Atascadero High Grad part of revolutionary Black Hole project

Atascadero High School graduate turned astrophysicist, Lia Medeiros, was part of the team studying images from the supermassive blackhole at the center of galaxy M87. (photos submitted.)

Lia Medeiros graduated from Atascadero High School in 2009.

While locals knew her as a bright student and member of the school’s track and cross country team, they may be recognizing her name in the press with a few more letters behind her name having recently defended her doctoral thesis at UCSB and giving presentations across the country.

While parents and friends of any budding academic would be suitably proud of their loved one’s achievements, Medeiros has had a unique experience for a scientist, having her name thrust into international fame for her work understanding the universe.

On April 10, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team at the University of Arizona, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) held a press conference announcing the first results of their study of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87.

Images processed for public consumption interpreted data collected from radio telescopes all over the world linked up in an effort to create what the team termed an “almost-Earth-sized telescope.”

The angry red ring in the “photos” show the accretion disk around the center of M87, all the matter and energy being scooped up for consumption by the stellar phenomena. That is at least what was there some 55 million years ago. Even an Earth-sized telescope can only collect the information that’s reached us across all those light years. M87 isn’t even the closest black hole to Earth, the Milky Way has its very own, but the distance and size of their subject make it easier to focus on.

In that sense the Earth is quite safe, reports Medeiros, who’s been spending the last four years of her life working on the theoretical models that define black holes, and was fascinated by them from her very first studies of astronomy and physics as a freshman at Atascadero High.

Working under a fellowship with the NSF, Medeiros’ doctoral thesis was on the EHT collaboration, her name appears on the 10 research papers released as part of the public unveiling, and she’s been working with the images revealed last week since June of last year.

“The response has been incredible,” she said, “as a scientist, you hope that people will be interested in your work. I hoped someone would be excited, but the nonstop attention [since the press conference] has been intense.”

With family ties and personal history in Atascadero — where she notes she spent the most time in her life in one place, before going where the science took her — Medeiros is also the only member of the team to have ties to her native Brazil. As a result, she’s been doing a lot of interviews in Portuguese over the last two weeks.

“I guess I’m now famous in Brazil,” she said, leading into an interesting way of phrasing her desire to become a scientist, translating a more precise phrase in her head she explains that she had, “incentivized curiosity,” with her family background and parents who believe strongly in education.

In high school, she found that calculus and mathematics in general, “are an amazing language we’ve invented for understanding how the universe works.”

Zeroing in on astronomy and physics however, she’s come up with a very plain English interpretation of her favorite subject, “Hollywood [science fiction] has given black holes a bad rap. People think they’re scary monsters in a way, but they’re actually cute and cuddly.”

The analogy may seem a stretch for anyone not steeped in the subject matter, but one might also expect a biologist to feel the same way about a variety of misunderstood predators. A Grizzly Bear seems significantly less dangerous from 55 million light years away, and like the bear, black holes don’t start out supermassive.

“There are a lot of closer black holes to Earth [than M87],” Medeiros said, “but this one is supermassive. If you replaced the Sun with a black hole of equal mass it wouldn't be dangerous, well, it wouldn't suck us in. Of course, we wouldn’t be getting sunlight anymore.”

Even films and television shows which strive for accuracy don’t exactly capture what the team has been learning, she adds, so it's easier to steer clear. Similarly, she doesn’t spend much time reading social media comment sections where people might misinterpret the work.

That said, “I’ve gotten at least 100 emails of congratulations and no negativity.”

As Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press readers may be aware, there’s been a significant push at the Atascadero Unified School District to amp up Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, education, particularly since the economic crisis of 2008-09.

The outreach component built into the NSF fellowship, has kept Medeiros connected to younger students in teaching and mentorship, she notes, but aside from leading by example, she’s not comfortable offering advice specifically for women in the sciences, “I’m a woman in STEM and I’m doing these things right now…the key is to find something and push yourself in anything you’re excited about. That is important for anyone.”

After delivering 11 talks in 10 days, and hitting the road non-stop since April 10, Medeiros is off to fulfill a new role, testing Einstein's theories at the Institute for Advanced Study located at 1 Einstein Drive in Princeton, N.J.

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