Ed Rivera-Valentín (they/them) is a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. A planet trekker, they study the surfaces of solar system objects from Mercury out to the icy moons of Saturn.
How did you first get interested in science?
I was inspired by the Arecibo Observatory! I was born in the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, home to the famous observatory. My parents would take me up to see it as a child. I don’t know how to adequately explain the awestruck feeling you get when you overlook the dish. It was more than its size. It was an engineering feat. It was a gateway to the universe. All of this from my home. Then getting to hear about the discoveries it was enabling (e.g., the first exoplanet detection, the first observed evidence of gravitational waves) and the role my town was playing to facilitate such discoveries, it all motivated me to pursue science because I too wanted to be part of that adventure.
What experiences led you to your current career path?
I went to Alfred University, a small college in upstate New York, to study physics and math. I picked Alfred because it was ranked the top teaching observatory in the East Coast, and I wanted to do hands-on research with a telescope. While there, I had the opportunity to take an honors class in planetary geology, which then led me to take classes in the geology of Venus, Mars, and the Moon. Toward the end of undergrad, I was selected as a summer intern at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. That experience was the final piece of the puzzle. I knew I had to go study planetary science. What I liked most about it was that I’d get to apply what I had learned in physics and math to objects that we could easily observe from the ground, and even send missions to see up close. It’s also a very interdisciplinary field, so it would also mean I’d get to learn about geology, biology, and chemistry!
What is your current research on, and why do you enjoy doing it?
I’m a planetary scientist. My research focuses primarily on two aspects of applied science: planetary defense and planetary protection. In planetary defense, we work to study near-Earth objects. We want to find, track, and characterize these objects so that we can better understand the danger they may pose to Earth. In my research, I focus on the latter. I use ground-based radar observatories, like Arecibo, to characterize near-Earth objects, so that if we find one that is a danger to Earth, we know enough about it to put a mission together to defend us from it.
In planetary protection, we seek to protect the environments we explore from terrestrial contamination. This helps mitigate potentially damaging extant life. In my research, I focus on investigating planetary habitability, and in particular, I study the potential to form and sustain liquid environments and their potential to host life. I like to say I study to protect life by protecting life on Earth from potentially hazardous objects, and protecting potential extant life in the Solar System from contamination.
You’re also involved with Boricua Planeteers (on Twitter here). Could you tell us about the group, how you’re involved, and why it’s important to you?
The Boricua Planeteers is a networking and visibility group for space and planetary scientists and engineers from Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rico has about 100 universities, none offer a degree program in astronomy or planetary science despite having the Arecibo Observatory on the island. Over the years, the group has worked to change that. There are now minor degree programs in astronomy at two universities, several campus clubs centered around the space sciences, and more research ties between Puerto Rican universities and the Arecibo Observatory. The Boricua Planeteers also facilitates the careers of student researchers by providing networking and mentorship.
Several of us got together to form this group motivated by the severe underrepresentation of Latinx scientists in planetary research. Although Latinx are some 17% of the U.S. population and typically account for 8% of STEM professionals, at the time we started this group only 1% of planetary scientists were Latinx. Over the past decade, our representation has grown to 4%, but still we are drastically underrepresented. The Boricua Planeteers seeks to change that, not only by increasing the number of Latinx planetary scientists but also working to change the culture in the field so that we are all included.
Why was it important to you to contribute your story to 500 Queer Scientists?
I believe in the power of being visible, and am in a privileged position to be visible. I didn’t have someone to look up to or to guide me in my career. I didn’t have an example of an LGBTQ astronomer or Latinx scientist growing up. When you enter a field with so many systemic barriers and challenges, without those examples, it can be difficult to keep going and to not listen to those voices—the inner saboteur, as RuPaul would say—who tells you, maybe you don’t belong. I want to be there for those people. To let them know, you do belong!