Kevin Alfaro

Meet Kevin Alfaro, a 4th year Physics major with a background in Astronomy. He is currently involved in the UC Leadership Excellence Through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS) Program. UC LEADS provides undergraduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with educational experiences that prepare them to assume positions of leadership in academia, industry, government, and public service following the completion of a doctoral degree. Additionally, Kevin was involved in the UCLA Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS), an intensive two year program committed to promoting academic excellence and professional development for students dedicated to careers in the life or physical sciences or mathematics. We had the opportunity to interview Kevin about his research experience at UCLA:

1. How did you first get involved in your research project?

I first got involved in research in the summer after my second year. I was in UCLA’s Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). Through them, I learned about a program called University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS), which is a research fellowship that prepares undergraduates from underprivileged backgrounds to kickstart their research careers. They provide funding and support for you to get research experience and prepare for graduate school. From there, I contacted professors whose research I was interested in and ended up working with Professor Tuan Do. My current project involves using convolutional neural networks for photometric redshift estimation of galaxies.

2. How would you describe your research experience at UCLA?

My research experience at UCLA has been very fruitful and gratifying. I have a very supportive lab environment and never feel scared to ask for help. I enjoy the work I’m doing and getting to share it during presentations and conferences. I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of several topics I’m interested in such as machine learning and cosmology. And have also learned how to solve problems more creatively and in collaboration with several people. It’s also given me a sense of what to look forward to in graduate school.

3. What is one piece of advice you have for other students thinking about getting involved in research?

My main piece of advice for students thinking about getting involved in research is to engage with it at their own pace. There have been several times when I burnt myself out from doing too much. It’s okay to slow things down and accept that setbacks are commonplace. Doing so also helps you better understand your project, and taking breaks can give you time to sit back and think about your work differently. There have been several times when I spent way too long on a problem, only to find a solution for it after stepping back and being in a more relaxed state of mind. At the end of the day, working too much will not only degrade one’s work, but it will also degrade the self.

4. Have you attended a conference before? If so, can you describe your experience on preparation, presenting, etc.?

I attended and presented at the 2023 UC LEADS symposium. Preparing for a conference is very much like preparing for a presentation in class. You have to make sure your information is easily digestible and concise. As well as be ready to anticipate any questions you can see people asking during your presentation. Most conferences have you present a poster and the making of the poster is usually what’s new to students during their first conference. As long as all of your information is concise and your figures are easy to decipher, you can freely design it as much or as little as you like. Admittedly, making a poster is a considerable endeavor and I would recommend you ask your labmates to provide feedback. You can even present it in front of them to rehearse. My biggest piece of advice would be to make a slideshow first, then move all of the information onto the poster format later. Focus on the content first, then turn your attention to the presentation of said information. Once you actually present, it’s also okay to not know the answer to questions you get asked. No one expects you to know everything there is to know about your subfield.

5. Have you had your work published? Can you talk about what that process was like?

My work is in the process of getting submitted or being written up. I’m a coauthor on journal submissions but a first-author on conference papers. Both are relatively similar. Typically, you’d produce a manuscript, which is like a combination of a lab report and a literature review. You put your original work in and contextualize its value to the field. You’d submit it to a journal or conference and go through a peer review process where people with relevant experience will review your paper. If your paper gets accepted, you will typically get comments from the reviewers on corrections you can make to improve the work. The submission and review process can take time so don’t feel bad because the experience can be nerve-wracking.

6. What are your future career goals?

After getting my bachelor’s degree, I am going to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I ultimately want to go through graduate school and see if I would enjoy being a professor. If not, I can definitely see myself working in private research or the technology industry.