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Faith and science directed ASU grad Rafael Ortiz on his undergraduate journey

Ortiz graduating with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics

Photo of Rafael Ortiz

Rafael Ortiz III is graduating from ASU in May with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics. Photo courtesy of Rafael Ortiz III

April 23, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Faith and science led Rafael Ortiz III to success as an undergraduate at Arizona State University. His journey will culminate when he graduates in May with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Earth and Space Exploration, with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.

“I came to ASU declaring astrophysics as my major, switched to ethics and digital culture, and then returned to astrophysics within three semesters. This return to astrophysics came through Bible studies, conversations with God and a realization that ASU is the place to specialize in space,” said Ortiz, who is from Elmhurst, Illinois.

He was selected Barrett Honors College's Outstanding Graduate for Research from the spring 2024 graduating class. He received the New American University President’s Scholarship, the 2020 Gold Medal in Science and the 2023 Barrett Honors College Award for Innovation.

Ortiz also was a finalist for Outstanding Undergraduate Student of the Year in 2023 and received the Dominic Frattura: School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership Scholarship, which is given to one member of Sigma Nu fraternity at ASU each semester. He was also an honorable mention for the Universities Space Research Association Scholarship.

His outstanding academic achievements have earned him the title of spring 2024 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

In the fall of 2022, Ortiz joined Regents’ Professor Rogier Windhorst’s esteemed research group. With minimal guidance, he soon became one of the first students to successfully run the complex James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Near Infrared Camera (NIRCAM) pipeline, which processes pivotal JWST data. 

“I give Rafael the highest possible grade in terms of research ability, initiative, leadership, discipline and motivation,” said Windhorst. “In fact, I would rank Rafael among the top undergraduate students to work in our research group in my over 37 years of experience. He attends our weekly meetings and attends virtual meetings over the summer for international PEARLS collaborations.”

Ortiz was one of the first people in Windhorst’s team to successfully run the very complicated JWST NIRCam pipeline and process JWST data for them.

“This is a huge accomplishment, and I have been extremely impressed with Rafael, because he did it on his own with very few minor suggestions from our research scientists," said Windhorst.

This achievement secured Ortiz’s position as a “Builder” in the Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science (PEARLS) program, granting him co-authorship on PEARLS papers. In addition to his impressive research work, Ortiz is a 2023-2024 NASA Space Grant intern and the first author of a paper focused on a novel selection and characterization procedure of local active galactic nuclei in the North Ecliptic Pole Time Domain Field. This research evolved into his second undergraduate thesis, complementing his first honors thesis— a self-published book of poetry he had been developing since his freshman year. 

In total, he co-authored six publications in the Astrophysical Journal, a leading journal for astrophysics.

He interned at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory during the summers of 2019 and 2022. In 2019, he received the Fermilab Science Award.

Ortiz served as a Barrett Honors College teaching assistant and completed an honors thesis titled “Why Do We See Beauty?” that included a self-published 51-page book of poems and a 96-page paper on the interdisciplinary interaction between Taoism, philosophy, Buddhism, spirituality and art.

He was a member of Honors Devils, a student organization that assists with recruiting honors students, and served as a student body senator and as the director of student affairs for Undergraduate Student Government on the Tempe campus. He was chief of staff of the Leadership Forum at ASU and president of the Order of Omega Leadership Honors Society.

As an ASU space student ambassador, Ortiz worked with the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and representatives of private industry to support student initiatives and research projects.  

As the end of the spring semester approaches, we asked Ortiz to look back on his undergraduate experience at ASU. This is what he told us.

Question: What is an interesting moment, story or accomplishment in your ASU career? 

Answer: I remember my spring semester as a freshman in 2021. COVID regulations had prevented a lot of in-person activities and no one was really on campus, but it was one of the most pivotal seasons in my life as I began my honors thesis, picked up poetry and built many relationships within Barrett.

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

A: I've grown so much in my faith thanks to my lord and savior Jesus Christ. Ever since my first semester here at ASU, I've been actively engaged in Bible studies with so many different networks on campus, and it's been beautiful to see how my time at ASU has not only been an academic journey but a spiritual one too. God is so good, and I could not be where I am today without him, the people who brought me closer to Jesus, and the mentors that influenced the man that I am today.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Palm trees and sunsets! Plus, ASU has an amazing relationship with NASA too, of course!

Q: Why did you choose Barrett Honors College?

A: I loved how Barrett offered the benefits of a small school at one of America's largest universities. Being able to create relationships with all of my professors and my peers is much more possible when you're in a place like Barrett that fosters a sense of community. I also knew I wanted to engage in an undergraduate thesis, and Barrett offered the tools, resources and support to make that happen.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Stephanie deLusé, teaching professor and honors faculty fellow in Barrett Honors College, taught me invaluable lessons during my time in her Human Event course, both as a student and as a teaching assistant. The lesson that I carry with me day to day is one about meaning: No matter what the circumstance or where we're at, we always have the freedom to be responsible about the meaning we get to create in life. Whether creating or experiencing art, championing our sufferings or sharing life with those that we love, we always have the choice to make this life meaningful.

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

A: Keep God first and become a sponge on campus because there is so much to learn, see, try and do at a place like ASU!

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

A: Barrett Honors College was my favorite place. I did lots of studying, meeting friends and thinking about life there.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'd love to get into the workforce for a year or two before going back to school and pursuing a PhD in astrophysics.

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

A: I would put it all toward ending child sex trafficking.

Taylor Hess contributed to this story.

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