David Hervas Aguilar, a doctoral student in physics and astronomy, completed his bachelor of science degree in physics at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), in his home country of Ecuador. He has served as a high school teacher in Ecuador and as a teaching assistant at UNC-Chapel Hill and USFQ. In addition, he has taught physics and mathematics in locations including the Galápagos Islands and Canada.
What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?
After three changes to my major, I found myself lost. To my fortune, the physics department of Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) – my undergraduate institution in Ecuador – reached out to me with the option to pursue physics. For the first time in my academic career, I finally felt at home. It didn’t take me long to learn that the founder of USFQ obtained his degree in nuclear physics from UNC. Because of this, I feel that UNC and USFQ share many of the same values and virtues and strive for innovation. I cannot be more thankful for my academic upbringing at USFQ; thus, it was only natural that I come to an institution that helped forge that vision. My decision was solidified once I learned about the groundbreaking research that my now-advisor, John F. Wilkerson, and his team were conducting at UNC.
Tell us about your research.
We are the moles of the nuclear physics ecosystem. If you want to find an extremely rare physics event you have to go deep underground and create some of the cleanest working environments in the world. Neutrinoless double-beta decay in Germanium-76 – the event we are looking for – is so rare that if we had one atom of Germanium-76 we would have to wait longer than the age of the universe squared to observe it (and that is if it exists!). We certainly don’t have that long, so we are assembling hundreds of kilograms of this material into underground detector arrays capable of reaching this level of sensitivity within a decade. There are, however, benefits to this mole-like lifestyle. If found, neutrinoless double-beta decay would provide insight into some fundamental questions in the field, including the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe and the absolute neutrino mass – essential elements in our understanding of the evolution of the cosmos. I am involved with two international efforts to search for neutrinoless double-beta decay in Germanium-76, the MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR in South Dakota and its successor, LEGEND-200 in Italy.
What are some of your favorite places and things to do in your home country?
Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. With just a weekend trip you can explore the Amazon jungle, summit a 20,000-foot active volcano or relax on the beach. It is also home to the Galápagos Islands, my favorite place on earth. I love traveling around Ecuador to dive, whitewater raft, climb and hike, especially when I get to show friends I’ve met abroad around. In my home, in an Andean valley close to Quito, we are incredibly lucky to have spring-like weather year-round an extremely fertile land. One of the things I miss the most is figuring out what to cook when our avocado trees are in full blossom.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?
I wish to pursue a lifelong career in academia and science communication. At UNC, I have already had the opportunity to work with researchers from around the world and travel to many institutions where groundbreaking research is also taking place. These connections and the skills I’ve learned at UNC have jumpstarted my goal far faster than I could have imagined. I wish to help fill the gap that exists between fundamental physics research and the public, helping inform policy and fomenting scientific funding. I wish to eventually return to Ecuador and continue the innovations in education and scientific research that USFQ has pioneered, propelling physics in Ecuador onto the global stage.