using computer simulations to simulate an asteroid breaking up and the smaller pieces flying off into space forming what we call an asteroid family in the inner, main asteroid belt.  Over time these smaller pieces move away from each other and we are able to match where these simulated pieces are located in space to the real asteroid family pieces to determine the age of the asteroid family.  For example, an asteroid family that is spread further apart in space is older and vice versa.  More recently I have been transitioning from dynamics work into characterizing the surface composition of asteroids.  I have written computer code that will analyze the light coming from an asteroid to tell me what minerals are present in the surface and in what proportions.

Q: What made you decide on UCF for grad school?
A: As an undergraduate I knew that I wanted to stay at UCF since I liked the school and the Orlando area.  It also allowed me to stay close to my family.  I actually spent my first graduate year in the math PhD program before deciding it wasn’t the right fit for me and that I was set on planetary science.

Q: Talk about your best experience so far.
A: One of my favorite experiences so far in the program was going to the Division for Planetary Sciences conference.  On this trip I was able to learn more about the wider planetary science community, network, and hang out with fellow graduate students to get to know them better.  I may have also pulled a few pranks on the trip.  I had a super fun trip, lots of laughs, and since I was new to the program at the time I learned a lot about the various fields within planetary science by attending all the talks and workshops.

Q: What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?
A: Orlando is a great area to live.  There is always something interesting happening.  For me, personally, I enjoyed the latin dance community in the area and at the school, and acquired an awesome social group from it.

Q: How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?
A: When I started grad school I moved out to Orlando since I had been living with my parents.   This allowed me to be in close proximity to the school which helped a lot since before I was commuting an hour one way.  That was probably the biggest adjustment other than grad school difficulty being much more demanding than undergrad, but as long as you stay on top of everything then it’s fine.

Q: What are you plans for after graduate school?
A: I would like to stay in the Orlando area, if possible.  I know that I want to continue my research in asteroids.

Q: Do you have some insight about what it takes to succeed in grad school?
A: Perseverance and endurance are the most important things to succeed in graduate school.  There are some challenging classes and you just have to keep working hard and don’t give up.  Also, some good advice is to make friends with your peers in the program because it’s much easier to work in a team then by yourself and you learn way more that way too.

Q: Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?
A: Get to know your peers in the program right away and make sure you have a good support group, always put 100% effort in everything you do, and don’t get discouraged if you’re going through a rough patch.  Try not to worry about the future too much because you may get overwhelmed just focus on the present, stay organized, and you will succeed.


An Interview with Amy Lebleu-Dibartola

Q: What year are you and where did you go to undergraduate?
A: I am a Fourth year student, and I went to Undergrad at LSU, where I did a double major in Astrophysics and Biochemistry, and almost got a minor in Psychology.

Q: Describe your line of work in planetary science in non-technical terms.
A: I have two major research interests. With the Bennett lab, I do Origin of life and distribution of Organic molecules in the solar system. This involves looking for complex organics, like proteins, in Meteorites and in Ices. I also work on making proteins in the lab out of stuff found in meteorites, and identifying dangerous to your health molecules in meteorites.  As Organics can be hazardous or useful, I like to say that I study “Food and Poison in Space”. I also am a founding member of the Space policy, Economic, and Societal impacts group, which deals with the intersection of these issues with space. My work is centered around asking people what they think we should do about laws and policy relating to  Asteroid mining and Lunar mining, and making sure their voices are heard in the space community and by lawmakers.

Q: What made you decide on UCF for grad school?
A: When I was going to grad school, I was scared, as my undergrad work was all in Astrophysics, so I didn’t know the reputations of many Planetary schools. I asked a member of the AAS (American Astronomical Society)  grand council to recommend me schools that would equip me with the skills and opportunities so that I could work for NASA and that had a community that was not going to be toxic to women. UCF was on that list, so I applied!

Q: Talk about your best experience so far.
A: I’ve been to several conferences now, and have gotten job offers as soon as I say I’m from UCF and what I do. I will be working at JPL/NASA when interns are allowed back for a semester, and my JPL supervisor tried to hire me for a postdoc after only a few sentences! It’s great to know that UCF is so highly regarded that people are willing to extend jobs to students who are not too close to getting their doctorate.

Q: What about Orlando itself — what’s best about living here?
A: I’m originally from Baton Rouge, so Orlando is not that different. Honestly, the best part about Orlando to me is having fun with my fellow grad students!

Q: How about life as a grad student — what adjustments have you had to make?
A: In undergrad, I lived in a sorority house, so cooking my own meals has been an adjustment. Also, something I both love and hate is how unstructured things are, I can pretty much do whatever I want whenever I want as long as I am being productive and meet some obligations. Be careful not to sign up to do too many things at once, even if everything sounds cool!

Q: What are you plans for after graduate school?
A: After Grad School, I’d like to do some Post-docs at NASA, with at least one being the NASA Management post doc, as my eventual goal is to work on mission planning and execution. My reach goal is to be an astronaut, but I’d be just as happy doing other aspects of missions, as long as I get to work with a close team on solving problems and learning things related to space. I may also do a postdoc at a university, if my husband wants to go to grad school, as he followed me here and I guess it would be fair to follow him as well.

Q: Do you have some insight about what it takes to succeed in grad school?
A: Don’t try and do everything, but do try and help out around your department and in the wider community.  Doing summer internships, being a secretary for a review panel, and conferences are all critical.

Q: Is there some advice you can pass on specifically to new graduate students?
A: If you are struggling with something, ask for help early and to multiple people. Just because one person doesn’t have a solution doesn’t mean no one does. Also if you are doing lab work, expect an instrument to fail, and have a backup plan! It happens to all of us.