Student Profile: Carissa Avina-Beltran

July 12, 2019
Carissa headshot



San Francisco State | San Francisco, CA  | 2022


Academic Major: Physics (Astrophysics), Mathematics


Hometown: Los Angeles, CA


“I have a twin sister (Mel) majoring in Electrical Engineering. So if you see someone who looks like me, but has short hair and no makeup, it's her!”


Tell us…


What is the topic of your research this summer and what are your related goals?


“I’m currently working in the subfield of exoplanets. I’m working with Jason Eastman, the creator of the EXOFASTv2, to model exoplanetary systems derived from TESS (transiting exoplanet survey satellite) data. By optimally fitting system models using EXOFAST’s application of Markhov Chain Monte Carlo techniques (a method to acquire a desired probability distribution), I will be able to inspect each fit and determine which systems have attributes the community is interested in to prompt further exploration, characterize false positives, and recognize models that did not run correctly. My goals include familiarizing myself with the subfield of exoplanets through a hands-on approach. I am excited to be learning from experts in their fields to understand how research is done and how it can connect a person to the greater scientific community. Additionally, I hope to gain an understanding of the material such that I can clearly and effectively communicate the research I am doing to those who are not in STEM, or even academia.”


What area of astronomy fascinates you most or brings out the most passion in you?


“I have had few encounters with other subfields [in astronomy] mostly because my focus has been on exoplanets. The exposure I have had came during the mini courses in the first two weeks of the program. I was fascinated to learn more about cosmology and stars; I could be interested in pursuing these fields further as I continue in my academic career this fall. My passion, though, which I think fits well with this program, is science education. Whether speaking specifically about research or academia generally, I have noticed that the science community is too elitist and concerned more with technical goals and using technical jargon rather than concerning ourselves with spreading fundamentals. We are missing an opportunity to meet people where they are and bring them into the world of cool space research being done and to share the knowledge being generated. Addressing this disconnection is something I will continue outside of academia, and I think I have always done this on a smaller scale when talking to my friends and family about the work I do and its significance (which is a real stress test on my Spanish-speaking abilities).”


What do you aspire to do?


“While my time in Banneker forces me to seriously consider continuing my academic career toward becoming a Phd, I have plans to create a space for research outside of academia. I would like to join my twin sister in her ambitions to create a kind of ‘incubator’ in Los Angeles for BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color) to have access to labs and classrooms for liberating scientific research, social science workshops, outreach, and policy implementation.”


What significant lessons have you learned this summer so far?


“I’m coming to understand that becoming stuck as I do research, or in any learning process, does not define me or my capabilities as a scientist, person, or researcher. I would often feel so uncomfortable and unfamiliar in my field of research that when I did not know something when I needed to, I felt I was the only one who did not learn it in school or that it was because my parents did not go to college, or that I missed something everyone else in class had already covered, and that there was no way to overcome this. I attributed my ignorance in STEM to my personhood or to being from a certain community, even though self-assurance has never been an obstacle when I’m involved in community organizing. This experience often led me to question whether I belonged in STEM. But this summer, I have been reassured that the purpose of research is to become resourceful and find ways through or around a problem using others and/or Dr. Google.”


What parts of your experience with Banneker would you like to see modeled in the broader astronomy community?


“I would like to see the same community building techniques implemented in undergraduate programs. At least in my experience, I wish community was not only exclusive to those who are experts or in graduate programs. I would like to see more outreach and immersion for those who may be considering studying astrophysics as a major, and especially for those who simply think space is a cool hobby and may have no interest in pursuing astrophysics academically. I have felt such a disconnect by not fitting the mold of those who typically go into astrophysics, and really I would like to smash the idea that one should fit a mold. Banneker has shown me how to welcome and incorporate people with different learning and cultural backgrounds in a way that enables and empowers them to do their best work. Having experienced an overall welcoming and positive learning environment this summer, at arguably one of the most competitive and ‘elite’ institutions, assures me that similar practices can be implemented in classrooms and learning spaces outside of Cambridge.”


What would you say to a student who is considering applying to Banneker in the future? Can you recall the reasons you applied?


“APPLY!!!!! The best advice given to me was to apply and let THEM decide whether you ‘fit’ into the program. We often think we are not ready or qualified enough to get accepted into these spaces that we tell ourselves no and cut ourselves off from these great opportunities. Rather I encourage everyone to send in their application and let them tell you no. To be completely honest, I mostly applied to REUs within close proximity to Los Angeles, but I applied to Banneker because of the social justice component I noticed they offered. I never really distinguished how social justice and Astrophysics could connect, which definitely forced me to question whether I should even stay with the major. With this opportunity, I wanted to see the connections others made between the field of astrophysics and social justice before I committed to pursuing the degree, or going back to my much more successful life in Latin American Studies.”