Growing up with the largest radio telescope in the world in their backyard set Edgard Rivera-Valentín on a path of planetary exploration at an early age.
Rivera-Valentín first visited Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico when they were around 5 years old. Their family moved from Arecibo to Pennsylvania when they were still young, “but we still visited every other year to Puerto Rico,” Rivera-Valentín said. “Every visit, I made my family take me back to the observatory because it’s such an icon. When you’re there, it inspires you to do more, to be more. So I always made them take me there, and that kept fueling my passion to do something in science.”
After taking a class in planetary science at Alfred University in New York, Rivera-Valentín realized that they wanted to pursue a career in that field—so they worked with the professor of the class to create a new planetary science minor at the university. Rivera-Valentín undertook an internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston in 2007, where they studied craters on Jupiter’s Galilean moons.
After graduating, Rivera-Valentín joined the planetary science Ph.D. program at the University of Arkansas, where they studied the stability and transport of water on Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus.
“I became the first scientist from the city of Arecibo to get to work at the observatory, and one of the few Puerto Rican scientists ever to work at the observatory.”
Another internship during their graduate studies, this time at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., gave them experience helping to develop space exploration missions. The network they developed through their two internships led them to a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University and, after, back to Arecibo.
“I got to work at the observatory for 4 years, which was awesome,” they said. “I became the first scientist from the city of Arecibo to get to work at the observatory, and one of the few Puerto Rican scientists ever to work at the observatory. You can count us all on your hands.”
While at Arecibo, in addition to their planetary radar science research, Rivera-Valentín focused heavily on community engagement and inspiring the students of Puerto Rico to be interested in science. They were a project manager for the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, which provides astronomy research experience to local high school students. “That program was amazing. Over 90% of the students that graduated ended up going to college to do a STEM degree,” Rivera-Valentín said.
After Hurricane Maria damaged the observatory and much of the surrounding region in 2017, Rivera-Valentín moved to Houston and continued their planetary defense, protection, and exploration research at LPI.
“One of the things that attracted me to the LPI is that it is a primarily community service institute…you’re expected to have at least 30%–50% of your time available to do community service,” they said. “I still get to do science, but I also get to help the community out. I still get to help and work with students. It’s fulfilling to pursue both of my passions: helping people and doing science.” Rivera-Valentín is currently a senior planetary scientist at LPI.
As part of that service, Rivera-Valentín has organized conferences for the planetary science community, including the Advancing IDEA in Planetary Science conference, which took place in April 2022. (IDEA stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.) They also cofounded the Boricua Planeteers, an advocacy group that provides a network for Puerto Rican space and planetary scientists and helps develop those studies in Puerto Rico. You can follow Rivera-Valentín’s continuing research and community service projects on Twitter @PlanetTreky.
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer