Yilen Gomez Maqueo Chew
By Ximena Levander
Published: March 15, 2006
Y ilen Gomez Maqueo Chew had a middle-class upbringing in the town of Hermosillo, Mexico. With a father who teaches mathematics and computer science and a mother who is a systems management consultant, she and her two sisters were raised in an information-rich environment.
"Our parents encouraged our curiosity, something you need to be a scientist,” says Yilen, who generally goes by her father's name, Gomez Maqueo. "They also encouraged us to follow our own interests.”
As a result, her older sister picked molecular biology and is currently studying for her doctorate at the Pennsylvania State University, and her younger sister pursued a career in fine art. Ever since she was a little girl, however, Yilen has been fascinated by the stars.
Her interest first led her to Tecnológico de Monterrey. While she was studying for her baccalaureate degree in physics engineering, she learned about some physics majors who had gone to Vanderbilt University. "Before that, I had never heard of Vanderbilt,” she says.
As a junior, she traveled to France for an internship at the EPF Ecole D'Ingenieurs in Sceaux as part of a Tecnológico double-degree program. During her year-and-a-half stay, she finished up her bachelor of science degree and started her master's degree. During her stay, she fit in an astronomy internship at the Institut de Méchanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides located at the Observatory of Paris.
She returned to Mexico to complete her classwork and write her thesis and received her B.S. degree from Tecnológico in May 2004 and her master's in energy and environment from the Ecole D'Ingenieurs a month later.
When Gomez Maqueo began considering doctoral programs, she applied to Vanderbilt and was accepted. "I visited Vanderbilt and I really liked the atmosphere,” she recalls. "Everyone was very friendly.”
The deal clincher was Keivan Stassun. "He is young, energetic and excited about his research. He transmits that energy to his students,” she says. "That is what impressed me the most.” Oddly enough, she only learned of Stassun's Mexican roots after she joined his research team in fall 2004.
As a team member, she has been deeply involved in the eclipsing brown dwarf study. "This discovery is a first of its kind,” she says. "Nobody else has so accurately measured the masses of brown dwarfs. That makes it very exciting, for me and for everybody in the field.”
Gomez Maqueo was the one who presented the first results on the brown dwarfs in May 2005 at the American Astronomical Society conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "I got a lot of feedback and was exposed to other point of views,” which she found helpful when she prepared the data for publication.
Her next step is to write a paper on the analysis of the brown dwarfs. At the same time, she has to start some other projects while focusing on her classes and completing her graduate thesis.
Gomez Maqueo has also become involved in the physics bridge program as the "unofficial student guide here at Vanderbilt.” As the senior student in the lab, she shares her knowledge of the university to make the students feel welcome. "I try and help them however I can.”
As a visiting student herself, she understands what the minority students are going through. She admits that "sometimes it is hard” to be so far away from her family. "But it is something that I have to do. I think being here, getting this Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, is worth the effort. Because, when I do go back home eventually, I will have so much more to offer as a professor, researcher and person.”
Eventually, Gomez Maqueo "would like to go back to Mexico” to conduct research at a competitive institute such as the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. "After all Mexico is where I feel most at home, and it is where I would like to settle,” she says.
— Ximena Levander