UTA physics student, alumna named to leadership roles in national Hispanic organization

Jackie Baeza-Rubio and Denise Huerta were recently named to the board of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists, an organization that works to encourage Hispanics to study physics.

Friday, Oct 15, 2021 • Greg Pederson : Email


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Jackie Baeza-Rubio and Denise Huerta know that the number of Hispanics who study physics and make their careers in the field is small. They want to play an active role in helping that number grow.

Baeza-Rubio, a junior in physics at The University of Texas at Arlington, and Huerta, who earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at UTA and is now a doctoral student at Notre Dame, are making unique contributions to the development of new techniques to study the neutrino, a subatomic particle with very small mass that travels at near lightspeeds and is very difficult to detect.

The pair were recently named to the board of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists, an organization that works to encourage Hispanics to study physics. Huerta will serve as the graduate student representative and Baeza-Rubio will serve as the undergraduate student representative on the NSHP board for 2021-22.

The group’s purpose is to promote the professional well-being and recognize the accomplishments of Hispanic physicists within the scientific community and society at large, according to the NSHP website. The NSHP seeks to develop and support efforts to increase opportunities for Hispanics in physics and to increase the number of practicing Hispanic physicists, particularly by encouraging Hispanic students to enter a career in physics.

Huerta and Baeza-Rubio, who are both first-generation college students, said they are honored by their appointments to the NSHP board and will work hard to represent the voices of Hispanic physics students.

“I will take my position very seriously in order to best serve my community of Hispanic physicists and represent us to the wider community,” Huerta said. “There aren't many of us, but we are growing and deserve to be seen and our achievements acknowledged, and I will do my best to help represent us.”

Baeza-Rubio is excited by the opportunity to serve as a role model for other Hispanics – and other women – in physics.

“Not having role models can steer Hispanic women away from STEM,” she said. “I’ve been lucky to have lots of mentors. Now with this NSHP position, I can make sure other students that faced or are facing challenges similar to mine have someone to look to for advice.”

Ben Jones, UTA associate professor of physics, was Huerta’s faculty mentor when she was working on her bachelor’s degree, and he has the same role with Baeza-Rubio, who began working in Jones’ lab group even before she enrolled at UTA.

“Jackie and Denise are both outstanding students and it has been a real pleasure to supervise them as they take their first steps in physics research,” Jones said. “They are excellent role models, not only for Hispanic students in physics but for all aspiring young scientists interested in contributing to the difficult but profoundly rewarding project of uncovering new fundamental truths about our Universe.”

Huerta, who grew up in Richardson and graduated from Richardson High School, had many reasons for choosing UTA to start her college career – it was close to home; it is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution that has many resources for first-generation students; and it had lots of scholarship and grant opportunities. She started out as an aerospace engineering major but switched to physics in her sophomore year.

“There are many branches of physics, and although I intend to become an expert in only one, my education has provided skills that can be used in different focuses in physics and outside the field as well,” she said. “I have learned about electronics, optics, coding, astronomy, material science and many other things that make every day as a physicist different and exciting. And if one day I was to decide I want to change fields, I know I can take this knowledge and put it into action at any time.”

As part of the UTA Neutrino and Rare Event Searches group under Jones’ guidance, Huerta worked on the NEXT (Neutrino Experiment with a Xenon TPC) project. NEXT seeks to observe a rare and to this point hypothetical process called neutrinoless double beta decay using a Time Projection Chamber filled with high-pressure xenon. Discovering this process could provide critical information about the nature of the neutrino – one of the most important open questions in modern particle physics and cosmology, Jones said.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in May 2019, Huerta went on to earn a master’s degree through the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. She is in her first semester in the doctoral program at Notre Dame, working with the EMPHATIC collaboration, a hadron production experiment for improved neutrino flux predictions. Huerta said it is important for her to be a role model to other Hispanics and women so that they can see themselves as having a pathway to success in physics.

“There are very few women, and even fewer Hispanic women, in physics,” Huerta said. “I hope that Jackie's and my presence inspires other women and underrepresented minorities to reach for their goals and explore their interest in physics. The field of physics is starting to diversify, and with higher representation come fresh perspectives and new ideas which are key to new discoveries and advancements.”

Baeza-Rubio grew up in Grand Prairie and graduated from the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a public school for grades 6-12. Following her sophomore year, she attended a High Energy and Nuclear Physics Summer Camp at UTA, which was organized by Jones. It served as her introduction to physics, and she was hooked. Though it was her first exposure to physics, she so impressed Jones that he offered her a researcher position for her final two years of high school.

“Without that opportunity, I don’t think I would have found what my niche was,” she said.

When Baeza-Rubio joined the UTA research group as a high school intern, Huerta was an undergraduate student in the lab and was her first lab partner. The lab also included a Hispanic postdoctoral researcher.

When it came time to select a college, Baeza-Rubio’s choice came down to two main factors – cost and research – and UTA had the upper hand in both. She earned multiple scholarships, which when combined with the funds she receives as an undergraduate researcher, allow her to cover tuition and expenses.

“I visited all of the universities in Texas that I got into and compared their research to what I was doing here at UTA,” she said. “I knew for sure I wanted to do research in high energy and particle physics, but I also wanted to have the ability to explore other fields in physics like optics, condensed matter, astrophysics, and theoretical. When I compared other physics departments to what we have here at UTA, I was much more satisfied with the sizes of labs, funding, and most importantly, my potential advisors here.

“Dr. Jones was the best advisor by far. He was enthusiastic, he’s also a first-generation college student – which is super important to me since he can guide me with my first-gen struggles – and he cares for me as a researcher, a student, and most importantly, a human. I love everything about my research group, and I know I made the right choice by staying here at UTA.”

Baeza-Rubio works on the NEXT experiment, specializing in ion delivery for barium tagging, and she also works in microscopy. She is now focusing on fully automating a Time Projection Chamber attached to an image intensifier that the lab group has in-house by building software, in order to facilitate barium tagging efforts.

“My job is to develop and create technology that will improve NEXT’s chances of observing neutrinoless double beta decay – and hopefully of winning a Nobel Prize!” she said.

Huerta and Baeza-Rubio said their responsibilities on the NSHP board will be to guide, advise, and inspire other students, to provide input from students’ perspective during board meetings, and to communicate the needs of students to the board and to help provide a plan to meet those needs.

“Any and all decisions that the board makes should be made with the knowledge of how those decisions may impact students,” Baeza-Rubio said. “NSHP is trying to help students, so if something is proposed that seems like a wonderful idea to the professors on the board but sounds awful to the students on the board, we would work together to ensure the goal is met without negatively affecting Hispanic physics students.”

Added Huerta, “I also hope to bring in new ideas such as an outreach or mentorship program for undergraduate students.”

Jones said he is delighted to see the pair elected to the NSHP board and looks forward to seeing the contributions they will make.

“It is truly gratifying to see UTA students and alums assuming these important leadership roles in organizations dedicated to the important task of fostering inclusivity and improving the climate for physicists in our field,” Jones said.


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Meet Jacqueline Baeza-Rubio