Questions of the Universe - Support for KITP’s early-career scientists

Spring 2023 KITP Graduate Fellows Photo credit: Mia Nie

Emerging scientists come to KITP from a variety of sub-fields of theoretical physics with a shared purpose: to take advantage of KITP’s unique environment, participate in research programs with leading scientists from around the world, find career mentors, and broaden their understanding of physics. Glenn Duval and Virginia Castagnola-Hunter are two of many stalwart supporters who focus their efforts on early-career scientists through the KITP Graduate Fellowship and KITP Postdoctoral Scholars Programs.

Glenn and Bettina Duval
Photo credit: Josh Beller, Mi Belle Photographers

“UC Santa Barbara gives scientists time and space to contemplate the largest and most powerful forces in the universe,” said Glenn. “Our Pacific ocean, under crystal clear skies, creates a physical canvas that physicists can paint upon. There is no place in the world where people are free to collaborate in such a picturesque setting!”

Every year, the KITP Graduate Fellows Program offers a competitive opportunity for 16 outstanding graduate students from around the world to spend six months at KITP. Each graduate fellow is mentored and encouraged to participate in KITP programs and community talks. Their talent, combined with access to a world-class scientific community, has produced impressive results. Over half of KITP Graduate Fellows now serve in faculty positions, with the others employed in industry or at national labs. 

Christopher O’Connor

Fall 2022 KITP Graduate Fellow Christopher O’Connor first learned about the opportunity from his doctoral advisor at Cornell University. An upcoming two-month program on white dwarf stars matched his research topic. When Chris received his acceptance, it felt like being accepted to college all over again—pure excitement for the future. At KITP, he worked closely with Director and Gluck Professor of Theoretical Physics Lars Bildsten.

“I learned how to use Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics (MESA), which is state-of-the-art software developed at KITP and now widely used by astrophysicists to simulate the structure and evolution of stars. I also experienced a variety of research styles differing from my own, which opened my mind to new approaches. The project I carried out laid a foundation for several others I will pursue as a postdoctoral scholar, including some in collaboration with scientists I met at KITP. It’s clear that my experience will have a lasting positive impact on my academic career,” said Christopher.

“I had a wonderful time working with Chris,” said Bildsten. “Even before he arrived, he reached out to talk with me about the scientific work he was eager to undertake while at KITP. The work we did together to better understand how a star responds to the engulfment of a Jupiter sized planet pulled me in new directions I had never imagined. It was a joy to have an early-career scientist actively reset what I’m thinking about!” 

Isabel Garcia Garcia
Photo credit: Jeff Liang

The KITP Postdoctoral Scholars Program attracts about six new scholars out of 600 applicants each year. Here for three years, they join a cohort of 15-18 postdoctoral scholars in residence to broaden their perspective on theoretical physics and work closely with mentors. In addition to scientific advice, KITP and UCSB Physics Department faculty mentors provide relevant career advice and assistance in their subsequent job search. In turn, scholars hone their pedagogic skills by mentoring KITP Graduate Fellows, working with UC Santa Barbara Physics graduate students and engaging in outreach activities.

In 2017, Isabel Garcia Garcia spent six months visiting KITP during her last year as a graduate student at the University of Oxford. She had such a formative experience as a Graduate Fellow that she decided to reapply as a Postdoctoral Scholar, and was accepted as part of the 2018-2022 cohort.

Virginia Castagnola-Hunter
Photo credit: Matt Perko

“One of my most memorable experiences while at KITP was when I gave a public lecture as part of the Café KITP series. That was my first experience talking to a large non-scientific audience, and I had little confidence in my ability to pull it off. The reception from the audience was so amazing and, most surprisingly to me, I enjoyed it so much myself that it remains one of my happiest memories of my time at the KITP. The coaching and support from KITP staff in preparation for this event was really key in making this such an enjoyable experience. Since my Café KITP talk, I have been involved in a number of public lectures and similar outreach events, and this will no doubt continue to be the case going forward,” said Isabel, who recently accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington.

For Friends of KITP like Virginia “Ginnie” Castagnola-Hunter, this program is a chance to engage with a bright community of scholars while supporting its growth. Virginia’s long-standing legacy at KITP can also be seen in the Castagnola-Hunter Tower Room of Kohn Hall, where many of these young scientists gather to work. 

“This is an investment in the future,” said Ginnie. “Private support of the endowment that sustains postdoctoral scholars ensures that KITP has the resources to train and launch them in perpetuity, independent of outside circumstances such as the changing funding landscape for science. Investigating and understanding the universe is the key to our future.”



by Jillian Tempesta
Associate Director of Content Strategy, UCSB Development

KITP 2023 Fall Newsletter