Friday, December 8, 2023

Meet a Roadrunner: Lindsay Fuller ’17 is reaching for the stars

Meet a Roadrunner: Lindsay Fuller ’17 is reaching for the stars

NASA featured Fuller’s astrophysics research while she was a graduate student at UTSA.

(Feb. 14, 2018) -- Meet Lindsay Fuller ’17. She perfected her astrophysics expertise as a doctoral student at UTSA, and now she’s exploring the great unknown.

Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, Fuller had aspirations to become an astronaut. She was obsessed with the stars as a young child and, growing up, wanted to turn that into a career.

After learning that most astronauts had backgrounds as military pilots before joining NASA, Fuller joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. She spent six years in the military doing intelligence work before deciding it was time to start chasing the mysteries of outer space.

“I met with members of the physics and astronomy department at UTSA, and it really felt right,” Fuller said. “Their research sounded really fascinating and exciting.”

She was convinced UTSA was the right place for her when she met Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy, whose research on black holes closely aligned with her interests. She enrolled in the Ph.D. program in 2013, and Packham became her mentor.

Not long after beginning her studies, Fuller traveled to the Canary Islands in Spain to work with and learn from professional astronomers at the Gran Telescopio Canarias, a 10.4-meter telescope at the top of one of the steepest islands in the world.

“It was so intimidating, but also so exciting to see this great, impressive telescope and speak to astronomers who were living my dream,” Fuller said.

Packham was deputy principal investigator for the development of one of the first instruments for the telescope. This took Fuller to Spain to observe black holes in the central regions of active galaxies as part of her research about the structure and evolution of black holes.

The following year, Fuller took a big leap forward—and upward—with her research when she boarded NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747 jet with a massive telescope installed in its side. The aircraft is the largest airborne observatory in the world and allows for views of space clear of some of the atmospheric obstructions of Earth.

“It was incredible,” Fuller said. “I was surrounded by all of these professional astronomers operating this airborne telescope, and I was still only in the second year of my program.”

The experience helped Fuller’s confidence and tested her analytical skills. After she received her results, she spent more than a year analyzing them and writing her first scientific study. She focused on the duct surrounding active black holes, which she found is more compact than previously thought.

The UTSA alumna published her study in the summer of 2016, while she was still a Ph.D. candidate at UTSA. The following year, her study received national attention when NASA featured it on the front page of its website. NASA repeated the feature during "Black Hole Friday" in 2017.

“It was surreal,” Fuller said. “The paper was such a challenge and the fact that NASA wanted to feature it was one of those things I could only dream about 10 years ago. But now it’s a reality and it feels incredible.”

Fuller graduated with her Ph.D. from UTSA in December 2017. She is working on another study while doing postdoctoral work at UTSA, with plans to pursue a career in research.

While she no longer thinks becoming an astronaut is in the cards for her, she still draws inspiration from Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.

“I heard Sally Ride speak once,” Fuller said. “I think of a real pioneer in the STEM field, and I think of her. She arrived at NASA and was one of maybe five women among 100 men. Because of her, I’ve never felt like I had any barrier as a woman in physics.”

Fuller added, “I’d tell any woman who aspires to be in the STEM field not to let being a minority discourage her, because she’s just as good as anyone else.” 

Joanna Carver

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