Mia de los Reyes ’12 lands prestigious award to study astronomy, pays it forward with STEM outreach

Mia de los Reyes will attend University of Cambridge this fall as a Churchill Scholar. Photo courtesy NC State.

Mithi “Mia” de los Reyes ’12 is an accomplished mathematician, physicist, and astronomer with an impressive record of achievements — all before she graduates from college! But for all of her successes, de los Reyes sees a world outside herself. She wants to bring math and science to as many middle and high school students as possible, and she’s already well on her way to doing so.

A Churchill scholar

In January, de los Reyes was awarded a 2016 Churchill Scholarship. She is the first-ever Churchill Scholar from North Carolina State University, where she is a senior majoring in physics and mathematics. She was among 15 chosen for the award from among hundreds of applicants. Churchill Scholarships provide funding to cover American students’ costs of a year of master’s study in science, mathematics, and engineering at the University of Cambridge. De los Reyes will pursue a one-year master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Cambridge beginning in the fall of 2016.

Recognition for her work

The Churchill award joins a long list of de los Reyes’ achievements. Still, she is humble about the honor, saying she was “absolutely shocked” to get the news. “I was almost positive I wouldn’t get the scholarship,” she says. “I had looked at the biographies of the previous winners when I applied, and I honestly didn’t think I was half as qualified as any of them. I still don’t think I am! But I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity.”

After graduating from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2012, de los Reyes received a Park Scholarship, NC State’s most prestigious merit scholarship covering all four years of study. At NC State she has also won the Goldwater Scholarship, one of most prestigious undergraduate awards given in the sciences, and the Astronaut Scholarship, one of the largest merit awards for U.S. students of engineering, science, and astronautics. She interned at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) twice, living and working at the Geneva, Switzerland, laboratory for two separate summer terms. She also served as a summer research assistant at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where she studied galaxy evolution and formation and authored a paper published in The Astronomical Journal.

A shifting passion

De los Reyes has loved astronomy for years but “I actually didn’t think I would end up studying astronomy. For a long time, I thought I wanted to do particle physics instead.” She did pursue physics, a passion de los Reyes discovered at NCSSM. “I had never taken a physics class before coming to NCSSM.” She also had the opportunity to begin research while at NCSSM, something she says gave her an advantage in college.

“This background gave me a tremendous head start when I went to NC State,” she says. “Research at NCSSM also helped me develop important skills, like how to review scientific literature and ask research questions, which let me start research at NC State right away (even before beginning her freshman year).”

An NCSSM Mini-Term trip to CERN enforced her love of particle physics. “I fell head-over-heels in love with CERN on that trip, and for the next few years it was my life’s mission to find a way to work at CERN.” She applied for CERN internships every year in college, even as a freshman. Although she eventually spent two summers working at CERN, she also applied for some astronomy internships as she waited.

“I was lucky enough to land one at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore,” she says. “I worked there for a summer on galaxy evolution. I loved the work — the idea of studying galaxies was so cool to me, and I loved the whole process of interpreting data and trying to understand the deeper physical story. I had really wonderful advisors, so I thought that maybe this was it for me.”

After her stint in astronomy, it was back to particle physics at CERN, but she missed astronomy. “I realized that particle physics just wasn’t for me. It took me nearly all of my undergraduate career for me to figure it out!” But that’s ok, she says. “I hope my story is proof that things can work out even if you have no idea what you’re doing!”

Paying it forward in STEM

De los Reyes hasn’t forgotten about the experiences outside of research and studying that helped shape her path. She has volunteered with the NC Science Olympiad, an organization she participated in while at NCSSM, to help bring more students to STEM degrees and careers. She also co-founded a group, Serious about Science and Math Club, which provides workshops to high schoolers on topics not usually covered by high school curricula.

“I have been very, very privileged to have so many great opportunities available to me. Going to NCSSM, getting to take advanced science courses, doing research in high school, having so many fantastic mentors — not everyone gets opportunities like that, and that’s not fair. So it’s my responsibility to help provide those opportunities for others.”

A bright future

After her year in Cambridge, de los Reyes plans to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy, then find a research position at a national institute or in an observatory. But for now, she says, “I’m really looking forward to doing research with someone whose papers I’ve read and cited in my own work. I’m also excited to live at Cambridge, and to get to meet new people, and… everything, honestly. I’m just really excited.”


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