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At 17, he’s studying asteroids and helping NASA scientists

After Pablo Macias Lopez’s classes went online at the end of his freshman year at Legacy High School in North Las Vegas, he bought a three-volume set of graduate-level astrophysics books to study.

“Growing up, I was somewhat of a space kid,” he jokes. Now he’s doing an internship with NASA.

Since May 1, Macias Lopez has been participating in the STEM Enhancement in Earth Science (SEES) summer internship, a collaboration between NASA, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research and the Texas Space Grant Consortium. The program is designed to introduce students to STEM careers and encourage them to pursue STEM majors in college.

So far, Macias Lopez has been completing learning modules to teach him about the projects that NASA works on, from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the outer reaches of the universe.

Beginning Friday, Macias Lopez will be working with Dr. Tom Rutherford, a planetary scientist, on his own project. In a small group, he’ll be studying asteroid shapes, as well as how they move and spin in space. In August, he’ll present his work at a virtual symposium.

“These kids are doing authentic research,” says Margaret Baguio, program manager for education and outreach at the Texas Space Grant Consortium. “They’re helping these scientists with their work.”

Interns have gone on to work at such places as the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Kennedy Space Center. “Each student is amazing,” Baguio says.

Macias Lopez knew he wanted to study astronomy and physics from a young age. “I’m a big fan of galaxies crashing into each other,” he says. “I really like seeing things move, explode, crash — everything.” He got a mini-telescope when he was 5 or 6, and his mother, Cristina Lopez, says “he took it with him everywhere he went.”

Haley Hester, the physics teacher who wrote the recommendation for Macias Lopez, says as a teacher, “You don’t always get too many students with a clear idea of what they want to do.” But as a student, she says Macias Lopez demonstrated “a passion for learning, especially science and math.” Hester says he’s also a team player with a strong work ethic.

When Macias Lopez is not acing astronomy questions for his Science Bowl team, space still finds its way into his other hobbies. He’s been involved in many orchestras and loves listening to composers like John Williams (who created the score for the “Star Wars” movies) and Gustav Holst (best known for his orchestral suite “The Planets”).

He wants to combine his love of music and space to create a stellar sonification project, where he’d transform data from the cosmos into sounds. “You’re literally going to be listening to the spectra of the sun or a nebula,” he explains.

Macias Lopez is also excited about the chance he has this summer to show that Latin Americans from low-income communities belong in STEM.

“I hope other students feel seen with my work and outreach,” he says. “I just don’t see too many kids getting these opportunities, especially in North Las Vegas. … When I told some people at my school, they were on the floor because they were like, ‘That never happens.’”

One day, Macias Lopez sees himself becoming a research scientist or university professor in astronomy. “I would love to teach anybody who is interested in this stuff as much as I am,” he laughs.

Colton Poore is a 2022 Mass Media reporting fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Email him at cpoore@reviewjournal.com or follow him on Twitter @coltonlpoore

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