November 15, 2021
Carlos Sierra was born in Santa Ana, California, and grew up in the nearby city of Anaheim. Before coming to the University of Chicago, he attended Fullerton College, a community college in Southern California, and transferred to UC Berkeley, where he received his bachelor’s degree in physics. Afterwards, he started a doctoral program in applied physics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. After three years he moved with the McMahon group to UChicago, where he will complete his doctoral research in the Department of Physics. He is currently in his fifth year and conducting research in experimental cosmology. He develops and tests instruments for the Simons Observatory, a series of telescopes that will soon be making precise measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) from high atop the Atacama Desert in Chile.
We interviewed him about his experiences at UChicago over email.
Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
UChicago is one of the major institutions leading the effort to develop the next generation of CMB experiments. Together with Fermilab and Argonne, the resources found here make it a very exciting place to be working in cosmology, especially over the next decade. I really couldn’t have chosen a better place to be starting my career. It also doesn’t hurt that Chicago is such a cool city with a uniquely understated charm.
Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
Moving from Michigan to Chicago was very sudden and happened to coincide with the start of the coronavirus lockdown. And while I am glad to now be at UChicago, the process of relocating to a new institution halfway through your PhD program was not a fun one. It was hard enough saying goodbye to my support network and friends that I had made back in Ann Arbor. But the part that you don’t hear about when a lab group switches institutions is the sheer logistics involved with packing up several tons of sensitive lab equipment and moving it across state lines.
But, somehow, our group managed the move seamlessly and with only minor equipment damage! And, by the end of that summer, we had a fully operating lab at UChicago and had resumed with our measurements.
What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
Skateboarding has been my creative and social outlet lately, and Chicago has an excellent skate community. Although the ground may be too crusty, and half the year it’s either too cold or too wet, the skaters in this city are some of the friendliest and most interesting people I’ve met.
What are your plans post-UChicago?
After graduating, I will be looking at postdoc positions. I love research for the sake of advancing our collective knowledge, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.
What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
Definitely the staff over at Astronomy and Astrophysics and KICP. Everyone from the administrators to the custodial staff to the building manager and the folks working the loading dock have been immensely helpful and welcoming to me during my first year as I learned the ins and outs of the department. My research would be 100 times harder without such a dedicated support staff.
If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
Take the time to visit, talk with other students, attend talks (and eat free food), and get a good feel for the culture in your department. UChicago is a great school with strong academics and world-class research facilities, but there is no substitute for experiencing it all first-hand. Once you’re here, don’t be shy about taking advantage of all the resources made available to us.
How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
DEI initiatives are the recent vogue among university departments, meaning that many more resources are being allocated towards the effort of promoting equal access and opportunities for historically marginalized peoples. This is a great trend, of course. But I often question the effectiveness of the programs and outreach events that are put on by academic circles.
My most useful metric for evaluating the impact of these initiatives comes from my own experiences. I grew up in a poor household among a family of immigrants with a minimal college presence. I didn’t graduate high school and neither did many of my friends. In these communities, higher education falls low on the list of priorities. So, when I see initiatives aimed at promoting the inclusion of those same groups that I was a part of, my background allows me to ask the simple question: would this have made a real impact on me when I was younger? Most of the time the answer to that is no, either because they are too superficial in depth or too narrow in target. Within academia in particular, these programs tend to focus on the select few students fortunate enough to already be in college while ignoring the larger majority who have been left behind.
It’s a sobering realization that no matter how many resources are thrown at it, the issue of inequality in STEM fields will continue being a massive hurdle until there is a major shift in our approach to these efforts. I am privileged to now be in a position where I can use this insight to help navigate what is a complex and deep-rooted problem in our society.