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Outstanding astrophysics grad reflects on the importance of mentors for success

Delondrae Carter, undergrad student

Delondrae Carter.

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Delondrae Carter will graduate this May with a degree in astrophysics from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. His interest in the universe first began in fourth grade when he worked on a project demonstrating the vast scale of the solar system. From there, he was inspired to learn as much as he could about astronomy and astrophysics. “That first project helped me discover that the world was a much bigger place than I initially thought,” said Carter.

Carter chose ASU for his undergraduate studies and was awarded a New American University Scholarship President’s Award. That was soon followed by an Interdisciplinary Enrichment Fellowship and a Goldwater Scholarship, which is one of the most prestigious awards for STEM majors.

Carter credits his academic growth as an undergraduate student to astronomy Professor Rogier Windhorst’s guidance and support. He attributes earning the Goldwater Scholarship to Windhorst’s personal commitment to his success. Carter also became a mentor for the ASU Sundial program, which pairs beginning undergraduates with upper-level undergrads, providing academic support, career guidance and personal growth in fields that students may find difficult to navigate.

“Professor Windhorst’s support throughout my academic career played a large role in my decision to become a Sundial mentor,” said Carter. “By being a mentor, I can help build others up in the same way that I have been built up.”

This fall, Carter will be returning to ASU as an astrophysics PhD student to work with Professor Windhorst and Professor Philip Mauskopf on a combination of projects including SKYSURF and SPHEREx. Project SKYSURF will measure the panchromatic sky surface brightness and source catalogs from all archival Hubble Space Telescope data, and SPHEREx is a future near-infrared space observatory that will perform an all-sky survey to measure the near-infrared spectra of approximately 450 million galaxies.

“Rarely has an undergraduate student, with little experience to begin with, picked up on a project as fast as Delondrae,” said Windhorst. “He has an easygoing collaborative spirit and never hesitates to ask questions if something is not clear to him. We all fully enjoy working with Delondrae, who not only possesses a fearless enthusiasm towards solving new problems, but also managed to incorporate his additions to the project via GitHub in line with all of the existing code.”

Carter shared a few thoughts about his time here at ASU. 

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I once thought during my first two years at ASU that my lack of programming knowledge would always be a major obstacle that would prevent me from succeeding in an astrophysical research career. I dreaded the few programming assignments I had throughout my freshman and sophomore years, and I remember mindlessly inputting sequences of commands without understanding why the commands worked. Programming was an enigma to me until the summer of 2019. My cosmology professor, Rogier Windhorst, had offered me an opportunity to work with one of his colleagues, Dr. Russel Ryan, at the Space Telescope Science (STScI) on a project designed to study the thickness and dark matter distribution of the Milky Way’s disk through the lens of brown dwarfs. Everything I did at the STScI revolved around programming with Python and Linux, but unlike my previous experiences, I wasn’t immediately thrown into the fray. My mentor taught me the basics before assigning me to more complex tasks, ensuring I understood the theory behind everything I did. Soon I was fluent enough to download and process Hubble Space Telescope data. This experience taught me that programming isn’t as hard as I initially thought — I just needed someone to take the time to explain things to me in a way I could understand. It also taught me the importance of mentoring in the astronomical community, which is why I chose to be a spring 2021 ASU Sundial mentor. 

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

A: Get involved in research as soon as you can. The concepts taught in classes will provide a solid knowledge foundation to build upon, but skills such as programming and data analysis are best developed through research projects. Seek out and apply for summer internships you find interesting, or reach out to a professor and ask if they have any ongoing projects you could get involved in. You’ll be surprised how much and how quickly you learn.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I enjoyed ordering crepes at the Crepe Club outside the PSH building with my friend Connor Gelb during breaks between classes. Connor and I would usually work together on homework during these breaks, or simply talk about extra dimensions, the nature of time and other outlandish scientific topics. I would also often go to the Crepe Club early in the morning to order a coffee for a much-needed energy boost right before physics and math exams.

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

A: If I were given $40 million dollars to solve one problem, I’d want to put it toward a problem I could feasibly solve. Worldwide problems such as poverty would be incredibly difficult to solve with any amount of money given the complex nature of such issues. As someone interested in both astrophysics and science communication, I think a problem I could reasonably address with $40 million dollars is the lack of underrepresented minorities in astronomy and astrophysics. I would create a yearlong astrophysics training program designed to teach underrepresented minorities the fundamental skills used in an astrophysical research career through work on astrophysics projects with professors and research scientists.

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