L.Y. Aaron Yung, Bachelor's in Physics '14

Mysteries of the Universe

There’s no astrophysical conundrum too big for him

Aaron Yung’s concerns are bigger than this world — they’re extragalactic. As a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, Aaron tackles all kinds of astrophysical research to better understand far flung galaxies, what the universe looked like in its infancy, and how it evolved to its current state. Aaron credits USF’s physics program and outstanding faculty with preparing him for the rigorous work grad school demands.

What are you currently researching at Rutgers?
In short, I develop and use computer models to explore how galaxies formed and evolved in the very early universe. The semi-analytic modeling method I use is capable of making forecasts for large populations of galaxies, including galaxies that are too faint or too far to be detected by any telescopes currently available. And with our results, we make predictions for galaxies that no one has seen yet that we expect to be detected in upcoming observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope.

How did the physics major help prepare you for grad school?
Physics provided me with a solid foundation that empowers me to take on all sorts of challenges in my PhD program, which includes intensive coursework and research. In fact, my experience at USF was very similar to how it is in grad school.

The physics department also provided ample research opportunities. I participated in the undergraduate ALFALFA team, collaborating with students across the country to work on an extragalactic observational project. This program gave me valuable experience observing with the Arecibo Telescope, which at the time was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. I also did about three years of undergraduate research under the supervision of Professor Aparna Venkatesan, exploring whether nearby dwarf galaxies could have hosted the first stars in the universe. The very low faculty-to-student ratio gave me a lot of opportunities to interact with each professor at a personal level, which was quite crucial to preparing me for graduate school.

Why did you want to major in physics?
Physics, the laws of nature that govern everything in our universe, always fascinated me. At first I was quite intimidated to major in physics because everyone around me thought it was too difficult; even my physics teacher from high school was slightly discouraging. However, the USF faculty helped me take down the wall of fear, which has to do with the amount of individual attention I got.

Why did you choose USF?
I was attracted to the 3+2 Physics-Engineering Dual Degree program because I was hoping to pursue degrees in physics and aerospace engineering. After working with the welcoming physics department, I was inspired to stay at USF and focus on physics. Successfully tackling such challenging work with a relatively small group of fellow students makes me really proud. Students really don’t have to compete with each other like at an enormous state university. And such a friendly environment enables students to discover their individual interests even at an early stage of the undergraduate program.

How did the faculty inspire you?
I came to the university without knowing anything about astronomy. Prof. Horacio Camblong — who taught me general relativity and cosmology, and held countless lengthy late-night discussions — drew me into physics. Prof. Aparna Venkatesan, with whom I did and still am doing a lot of research, helped me discover the life-changing career path in astrophysics. The two of them, along with Prof. Brandon Brown, Prof. Xiaosheng Huang, and Prof. Seth Foreman all influenced and encouraged me to pursue a PhD in physics.

How are you continuing to carry on USF’s mission?
The Jesuit values I was taught had a deep influence on me. I learned about the core values in the service learning class Catholic Social Thought, for which I served the homeless community in the Tenderloin district. Such experiences raised my awareness of the social injustice of poverty and the need to restore the dignity granted equally to everyone by the Creator. And with this in mind, I am always aware of giving back to the poor and to the community in general. The Jesuits also have a long history in astronomical science; an example would be the Vatican Observatory. At USF, I learned that my Christian faith does not contradict scientific facts, and, in fact, the two are complementary.