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Faculty Spotlight on Kelle Cruz

April 15, 2011 | Faculty

Dr. Kelle Cruz is right at home teaching an Introductory Astronomy course to 330 non-science majors at Hunter College. She likes being on stage and doesn’t mind being the center of attention. It’s also probably worth mentioning that Cruz did theater in high school. “Teaching is a good fit for me,” she said.

Cruz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the only astronomer at Hunter. She is an expert on the observational study of brown dwarfs, which form like stars, but have different temperatures and masses more similar to giant gas planets like Jupiter.

Brown dwarfs were discovered fairly recently, in the mid-1990s. Therefore, Cruz has spent most of her career compiling the basic data on these new objects of study, which she says will one day help scientists understand more about the extrasolar planets found around nearby stars. Currently, together with Physics & Astronomy majors at Hunter, Cruz is analyzing the massive amounts of data she has collected during the past few years with collaborators at the NASA Ames Research Center. In addition, she is co-mentoring a Theoretical Astronomy graduate student at Hunter, whose research focuses on refining a more accurate model for brown dwarf atmospheres.

Cruz grew up in San Antonio, Texas but was quick to make her way East. In high school, her plan was to study Business at the University of Pennsylvania, so she applied early. But somewhere between her junior and senior year of high school, she abandoned the business idea and decided she wanted to be a scientist. “There are way more questions in Astronomy than there are astronomers,” said Cruz. She liked that Astronomy was a field with many unknowns, and the possibility to make a significant impact in a particular field excited her.

Cruz dove right into her Physics and Astronomy courses during her undergrad, stayed at UPenn for her doctorate (she won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship), and then headed to New York City for postdoctoral research on brown dwarfs at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) as an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Fellow. Cruz worked with both REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) and Barnard College students through her research at AMNH. This was the point in her career when she realized that she always wanted to have students integrated into her research, and academia was her desired path.
Cruz won a Spitzer Fellowship for a second postdoctoral position, that took her to Caltech in Southern California. Caltech’s Astronomy Department provided her access to the high-end telescopes and instruments that are key to answering
questions about brown dwarfs.

Back in New York at Hunter, Cruz has re-established her working relationship with the Department of Astrophysics at AMNH as a Research Associate. There, her Hunter students are exposed to many world-class astronomers, as well as the useful resources available at AMNH. Through grant support, Cruz and the other CUNY astronomers hope to formalize and strengthen the CUNY Center for Astrophysics at AMNH in the coming years.

Cruz is also working to strengthen and refine her teaching skills. Her 330 non-majors have certainly taught her a few things she plans to tweak for during upcoming semesters. One of them: Ask more challenging questions.