Space has always been his passion. And mathematics and physics are her favorite subjects, in which she has also found female references since high school who made her “see it as a possibility for me to build my career in those fields.” Contemplating the Milky Way from La Silva, my grandfather’s town, “was spectacular.” An admiration that her parents (she from Berciana, and the two Civil Engineers) nurtured from the outset with experiences and scientific camps. The talent of Irene Abril Cabezas (Madrid, 1998) is evident, and the many awards that mark her short but intense career prove it.

In October he began a new path, the four-year doctorate in Cosmology that he will carry out under Professor Blake Sherwin in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. There he will investigate the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, and will continue to analyze the characterization of cosmic dust. That which allows you to delve into the origin of the stars and the universe. And he is not satisfied with just anything, he has experimented until he found what really stimulates his desire to learn. “You spend many hours researching. If you don’t like what you do, it doesn’t make sense.”

The physicist of Leonese descent was already a national prize (third) in her Secondary Education studies, and also a prize from the Community of Madrid. She graduated with honors from high school, her score was among the top 100 of the 28,000 students who took the university entrance exam that year. During her university studies, she received excellence scholarships from the Community of Madrid, and graduated in Physics from the Complutense University with an Extraordinary End of Degree Award in 2021. Before that, she had already obtained the Arturo Duperier Science Award, and had been selected by various student programs.

«I really liked mathematics, but I saw it a bit abstract. I like to ‘touch’ things more, that’s why I ended up studying physics. But I’ve always known I was going to be an astrophysicist.”

While studying for his degree, he dedicated summers and free time to research. «In that I have not been ashamed. If you finish the degree you have nothing, nobody wants to hire you. So I sent a lot of emails.” His first destination was Andoya Space Center, in Norway. «It was an instrumentation investigation, I spent the summer fixing (and hauling) cables for an instrument that analyzed the ionosphere. It was quite physical work, but it was clear that it was not for me ».

Her second summer of experimentation took her to Oxford University, in the Astrophysics Subdepartment. «There I was doing telescope data reduction. When you take data with these instruments, the atmosphere is in the middle, it’s like looking through a swimming pool, you see something blurry. Data reduction consists of analyzing the images and calibrating them, knowing what you have to take into account of what you receive. Know what data you can trust. It’s quite intense work, which is fine but it wasn’t fun either.”

Although, as one learns from everything, “during that study I met Jocelyn Bell Burnell”, the scientist who co-discovered pulsars. «Although later the Nobel Prize was given to other colleagues, and not to her. Knowing her speech was very shocking, and she became my mentor, we have consulted a lot ».

That summer he was also at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan, where he worked on the characterization of the dust of the Milky Way. «Dust interests us astrophysicists because when you look through the telescope it hides part of what you want to see. That is why it is necessary to know its characteristics well, in order to be able to eliminate it from what we want to analyze”.

In that project they used X-ray binaries, “an object of two stars, one a black hole or a neutron star and the other a larger, evolved star that passes matter to the other. When this occurs, an accretion disk is formed and transformed into two jets of energy. If you’re lucky, you look in the direction of Earth and light up all the way from the black hole or star to us. And during that path all the dust in the galaxy has been found, it is a signal that comes directly to us and that allows us to know it”.

That work did really interest Irene Abril. «It was there that I began to discover something that is really relevant to my doctoral work. Because we know what cosmic dust is made of, but we don’t have much idea of, for example, the size of its grains. And it’s not a homogeneous environment, there’s dust in various directions, and we don’t know how to characterize it well either. We have a lot of unresolved questions.”

In the fall of that year (2019)

The physicist of Bercian descent also did research at the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, in Germany. «There I carried out a project on star dynamics. The Milky Way, which is our galaxy, is a disk galaxy, which is not homogeneous. There is a bar that rotates at a different speed than the stars, and that can give us a lot of information about the process of galaxy formation. With this project we devised a method to characterize and try to study what the rotation speed is, to constrain what the galaxy formation process is. Together with my supervisors and two researchers from Columbia University in New York, we published a paper on what we discovered in this project.”

And a few months later he did research at the Institute of Cosmic Sciences of the University of Barcelona, ​​with Professor Licia Verde, a renowned cosmologist with whom he proposed to do his doctorate. However, she herself directed her towards Cambridge.

At the prestigious British university, he completed a master’s degree in Advanced Studies in Astrophysics, which he obtained with a scholarship. “The research project focused on the emission of 21 centimeters of hydrogen. It is about analyzing how the first stars and the first galaxies were. And hydrogen is very important to us. At the origin is the so-called cosmic microwave dust. First it is a ‘soup’ of photons, protons and electrons, which is very hot. The universe is already a bit older, so it has cooled down and these particles stop interacting with it. Protons and electrons come together and neutral hydrogen is formed. Photons travel freely through space because they have no one to interact with, and those photons are what we call the cosmic microwave background. That’s all around us.”

Neutral hydrogen glows at that 22-centimeter frequency. “It shows how the first galaxies and stars formed. They emit ultraviolet rays that ionize hydrogen and separate electrons and protons. The universe is totally ionized and we don’t see this. I started a project to study the formation of the first stars.”

And there he stayed at the University of Cambridge to do his doctorate. “I am studying the cosmic microwave background. Characterizing the dust, to detect primordial gravitational backgrounds. That is why we need to measure the cosmic background very precisely, and for this we need to characterize it. The project that I am now starting will allow us to study how to better characterize this dust”.

The research to develop the doctoral thesis will last four years. He investigates the phenomenon of gravitational lensing, with the aim of “continuing to advance in the development of tools to continue with the knowledge of the universe”.

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