News / Calgary

Calgary student to study exoplanet atmospheres at Cambridge

Luis Welbanks won a 2017 Gates Cambridge Scholarship to do his PhD in astronomy

Luis Welbanks chose to do his undergrad and masters at the University of Calgary. Now he’s on to do his PhD in astronomy at Cambridge under a full Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Elizabeth Cameron / For Metro

Luis Welbanks chose to do his undergrad and masters at the University of Calgary. Now he’s on to do his PhD in astronomy at Cambridge under a full Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Luis Welbanks is about to embark on three-year mission to explore strange new worlds – to seek out new life and new civilizations.

OK, perhaps not civilizations, but he’ll definitely be looking for new life. The U of C master’s student in physics and astrophysics will be joining colleagues in Cambridge this fall to help with the cutting edge work of analyzing exoplanet atmospheres.

“This is as close as we have ever been to actually finding life somewhere else and just answering that question – are we alone? Are we unique in the universe?” said Welbanks. “For astronomy – this is as relevant as it gets.”

The 25-year-old student hasn’t just earned the chance to work on this most fundamental of questions. He’ll be going there on a Gates Cambridge Scholarship worth nearly $300,000 CDN.

The endowment was set up by Bill and Melinda Gates to support students who show outstanding intellectual ability, leadership potential, and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

Welbanks certainly checks off all three of those boxes. He was the first University of Calgary student to complete a double major in physics and astrophysics in just four years. While at the school, he helped launch the Latin American Society, and for that work he received the President’s Award for contribution to campus quality of life.

Welbanks came to Calgary in 2011 from Mexico to do his undergraduate degrees. He chose to stay on and do his master’s in part because of an extracurricular research program offered by one of his professors – Dr. Rachid Ouyed.

Under Ouyed, Welbanks and other students have been studying quark nova – which are theoretical explosions of neutron stars, which could lead to the creation of a quark star.

“It’s proof for me that we can create such students here in Calgary,” said Ouyed. “Having him as a master’s student in my group was an exceptional achievement for me because he could’ve gone anywhere he wanted.”

Although he’ll be working towards a PhD in astronomy, Welbanks won’t spend much time peering through a telescope. He and other scientists will be analyzing data collected at some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.

“We do a bunch of models and computer simulations,” he said. “The idea is we see the spectroscopy of the atmosphere, and we try to make very basic simulations about the air pressure and which molecules could be present.”

The scientist in Welbanks knows data is king, but the optimist in him hopes he’ll be part of the team that finally spots signs of life.

“With the technology we have, I think that we will be looking at atmospheric signatures that show we’re not alone.”

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