A Star Forms at UT Austin

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Harrington Dissertation Fellow Conducts Cutting-Edge Planetary Research

Lucas Cieza

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how the stars and planets formed?  What took place millions of years ago to give us those bright lights in the sky?  Lucas Cieza asked those same questions as a boy in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Today, he is helping to answer them as a University of Texas at Austin Astronomy graduate student and recipient of a Donald D. Harrington Dissertation Fellowship, the most prestigious graduate fellowship awarded at the university.

After completing a summer internship studying galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope while an undergraduate at Florida Institute of Technology, Cieza knew he wanted to continue his study of astronomy in a graduate program.  He chose to apply to The University of Texas at Austin due to the strong reputation of the program and the breadth of opportunities offered in a large department. 

Now in the final year of his doctoral program, Cieza is clearly excited to continue his research beyond his career at the university. "The simple questions I asked when I was 10 evolved and led to more and more questions about the formation of our world and other worlds in the Galaxy," he says. 

As part of one of the six "Legacy Projects" associated with NASA's Spitzer Telescope, Cieza is working under the direction of Dr. Paul Harvey on a project entitled "From Molecular Cores to Planet Forming Disks," which is led by Dr. Neal Evans, also at The University of Texas at Austin.  Cieza is utilizing data collected from the Spitzer infra-red telescope that was launched by NASA in 2003. 

"Even though my projects are independent, their underlying motivation is the same:  impose observational constraints on different aspects of planet formation theories," says Cieza.  "Star and planet formation are intimately related.  Standard star formation models describe the collapse of a slowly rotating cloud of molecular hydrogen followed by the development of a proto-star surrounded by a disk of material.  Planets are thought to form out of the materials in these proto-planetary disks; nevertheless, there is currently no agreement on the mechanism of planet formation."

"Lucas' research to date is the strongest piece of work I have ever supervised in my 25 years at UT," states Dr. Paul Harvey.  "I will be amazed if Lucas is not a leading professional astronomer within 10 years."

Cieza's past success and future potential has earned him the respect of his faculty and peers within his academic discipline and across the university's graduate community.   In addition to receiving one of only two Donald Harrington Graduate Dissertation Fellowships in 2006, he was named the 2005-2006 Outstanding Graduate Research Assistant.  In addition, his department honored him with their highest award –the 2006 David Benfield Scholarship in Astronomy.

The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin administers a variety of fellowships in order to attract and retain the best and brightest graduate students across all disciplines.  Over 500 fellowship awards are made to outstanding students each year to enhance their ability to pursue the discovery of new knowledge and skills, to foster leadership, excel in teaching and research and contribute to the community.

The Harrington Dissertation Fellowship is the highest award that can be made to a continuing graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.  For more information about the Harrington fellows program, visit http://www.utexas.edu/harrington/, and for general information about other financial resources available to support graduate studies at the university, visit http://www.utexas.edu/ogs/funding/.

December 2006

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