Road to Science Happiness

Monica Alarcon


The Allen Telescope Array and I: Photo from my 2014 REU at the SETI Institute through the Cal–Bridge Summer Program


Dr. Katy Rodriguez Wimberly is a California native. She was born in El Monte, California, and grew up in Hacienda Heights and Riverside. She is a proud daughter of Becky and Santiago Rodriguez, who served in the Marines. She has five older sisters and is the baby of the family, with an 18-year gap between her and her next youngest sister. She describes her childhood as fun, creative, and with a passion for learning science and math.

Science, Space, and Astronomy…  At a young age, Katy was intrigued by science, space, and astronomy. At nine years old, she once told her parents, "I want to be an astronaut." She recalls her parents having a mixed reaction. They did not discourage her from her dreams, but she also felt they did not understand why she wanted to become an astronaut. Katy thought they did not see the value in such a profession because they wanted her to aspire to have what they sought as “a secure job with a clear path to a profession such as a teacher." Despite her family's reaction to her professional goals, she remained enthusiastic about science and math. As a junior in high school, Katy took a pre-calculus class that created a passion for math problems and the logic and reasoning steps it took to solve them. Before this math class, she had always assumed that math was only about memorizing facts and regurgitating them. She found nothing interesting about that. Yet, after taking this pre-calculus class, she realized how math teaches one how to reason, solve problems, and use formulas as tools to have the best result for a problem. Katy felt she had a life-changing breakthrough in this class and wanted to share it with her parents. Katy remembers going home and telling her parents “I want to go to college and get a math degree." She vividly remembers her dad's reaction. He responded, “Why? What will you do with a math degree? They have computers to calculate numbers". Her parents wanted her to instead join the military. After a long conversation with her parents, Katy decided she would put her professional math goals on hold and would enlist in the military. Katy knew her parents meant well and wanted the best for her. Her parents were much older than her friends' parents, and she knew that once she turned 18, she would need to move out and financially support herself because her parents were becoming too elderly to help her.

Joining the Army Reserves... Katy began to think of other careers that she would enjoy while she served in the military. She decided she would become an actress. Thus, for the remaining time Katy spent in high school, she immersed herself in her acting goals. After she graduated from high school, she spent 12 years in the Army Reserves. Although, she had to put her science and math professional dreams aside, she is grateful for the opportunities the military provided her. She was able to play her favorite instrument, the saxophone, within the Army Reserve's band. Her best band experience was performing in "welcome home ceremonies" and seeing loved ones reunite. While in the Army Reserve, she was able to attend Mt. San Antonio Community College part-time. There she studied theatre and performed in many plays. She took her band and actress aspirations seriously and enjoyed this time of her life. Although she was promoted in the Army reserve, enjoyed her band activities, was doing great in school, and was working at Disneyland as an atmosphere character, she realized she was neither fulfilled by her career choices nor passionate about acting.

Star Trek Voyager Inspired… Katy started reflecting on what she wanted to do for the rest of her life and soon transitioned back to her early passion for science and math. Katy started to research science career options. During this time, she was also a big fan of the show Star Trek Voyager. She watched every episode and connected with the character, Captain Janeway. Katy admired Captain Janeway's passion for data and science. Katy saw her as an empowered woman with a strong science background and she wanted to be that. The show also made her realize that being a science researcher was an actual job, unlike what her family assumed, and that it had great importance and value. This show deepened Katy's renewed interest in science and math. 

Keynote Speech at Expanding Your Horizons Outreach Event at Salt Lake Community College: A STEM Outreach Event for Middle-School Aged Girls (Photo credit: kris.w)

CSULB Physics Department Experience… With her renewed inspiration for math and science, she transferred to Cal State Long Beach to study physics and become an astronomer. Katy describes her experience at CSULB as inclusive, with a diverse student body and a supportive Physics department. Katy admits that her transition was not easy because the classes and the curriculum were challenging. At CSULB she was inspired and motivated by her physics courses which helped her overcome a number of challenges. She recalled being in Professor Thomas Gredig's physics class and was in awe with how excited and passionate this professor was teaching the class. Katy realized that she had found what she had been dreaming about since she was 9. She wanted a science profession that she could be passionate about, and she had found it through her physics classes. At CSULB and the Physics department, she found the scientific home and community she had always dreamed about as a child. 

Mentoring Students and Expanding her Research skills… As a CSULB student, she dove into every opportunity she could participate in. She felt very empowered by her physics courses, curriculum, and professors. She wanted to help others feel the same. She was a learning assistant, where she helped tutor other students in her classes.  In addition, Katy joined the Society of Physics Students organization, where she served as the secretary. Katy was involved in various research opportunities. During one of her winter breaks, she was involved in a research project with Dr. Chuhee Kwon, using the programming language, LabVIEW, where she helped develop a volume monitor to help people who are hard of hearing to learn the ambulant noise levels and how to fit in or above that as they need to while they spoke. This was Katy's first research experience. Dr. Kwon was a great mentor to her and helped prepare her for CSULB's Student Research Symposium in 2013 where she showcased her findings.  She also participated in a research project, The Variability of Vega, as an astronomy intern at the University of Texas in Brownsville. She was also a member of LSAMP, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, where Katy researched condense matter with Dr. Jiyeong Gu, a CSULB Physics Department professor. In her last year at CSULB, Katy also became a member of the Cal-Bridge program, where she received excellent support in applying for a Ph.D. program. She credits the CSULB physics department and Cal-bridge program for helping her build a successful plan to help her get admitted into the Physics Ph.D. program at UC Irvine. At UCI, Katy founded the PACE (Physics and Astronomy Community Excellence) program in 2018. Pace is a peer mentorship program for first-year graduate students in the Physics department.

Helping to Diversify the STEM Fields… Katy graduated in December 2021 from UC Irvine's Ph.D. program in Physics. Since January 2022, she has been an NSF Math and Physical Sciences Ascend Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Katy is part of the first cohort of Ascend Fellows and is currently at UC Riverside. The program is for people to conduct scientific research that will help broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. The award ($300K) is for three years and includes stipend and funds to help fund her research and mentorship program. This funding has helped Katy continue her ultra-faint dwarf galaxies research. It also supports a peer mentoring program she started at the Cal-bridge program. As the Cal-Bridge Peer-Mentorship Program Director, she hopes her mentorship program can help bring more underrepresented minorities into STEM fields. Katy is also doing mentorship work within the Physics and Astronomy Department at UC Riverside. Katy describes her research as “exciting" and enjoys the growth and learning research experience she is receiving at UC Riverside with the help of her advisor, Dr. Laura Sales. Currently, she is applying to the Keck Science meeting at Cal Tech in the hope that she can present her work on the elemental abundances in the stars of one very ancient ultra–faint dwarf galaxy, Wilman 1. She will also be giving an invited colloquium at the University of Michigan where she will speak on the evolutionary histories of the oldest and tiniest galaxies in the universe, ultra–faint dwarf galaxies.  When asked what her ultimate professional goal is, Katy said, “To become a physics professor and to continue to balance rigorous astronomy research with work that will make STEM communities better places for everyone."