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Mary Lou Fulton doctoral candidate hopes to inspire other Native Americans

April 25, 2018

Jameson Lopez will become a tenure-track professor in Tucson in the fall

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

When a teenage boy in his community committed suicide, Jameson Lopez decided he wanted to do something for his tribe.

That something was dedicating his life to higher education and finding opportunities for Native Americans to obtain their degrees.

“Native students often have problems adjusting to college life because of historical forced assimilation and colonization,” said Lopez, a Quechan tribe member from Fort Yuma, California, who is earning a PhD in education policy and evaluation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “Culturally, our traditions are much different and often undervalued. We are striving to make economic advances using traditional knowledge that was impossible in previous decades because of societal disadvantages.”

The 32-year-old Lopez said he immediately connected with the Native community on campus after a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. Forging friendships and finding mentors is what eventually got him through, said Lopez.

Today, Lopez serves as a mentor to many youth and often travels to Native communities to deliver a message of hope for a better life.

“It all boils down to — if I’m asked to say or do something and I don’t, that opportunity might go to someone who isn’t Native American,” Lopez said. “Then it becomes a lost opportunity for Native youth to hear and experience something positive.”

After Lopez graduates on May 7, he is headed to Tucson where he will become a tenure-track professor at the University of Arizona and continue his research in Indian Country. He expressed that he wants to support tribal nation building by advancing the capacity of tribal nations to collect and analyze data. He hopes that his effort to collect data with tribes will inform tribal decisions and policies that create new opportunities for economic advances for Native people.    

Lopez recently spoke to ASU Now about his positive experiences at the university.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study education?

Answer: There are million “aha” moments. But this is the first one that stuck out when you asked that question. I was attending a wake under a brush arbor on a remote reservation for a young kid who had committed suicide. Something that was common to the community but uncommon to our traditions as Native people. I knew I wanted to give back and help in some way. I saw education as an avenue of hope. But later on I realized that it couldn’t be any education, it had to be an education that could sustain and revitalize Native communities through nation building. So I started focusing on education as a means of nation building in indigenous communities.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU?

A: I remember being taught in elementary school about inventors such as Thomas Edison, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, etc. You ever wonder why we were mostly taught about white, European-descendant inventors in elementary school? Surely there were inventors from other ethnicities that we could have learned about. In my later years of life, I realized there were actually lots of inventors from various ethnicities and even Native inventors.

A few years ago, I was listening to a lecture from a Native scholar here at ASU. They were talking about assimilation, etc., but the lecturer was making a point about traditional Native marriages and went on to say that it was acceptable (in some tribes) for older Native women to marry young, "wild" native men. Because it was believed that the older woman would "tame" the young wild man. I looked at my friend, looked back at the professor, looked back at my friend, looked back at the professor, and looked back at my friend and said, “Dang, Natives invented cougars!” But in all seriousness, while at ASU, I found out more things that were invented by Natives.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I (had) just got home from Iraq. I was accepted into a few other major universities, but just coming home from the war, I wanted to be close to home, family and friends. ASU took a chance on me. I didn’t have the best GRE scores, but I believe my community engagement was what the program was interested in. So in some ways, ASU also chose me. It was a reciprocal choosing.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I started graduate school right after I got out of the Army. I was still a little rigid. Whenever my colleagues would get stressed I would say, “Don’t worry, no one is going to die.” I’ve got a little smarter since then and now say to those who get stressed, “Don’t worry, we’ll all die … eventually.” Keep your life in perspective. You just might fail, which is OK. Get back up and keep going. And honestly if you’re not failing a little bit, you’re probably not doing enough. And remember — worst-case scenario, you fail out of college. To me, that’s not what makes someone a failure, though; not trying is what makes someone a failure. Remember that your heart follows what you treasure. Your treasure doesn’t follow your heart. So face life intently, embrace fear (everyone is afraid), when your heart beats faster take some deep breaths and then face life with open arms, wide eyes and a desire to do good in this world. And quit taking student loans if you can help it!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: The Center for Indian Education is my favorite spot because of the people. I’ve never been in a place with so many indigenous scholars researching, advocating and strategizing to move indigenous communities forward.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Tenure-track assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Start an urban intertribal indigenous college that focuses on educating Native students to address issues concerning; missing and murdered indigenous women, nation building, sustaining and revitalizing cultural traditions, and the self-determination and sovereignty of tribal nations.

Top photo courtesy of Chrissy Blake

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To see the first-born stars of the universe

April 25, 2018

ASU-led team aims to use new NASA telescope to capture light from the first stars to be born in the universe

About 200 to 400 million years after the Big Bang created the universe, the first stars began to appear. Ordinarily stars lying at such a great distance in space and time would be out of reach even for NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2020.

However, astronomers at Arizona State University are leading a team of scientists who propose that with good timing and some luck, the Webb Space Telescope will be able to capture light from the first stars to be born in the universe.

"Looking for the first stars has long been a goal of astronomy," said Rogier Windhorst, Regents' Professor of astrophysics in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration. "They will tell us about the actual properties of the very early universe, things we’ve only modeled on our computers until now."

Windhorst's collaborator, Frank Timmes, professor of astrophysics at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, adds, "We want to answer questions about the early universe such as, were binary stars common or were most stars single? How many heavy chemical elements were produced, cooked up by the very first stars, and how did those first stars actually form?

Duho Kim, a School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate student of Windhorst's, worked on modeling star populations and dust in galaxies.

The other collaborators on the paper are J. Stuart B. Wyithe (University of Melbourne, Australia), Mehmet Alpaslan (New York University), Stephen K. Andrews (University of Western Australia), Daniel Coe (Space Telescope Science Institute), Jose M. Diego (Instituto de Fisica de Cantabria, Spain), Mark Dijkstra (University of Oslo), and Simon P. Driver and Patrick L. Kelly (both University of California, Berkeley).

The team's paper, published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement, describes how the challenging observations can be done.

Gravity's magnifying lens

The first essential step in the task relies on the infrared sensitivity of the Webb telescope. While the first stars were large, hot and radiated far-ultraviolet light, they lie so far away that the expansion of the universe has shifted their radiation peak from the ultraviolet to much longer infrared wavelengths. Thus their starlight drops into the Webb telescope's infrared detectors like a baseball landing in a fielder's mitt.

The second essential step is to use the combined gravity of an intervening cluster of galaxies as a lens to focus and magnify the light of the first generation stars. Typical gravitational lensing can magnify light 10 to 20 times, but that's not enough to make a first-generation star visible to the Webb telescope. For Webb, the candidate star's light needs boosting by factor of 10,000 or more. 

To gain that much magnification calls for "caustic transits," special alignments where a star's light is greatly magnified for a few weeks as the galaxy cluster drifts across the sky between Earth and the star. 

Caustic transits occur because a cluster of galaxies acting as a lens doesn't produce a single image like a reading magnifier. The effect is more like looking through a lumpy sheet of glass, with null zones and hot spots. A caustic is where magnification is greatest, and because the galaxies in the lensing cluster spread out within it, they produce multiple magnifying caustics that trace a pattern in space like a spider web.

Playing the odds

How likely is such an alignment? Small but not zero, say the astronomers, and they note the spider web of caustics helps by spreading a net. Moreover each caustic is asymmetrical, producing a sharp rise to full magnification if a star approaches from one side, but a much slower rise if it approaches from the other side. 

"Depending on which side of the caustic it approaches from, a first star would brighten over hours — or several months," Windhorst explained. "Then after reaching a peak brightness for several weeks, it would fade out again, either slowly or quickly, as it moves away from the caustic line."

A key attribute of the first stars is that they formed out of the early universe's mix of hydrogen and helium with no heavier chemical elements such as carbon, oxygen, iron, or gold. Blazingly hot and brilliantly blue-white, the first stars display a textbook simple spectrum like a fingerprint, as calculated by the ASU team using the open software instrument Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics.

Another object potentially visible by the same magnifying effect is an accretion disk around the first black holes to form after the Big Bang. Black holes would be the final evolutionary outcome of the most massive first stars. And if any such stars were in a two-star (binary) system, the more massive star, after collapsing to a black hole, would steal gas from its companion to form a flat disk feeding into the black hole.

An accretion disk would display a different spectrum from a first star as it transits a caustic, producing enhanced brightness at shorter wavelengths from the hot, innermost part of the disk compared to the colder outer zones of it. The rise and decay in brightness would also take longer, though this effect would likely be harder to detect. 

Accretion disks are expected to be more numerous because solitary first stars, being massive and hot, race through their lives in just a few million years before exploding as supernovas. However, theory suggests that an accretion disk in a black hole system could shine at least ten times longer than a solitary first star. All else being equal, this would increase the odds of detecting accretion disks.

It's educated guesswork at this stage, but the team calculates that an observing program which targets several galaxy clusters a couple of times a year for the lifetime of the Webb Telescope could find a lensed first star or black hole accretion disk. The researchers have selected some target clusters, including the Hubble Frontier Fields clusters and the cluster known as "El Gordo."

"We just have to get lucky and observe these clusters long enough," Windhorst said. "The astronomical community would need to continue to monitor these clusters during Webb’s lifetime."

On beyond Webb

Which raises a point. While the Webb Space Telescope will be a technical marvel, it will not have a long operational lifetime like the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble telescope is in low Earth orbit and has been serviced by astronauts five times. 

The Webb Space Telescope, however, will be placed at a gravitationally stable point in interplanetary space, 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth. It has been designed to operate for 5 to 10 years, which might with care stretch to about 15 years. But there's no provision for servicing by astronauts.

Accordingly, Windhorst notes that ASU has joined the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) Organization. This is a consortium of universities and research institutions that will build its namesake telescope on a high and dry mountaintop at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The site is ideal for infrared observing.

Upon completion in 2026, the GMT will have a light-collecting surface 24.5 meters (80 feet) in diameter, built from seven individual mirrors. (The Webb Space Telescope's main mirror has 18 sections and a total diameter of 6.5 meters, or 21 feet.) The GMT mirrors are expected to achieve a resolving power 10 times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope in the infrared region of the spectrum.

There will be a period during which the Webb telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope will both be in operation.

"We're planning to make observations of first-generation stars and other objects with the two instruments," Windhorst said. "This will let us cross-calibrate the results from both."

The overlap between the two telescopes is important in another way, he said.

"The GMT's operational lifetime will continue for many decades into the future. This is unlike the Webb telescope, which will eventually run out of thruster fuel to maintain its orbit in space."

When that happens, contact with the Webb telescope will be lost and its mission will come to an end.

Said Windhorst, "One way or another, we are confident we can detect the first stars in the universe."

A version of this story also appears at

Top image: The galaxy cluster Abell 2744 lies at a distance of about 3.5 billion light-years and contains more than 400 member galaxies. The combined gravity of all the galaxies makes the cluster act as a lens to magnify the light from stars beyond including, the team hopes, the first stars to form in the universe. Credit: NASA/ESA/Arizona State University (R. Windhorst and F. Timmes)

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration