News Channel

USF’s First Gates Cambridge Scholar's Future is on the Rise

Financial aid and faculty encouragement changed the trajectory of a student who came very close to not attending college.

By Barbara Melendez
     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 13, 2015) – Celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson should take note. There’s another star on the horizon. USF senior Michael Calzadilla is gearing up for a stellar career in astrophysics as he claims the first Gates Cambridge Scholarship awarded to a USF student.

Calzadilla’s road to one of the most prestigious international scholarships in the world, which is on par with the Rhodes scholarship competition, is paved with outstanding accomplishments at every turn. Yet, he came very close to being delayed – indefinitely, but for a series of well-deserved fortuitous events. Given how far he’s come, it’s hard to imagine things turning out any other way.

After graduating valedictorian from Brandon High School and being accepted at USF Honors College and the USF College of Arts and Sciences, he has worked his way to a 3.98 GPA with a double major in physics and mathematics and a minor in astronomy. Calzadilla received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship for research science, last year.

Clearly demonstrating that he is just the kind of scholar the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had in mind, Calzadilla also established more of an astrophysical presence on the USF Tampa campus when he launched an interdisciplinary project to build a radio telescope, in order to make observations of the Milky Way or other astronomical objects. This involved recruiting physics, electrical engineering and computer science students to join the effort. They ultimately received funding from the deans of Arts and Sciences and Honors Colleges. He also helped revive Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society, on campus. To round out his life, he played violin in the Honors Orchestra and took time out to pursue his interests in boxing, intramural sports, and traveling, as well.

Each of this accomplished senior’s academic years has been busy, but his past two summers kept the pace going strong.

In 2013, he was selected for and participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And last summer he participated in another NSF REU program at the MIT Haystack Observatory. His project involved "Observing Black Holes with the Event Horizon Telescope." This experience helped him prepare his first-author journal publication titled: “Fueling the Brightest AGN: Characterizing their Hot Gas Environments and the Accretion of Cooling Gas onto their Supermassive Black Holes.”

Before arriving at MIT, he made a trip with former USF Physics Instructor Doug Gobeille – his first research advisor – to Chile to visit the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Making the Shift

All of this came very close to not happening at all. Calzadilla applied to one college – USF – and if he hadn’t received financial aid from the university, there was no way he could attend. There was no Plan B. As the first in his family to enter college, this was “uncharted territory,” he explained.

Just as important, if it weren’t for professors who recognized his brilliance, he might have been one of many high achieving students, albeit with a bright future, but there would be no other story to tell.

Visiting Honors Professor and Office of National Scholarships Advisor Phillip Bishop helped Calzadilla make the shift. “Dr. Bishop told me to go to the Scholarship Office and said, ‘Apply for something. I want to write a letter of recommendation for you.’ He and Dr. (Georg) Kleine (retired) saw something in me. I couldn’t see it yet. But then I thought, maybe I do have it in me to go further,” he said.

Based on this experience, his younger brother Jonathan applied to USF and is now a freshman majoring in chemical engineering. To what do they owe their love of science? The two brothers enjoyed watching the Science and Discovery Channels and documentaries throughout their childhoods. Parents Reinol Calzadilla and Eunice Puig, Cuban immigrants who arrived in the Mariel boatlift, could not be more proud.

Calzadilla takes every opportunity to encourage young Latino boys and girls to take a positive view of science and math because of the “unique opportunity to contribute new knowledge to the field,” he said. His contribution, “a tiny secret of the universe” explored in his article on black holes, was another experience that helped him envision an unlimited future for himself – a future he knows others like himself can have. He's at Engineering EXPO today, as he has done in the past, "to get younger students interested in science and technology." He has also visited day care centers to read to children and play violin for them.  

Well on His Way

Another benefit of attending USF has been being able to travel. “Until my freshman year, I had never been out of Florida,” he said. Since then, in addition to going to Chile, Calzadilla has made trips to other observatories such as the one in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and attended conferences in Chicago, Seattle, Washington, D.C.and Savannah, as well as participating in study abroad experiences in Germany, Austria and Italy.

A new self-confidence built on a solid education and becoming a world traveler opened the door to thinking about graduate school. Not happy with his Physics GRE score, he considered taking a year off to study, but his successful application to Cambridge took him on a new path.

“Dr. Christine Jones, my advisor during my REU at Harvard, had studied with Dr. (Andrew C.) Fabian and was a big advocate for me,” Calzadilla said.  He couldn't ask for a better endorsement coming from someone who has gone on to serve as president of the American Astronomical Society. “She was like a second mother to me.”

Being accepted at Cambridge was Calzadilla’s first step toward being considered for the Gates Cambridge Fellowship. The case had to be made that he would meet the criteria of being an intellectually outstanding student with a capacity for leadership and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

His previous achievements and future plans fit the bill.

At Cambridge Calzadilla will study for an MPhil in astronomy with leading astrophysicists and researchers Fabian and Vasily Belokurov. He intends to earn a PhD in astrophysics and become a professor of physics focused on a career of research, instruction and outreach. The primary topic on his agenda is the co-evolution of active galactic nuclei (AGN) and their host galaxies at various wavelengths.

“Dr. Gobeille was fond of telling me that the person who discovers the origin of the relativistic jets around those supermassive black holes has a Nobel Prize waiting,” Calzadilla said. Contributing to that discovery would make this rising star very happy.

Honors College Assistant Dean of Special Projects Linda Lucas observed, “Michael is on a stunning trajectory for a career in astrophysics research. His commitment to introduce young people to the joy of discovery will have major impacts on the lives of aspiring scientists.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

USF News is produced by University Communications and Marketing.

To submit content, please review our Editorial Plans.