Graduating Senior Finds Passions in Exoplanets and Outreach

May 20, 2021 • by Amanda Figueroa-Nieves

Zoe de Beurs wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she first arrived at UT Austin, but after graduating, she started a Ph.D. in Planetary Science at MIT.

A young woman in a graduation gown

When Zoe de Beurs arrived at UT Austin, she wasn't sure of what she wanted to do. Now, at the end of her fifth year, she's graduating from the Dean's Scholars honors program as a physics, astronomy and math triple major with an African and African Diaspora Studies minor.

"I think my path towards figuring out what I wanted to do was a little bit unconventional, switching around a lot, but I think that UT really gives you a unique opportunity to do that if you want to," said de Beurs, who just received a Texas Parents Outstanding Student Award, along with two other graduating CNS students: Brett Dolotina and Shruti Patil.

Next fall, she's starting a Ph.D. in Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a National Science Foundation graduate fellow. She credits her success to her ability to find a supportive community on campus, especially by finding female faculty members and other allies, and by joining Gender Minorities in Physics and the Natural Sciences Council.

When asked how she managed her time, de Beurs said "a lot of coffee." She also said that working on things that she's passionate about with people who share that passion gives her energy.

Charting Her Path

"The main thing that helped me narrow down what I wanted to do was actually doing it through research experiences," de Beurs said.

The summer of 2018, after her sophomore year, she interned at the University of Chicago, working on experimental astrophysics research. There, de Beurs attended a colloquium by a professor who used machine learning to try to better understand the universe.

"I was really inspired by his work and I wanted to see if I could do something like that," de Beurs said. "I asked him if he knew someone at UT who did that kind of work, and he put me in touch with Andrew Vanderburg. We met up and we've been working together for the past two and a half years."

The following summer, in 2019, de Beurs explored her interest in machine learning while at an internship with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — she used machine learning to classify X-ray binaries, pairs of objects that include a normal star and a collapsed star or black hole. This research won her a Goldwater Scholarship.

At UT Austin, working with Vanderburg, de Beurs sought to use artificial intelligence to improve the process of finding exoplanets — planets outside our solar system.

"We want to find a planet that might be similar to our Earth… but doing this is really difficult," de Beurs said. "There are specific sources of noise that can make it impossible to see the tiny signals of earth-mass exoplanets."

De Beurs and her team found that neural networks can reduce the noise by about a factor of two, which could pave the way to find planets twice as small as we could previously see.

Exoplanets became her main research interest, and they will be the focus of her time as a graduate student at MIT.

"We tend to think about our own world and all the forms of life that we have here, but it's such an amazing idea to think about other potential planets that could host similar or very different forms of life," de Beurs said. "Is there life beyond our solar system? That's the fundamental question that I really want to dedicate my work and life to."

Service & Outreach

While finding her footing as a researcher, the former president of the Natural Sciences Council also found time to give back to her fellow students. Through NSC, de Beurs started a new event series to empower women STEM students — Curie Diaries. This year, she had the opportunity to serve on the President's Student Advisory Council. De Beurs said PSAC is working to create a program that would partially pay students for undergraduate research.

"For me, being able to do undergraduate research required that I also was receiving some form of compensation, because I needed to pay for part of my own costs throughout college," de Beurs said. "I know that a lot of students are in a similar situation."

Additionally, de Beurs added a minor in African and African Diaspora Studies in order to learn more about the barriers for representation and retention in education, especially for Black students.

"One of the classes from the minor that really helped me a lot was called Sociocultural Influences on Learning, which focused on challenging deficit mindsets, introducing culturally relevant teaching methods, and reimagining the way we do schooling in order to decrease racial inequities," de Beurs said.

De Beurs said she tried to apply what she learned in this class while she was an undergraduate teaching assistant for Originality in Arts and Sciences, a class that teaches freshmen how to get involved in research and adjust to college.

"Seeing your students develop is so meaningful, because I meet them as freshmen and then see them work their way through college and find their own passions and what they're interested in," de Beurs said.

At MIT, de Beurs will continue her outreach and mentorship work.

"I plan to set up a mentorship program with local elementary or middle schools, because, for me, being a scientist is so inherently intertwined with mentoring the next generation of scientists," de Beurs said.