Kendra Nguyen ’24 Receives Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award at Claremont’s Pomona College, California.

Kendra Nguyen, a 22-year-old student at Pomona College, has always been intrigued by the possibility of other worlds beyond our solar system. This fascination led them to join the Physics and Astronomy Department at Pomona, where they began their journey of exploring and characterizing exoplanets, which are planets that orbit stars outside our solar system. As a first-generation, low-income student of color, Nguyen faced considerable challenges, including battling feelings of imposter syndrome. However, the supportive faculty at Pomona, particularly Professor Janice Hudgings, encouraged Nguyen to continue pursuing their interests.

Recently, Nguyen was recognized for their exemplary research and received the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award from the American Astronomical Society. This prestigious honor marks the second time Nguyen has been recognized by this organization. Over the summer, Nguyen participated in the 10-week Caltech WAVE Fellowship, a research program designed for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. As part of their project, they confirmed and characterized two Earth-sized planets orbiting an M-Dwarf star.

Nguyen’s research involved using the Las Cumbres Observatory global network of telescopes to determine the transit times for the planets. This information helped establish the first constraints on the planets’ mass, composition, and potential habitability. Early results suggest the planets are of low density and are unlikely to be Earth-like or purely rocky, with the potential of possessing a volatile envelope of water or primordial hydrogen-rich gas. One of the planets may even have liquid water on its surface, depending on its atmosphere.

Nguyen plans to publish a paper on these discoveries later this spring and intends to continue their exoplanet research in graduate school. They credit their time at Pomona, specifically their Techniques in Observational Astrophysics class with Associate Professor Philip Choi, for helping them hone the skills necessary for exoplanet research.

Nguyen is also actively involved in promoting diversity and inclusion at Pomona, serving as coordinator of the APS Inclusion Diversity and Equity Alliance (IDEA) team, running the Physics and Astronomy Department’s Queer and Trans Alliance, and working as a teacher’s assistant for the Introductory Astronomy course and a course in quantum mechanics. Professor Hudgings has praised Nguyen’s intelligence, enthusiasm, and determination, describing their academic journey as “simply remarkable.”

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