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Visions of galaxies

KIPAC astrophysicist Enrique López Rodríguez’s passion for astronomy started on the ground.

Enrique López Rodríguez grew up surrounded by stars.

His hometown of La Laguna is on Tenerife, part of a Spanish volcanic archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa known as the Canary Islands. Thanks to a combination of atmospheric and geographic factors, the Canary Islands have some of the clearest night skies in the world.

“Just living there and looking at the sky – it’s an invitation to do astronomy,” López Rodríguez said. “I was lucky enough to grow up there.”

KIPAC astrophysicist Enrique López Rodríguez stands before the teaching observatory located in the hills above the Stanford golf course. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

López Rodríguez is an astrophysicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), which is a collaboration between the Kavli Foundation, Stanford University, and the U.S. Department of Energy. He studies how magnetic fields affect both the formation and evolution of galaxies, as well as the growth of super-massive black holes at the center of active galaxies. His work has taken him around the world, and above it – he has spent hundreds of hours soaring through the stratosphere in SOFIA, a flying NASA observatory built into a Boeing 747 – but his passion for astronomy started on the ground in Tenerife.

The Canary Islands are widely considered one of the best places for stargazing, and have legal protections in place to keep light, radio, and atmospheric pollution from interfering with observatories. The islands are home to the largest telescope in the world and host an international astronomical research community. López Rodríguez grew up less than a mile from the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands, and the mysteries of the night sky held an irresistible draw. Visions of galaxies, stars, and far-off planets provided a much-needed escape for an imaginative kid dealing with a difficult situation at home.

When López Rodríguez was only 11 years old, his father was sentenced to more than a decade in prison. His mother, suddenly trying to support two children by herself, sent him to live with his grandmother.

“She was like my roommate, best friend, and matriarch all together,” López Rodríguez said. “Having the support of my grandma and mom was what made me able to do what I’m doing now. They provided the peaceful environment that I needed.”

López Rodríguez’s grandmother didn’t always know what to do with him, but she encouraged his interest in astronomy. On Wednesdays, when tickets were free, she would take him to the Museum of Science and the Cosmos, not far from where they lived in La Laguna. The interactive physics and science displays at the museum fueled his imagination and gave him something else to focus on, providing a distraction from the abrupt life changes.

“In a space that is infinite, as the universe is, you can just dig your nose into it and forget everything else,” López Rodríguez said. “When you start reading about galaxies, or black holes, or planets, your mind goes to different places. I started growing this passion for astronomy because it was a matter of escaping everything else.”

López Rodríguez didn’t really know what a career in astronomy could look like – no one in his family had more than a high school education. His teachers told him that the first step was a college education, and Spain provided fellowships for low-income students to attend university. If he studied at the University of La Laguna and its renowned astrophysics institute, he wouldn’t even have to leave his hometown.

But in high school, he struggled to translate his passion for astronomy and physics into academic success. López Rodríguez was skipping most of classes, showing up just in time to cram the material and squeak through final examinations with a passing grade. “At that time, I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “And I also knew that to study physics, I didn’t need good grades. I only had to pass.”

In college, he was able to turn things around and focus on his studies. Everything felt new and exciting, and he knew he needed good grades to keep his fellowship and achieve his goal of being an astronomer. Continuing his education also gave him a way to reconnect with his father. López Rodríguez joined a program to teach basic math and physics at the prison where his father was held.

“I spent every weekend going there. I spent an hour with the students at the prison and then I was in the patio with him for another half an hour or 40 minutes,” López Rodríguez said. “I wanted to spend time with him, to understand him and get to know him as an adult.”

Eventually, López Rodríguez’s studies would carry him away from Tenerife. He was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Florida, and although some of his advisor’s projects would bring him back to the Canary Islands, he was the first person in his family to move away.

It helped, López Rodríguez said, that he had his family’s support. His whole extended family lived in La Laguna and they all wanted him to pursue his dream, even if none of them (López Rodríguez included) really understood where this path would take him.

“Everyone in the family said, ‘It’s the best thing that you can do and this is a unique opportunity. Do it, and if it doesn’t work, you have the family here. You have a nest. And we’ll figure it out afterward,’” he said.

Antenna Galaxies

The magnetic fields (streamlines) of the closest merger between two spiral galaxies, the Antennae galaxies. These observations show how mergers affect the magnetic fields in the gas within and around galaxies. The Antennae galaxies show ordered magnetic fields structures of ~8.9 kpc (29,000 light-years) connecting both galaxies, and in the tidal tail toward the intergalactic medium. Credit: SA/Hubble/SOFIA/NASA/E. Lopez-Rodriguez

Over his career, his work has taken him to the Netherlands, Japan, Texas, and eventually California, where he is using data from infrared imaging and other tools to examine the parts of the universe he could only imagine as a kid on an island grasping at stars.

López Rodríguez’s interest and knowledge in polarimetric instrumentation, which allows astronomers to study the cosmos by detecting and measuring polarized light, has pushed the boundaries of the polarimeters in some of the largest and most sophisticated telescopes in the world, including SOFIA and Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands. His discoveries include the detection of magnetic fields in the densest regions of galaxies and have contributed to an improved understanding on how magnetic fields may be enhancing or even creating the powerful radio jets associated with active galaxies – jets that may in turn help magnetize surrounding galaxies.

From the time he was a postdoc, López Rodríguez has also worked to make sure other students have the same chance to find a place for themselves in science. He is helping lead a program called KIPAC en Español to inspire Spanish-speaking students at local schools to pursue astronomy or other areas of science. He mentors minority students via the Cal-Bridge program and is also mentoring previously incarcerated students through a program organized by fellow KIPAC member Susan Clark, an assistant professor of physics at Stanford.

Though López Rodríguez has left the place that started him on this journey, Tenerife will always be an incredibly important part of him. And, from his perspective, it will always have the best views of the sky.

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