Growing up with the world’s largest radio telescope in his backyard set Edgard Rivera-Valentín on the path of planetary exploration from an early age.
Rivera-Valentín first visited the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico when he was around 5 years old. Their family moved from Arecibo to Pennsylvania when they were still young, “but we still visited every other year in Puerto Rico”, Rivera-Valentin said. “Every time I visited, I made my family take me back to the observatory because it’s such an icon. When you’re there, it inspires you to do more, to be more. So I always had them take me there, and that continued to fuel my passion to do something in science.
After taking a planetary science course at Alfred University in New York, Rivera-Valentin realized they wanted to pursue a career in that field. So they worked with the class teacher to create a new planetary science minor at the university. Rivera-Valentín completed an internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) in Houston in 2007, where they studied the craters of Jupiter’s Galilean moons.
After graduating, Rivera-Valentín joined the PhD in Planetary Sciences. program at the University of Arkansas, where they studied the stability and transport of water on Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus.
“I became the first scientist from Arecibo City to work at the observatory, and one of the few Puerto Rican scientists to have worked at the observatory.”
Another internship during their graduate studies, this time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, gave them experience in developing space exploration missions. The network they developed during their two internships led them to a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University and, subsequently, at Arecibo.
“I worked at the observatory for 4 years, which was great,” they said. “I became the first scientist from Arecibo City to work at the observatory, and one of the few Puerto Rican scientists to have worked at the observatory. You can count us all on your hands.
While at Arecibo, in addition to his scientific research on planetary radars, Rivera-Valentín had a strong focus on community involvement and inspired students in Puerto Rico to take an interest in science. They were project managers for the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy, which provides an astronomy research experience to local high school students. “This program was amazing. Over 90% of students who graduate end up going to college to earn a STEM degree,” Rivera-Valentín said.
Audio: Planets are interdisciplinary
After Hurricane Maria damaged the observatory and much of the surrounding region in 2017, Rivera-Valentín moved to Houston and continued his planetary defense, protection, and exploration to research at LPI.
“One of the things that attracted me to LPI is that it is primarily a community service institute…you are expected to have at least 30-50% of your time to do community service,” they said. “I can still do science, but I can also help the community. I can always help and work with the students. It’s rewarding to pursue my two passions: helping people and doing science. Rivera-Valentín is currently a senior planetary scientist at LPI.
As part of this service, Rivera-Valentín has hosted conferences for the planetary science community, including the Advancing IDEA in Planetary Science conference, which took place in April 2022. (IDEA stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility.) They also co-founded the Boricua Planeteers, an advocacy group that provides a network for Puerto Rican space and planetary scientists and helps develop these studies in Puerto Rico. You can follow Rivera-Valentin’s ongoing research and community service projects on Twitter @PlanetTrek.
This profile is part of a special series in our August 2022 issue on careers in science.
—Kimberley MS Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), personal writer