MIT astrophysicist discusses unconventional career path, research on unique celestial bodies

Steven Villanueva (pictured above) talked to Geneseo students about his career path and the obstacles he faced along the way On Thursday Nov. 1. The event was a part of Geneseo Reaching out to Women and Underrepresented Groups in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (courtesy of anne pellerin).

Astronomy expert Steven Villanueva spoke about his experiences in front of science, technology, engineering and math majors in Newton Lecture Hall on Thursday Nov. 1. Villanueva is a theoretical astrophysicist at MIT who took an unorthodox path toward obtaining his degree and pursuing his passion for exoplanet research. 

Villanueva grew up in Dallas, Texas speaking both English and Spanish. He worked 60 hours a week to pay for his education at the University of Dallas, delivering pizzas and working at his uncle’s tree trimming business on weekends. 

After a year when his grades suffered from his many side jobs, Villanueva dropped out of the University of Dallas. Around the time he left, the military was recruiting heavily and was short on mechanics. He scored high on the military entrance exam and got a job as an aircraft support equipment mechanic that would later help fund his college education. 

When he got out of the military, Villanueva got a job at Petco and decided to return to school, but this time attended community college. He eventually went on to apply to Texas A&M—which had a veteran-friendly program—and earned a B.S. in physics working in astronomy lab sites. He then applied to graduate school and was accepted to Ohio State University. 

Each of Villanueva’s experiences proved to be a shift from the last one.

“You sort of hit a reset button when you get to grad school, where taking multiple choice tests is no longer a skill you have to be good at,” Villanueva said. “You have to be good at research and working hard, and it turns out that I was really good at that.” 

Villanueva graduated from Ohio State University after years of research, and now focuses on discovering and characterizing exoplanets—planets outside of our solar system—as a theoretical astrophysicist at MIT.  

Now Villanueva pursues his passion, trying to understand planets with a telescope he built himself, called DEMONX, which is short for Dedicated Monitor of Exotransits and Transients. 

He studies Hot Jupiters, which are a class of large exoplanets the size of Jupiter that orbit very close to their home star and have high surface-atmosphere temperatures. Villanueva searches to find why Hot Jupiters exist and why they have a larger radius than expected. 

Using the transient method, Villanueva discovers planets with his own telescopes. The transient method involves looking for the dimming of light that occurs from a star when a planet passes in front of its orbit. By measuring this dimming of starlight, he can find the size and orbit of the planet. 

In addition to his work with planets, Villanueva is devoted to outreach with underrepresented groups in STEM fields. His lecture was a part of GROW STEM’s activities at Geneseo—Geneseo Reaching Out to Women and Underrepresented Groups in STEM. 

He belongs to the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

Villanueva may have originally struggled on his path to becoming an astrophysicist, but he is now successfully studying and researching planets. 

“It took a really long time to get here, and it was not an easy journey,” Villanueva said.