Looking for life on other planets

Armed with a Gates Cambridge scholarship, a UCalgary graduate student heads to Cambridge to study exoplanets and hopefully answer some of our oldest questions about our universe.

By Erin Guiltenane
May 2017

 

While Luis Welbanks calls Calgary home, and himself a global citizen, his ambitions stretch beyond the city, the country, the globe – and even beyond the solar system. The graduate student, who will defend his thesis in June, is heading to the University of Cambridge in the fall on a Gates Cambridge scholarship to study exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) and analyze their ability to sustain life.

Exploring life in new places a natural fit 

“It’s a question everyone has — is there life on other planets, and is there another planet like ours? This is one of the first questions that interested me in physics and astrophysics since I was very little,” says Welbanks. “It’s exciting that now we’re as close as we’ve ever been to actually finding clues of life in another place.”

Life in another place is something he’s coming to know quite well. Welbanks set his mind on studying at the University of Calgary after a recruitment presentation at his Mexico City high school. The opportunity to major in astrophysics in the Faculty of Science clinched the decision for Welbanks almost immediately.

When he arrived, he jumped right into academic and student life. During the course of his studies, he participated in an exchange program to Norway with the European Space Agency, revived and led the Society for Physics Students, founded the Latin American Students' Association, worked as a teaching assistant, volunteered as a tutor to refugee students, became a residence life co-ordinator, and spent many hours in leadership roles for numerous campus clubs and other volunteering initiatives, winning many awards along the way. Doing this, he said, not only helped him settle in, but made his years at UCalgary some of his best.

Research environment at UCalgary

“I think I went through the most development as a person here. Getting involved in student life and meeting so many people made my whole experience better,” he says. “People in Calgary are very welcoming and open, but I’ve always felt like I’ve got this international label on me. But when I go back to Mexico, I’ve found the country has changed so much that I’m not from there either; so not having a label on yourself lets you become a global citizen. It’s eye-opening and lets you become more well-rounded.

"Now, at the end of the process, this is home and Calgary is where I made my closest friendships, where I grew as a person, and that’s why being here is so meaningful to me.”

While he had originally intended to combine his astrophysics studies with history of Latin America, Welbanks ended up switching to physics, eventually becoming the first person at the university to graduate with a double major in physics and astrophysics within four years.

Sets goal to work with Prof. Ouyed and Quark Nova Project

The logical next step was to continue his research by doing a master's degree under the supervision of professor Rachid Ouyed, a goal Welbanks had been working towards since his first year.

“I was really interested in the project that I’m doing for my master's. I had heard of my supervisor and I really wanted to work with him. I’ve been asking to work with him since my first year, and eventually he invited me to come on board.”

Ouyed, whose Quark Nova Project is dedicated to investigating quark novae (violent explosions resulting from the conversion of a neutron star core to quark matter) is thrilled at the outcome of asking the standout student to work with him.

“Bright minds like Luis are naturally drawn to research environments where they can be challenged and shine,” he says. “They get a thrill when they use their exceptional skills to tackle problems that baffle scientists. They are constantly seeking a research arena where they can get a taste of what it’s like to live at the edge of knowledge and science.

"Luis could have gone to any university for his master's but he chose my group and Calgary and I am honoured.”

The admiration, Welbanks says, goes both ways. “My research group is willing to take risks and explore ideas that are challenging, that are in a way exotic, and we want to go where no one has wanted to go before. My supervisors are very supportive when it comes to just exploring an idea, though they’re rigorous as to whether it makes sense or not. There is an openness to exploring new things here.”

New opportunities await

Welbanks will continue investigating the universe at Cambridge, where he hopes to create an atlas of exoplanets during his three-year tenure. While there are around 8,000 confirmed exoplanets, Welbanks says that only about five of them have been directly observed. “This knowledge will eventually tell us more about our own planet — how unique are we? No matter what the answer is, it’s exciting. But in terms of probability, I want to believe that we’re not alone.”

His plans for the future, however, include postdoctoral placements and returning to Latin America where he hopes to create scientific opportunities and encourage scientific literacy.

“In developing countries, you have to worry about tomorrow, rather than 10 years down the road. When a country is certain about its short-term future, they can value science because it’s about the long-term return. Whereas in somewhere like Mexico, you might not have the resources for a year, so the focus and funding seems to be aimed at the people who are helping right there and then,” he explains.

Science activism in Latin America

Welbanks believes he can make an impact in championing science through activism.

“I would love to encourage people in Latin America to look at opportunities in science, because I think that science will help us make better decisions, choose better politicians, and start thinking about the future,” he says.

An interesting topic like life on exoplanets, he believes, could be a great starting point for getting people engaged and interested.

“It’s all about science outreach. We’ve got people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson who do a great job of that. Now it’s time for a Mexican one.”

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship was established by Bill and Melinda Gates to support students who show outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential, and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

 

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