The Catholic University of America

Nora Conley

Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe

Doctoral student Amy Soto, who studies in Catholic University’s Physics Department, can remember when she first began to marvel at outer space.

Though she grew up in Hartford, Conn., her family spent vacations visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. While in Florida, they even witnessed a shuttle launch.

“I remember thinking how cool it would be to go into outer space,” Soto said. “And who doesn’t love looking up at the sky and gazing at the stars and wondering what’s out there?”

A few years later, a high school physics class sparked Soto’s curiosity and made her want to learn more about the mysteries of the universe.

“I had this amazing physics teacher — his name was Mr. Mendelssohn — and I still talk to him today,” Soto said. “He was basically the one who inspired me to go into physics.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Connecticut, Soto spent a few years teaching at a high school before deciding to continue her education at Catholic University. Within her first year at CUA, she began researching at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Two years ago, she was named the recipient of NASA’s prestigious Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship, which seeks to increase the number of graduate degrees awarded to underrepresented persons in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Soto’s research involves looking closely at distant galaxies to find the regions with lots of star formation. Her goal is to determine why these active regions exist and whether or not they play a part in the evolution of galaxies.

As part of this, Soto has worked closely with images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope. Earlier this year, she was part of a team that captured the most colorful deep image of the universe. Discoveries with this image will add missing pieces to the puzzle of galaxy formation, including details on how the Milky Way was formed.

In May, Soto was invited to observe at the Nordic Optical Telescope in La Palma in the Canary Islands of Spain. The project was a dream come true for Soto, a chance to network with physics students and astronomers from around the world and to work in one of the best observatories in the world.

“The observing that I did in the Canary Islands, it was just so amazing,” she said. “Going out there, it was the darkest place I had ever been in my whole life and you can see the bands of the Milky Way across the sky at night. That’s something I had only seen in pictures.” The work Soto has done there is already part of a scientific publication.

Soto believes the trip would never have been possible without her fellowship or her CUA connections.

“Having this fellowship and having these connections with Goddard basically opens up so many doors,” Soto said. “If you want to be involved in NASA, if you want to have all these opportunities, CUA is one of the best places to be.”

As a Christian, Soto said she has enjoyed researching in an environment where faith is respected. In many ways, she thinks her research into space has helped her grow in her faith and look at her beliefs in a new way.

“CUA has the perfect environment where science and faith live in harmony and I feel very welcome here,” she said.

Though she still has several years left before finishing her doctorate, Soto says she would love to work at Goddard after graduation. She is also interested in outreach — encouraging younger students to get involved with science.

“Education opens so many doors and I just want to say to people, ‘Aren’t you curious?’” Soto said. “Back in our parent’s generations, they thought cell phones were fiction, like something on Star Trek, but look at everyone now. In movies now we see people living in outer space. Well, the Mars one project is coming and people are trying to go to Mars. How can you not be excited about that?”


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Amy Soto

Hometown: Hartford, Conn.

Favorite professor at CUA: Duila De Mello, associate professor of physics

Favorite local place: The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Center in Chantilly. "It's amazing to see the space shuttle. Every time someone comes to visit, that is where I take them." 

Favorite book: The Bible

Favorite movie: Interstellar

Favorite musical: Wicked