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High School Students Inspired by Astrophysicist at Kyoto Prize Symposium

Kyoto Prize recipient Rashid Sunyaev shared his background with the students and community members. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

High school students from throughout San Diego County, Tijuana and Inglewood in Los Angeles had the rare opportunity to meet one of the world’s most acclaimed astrophysicists, Rashid Sunyaev last week at the Kyoto Prize Symposium at UC San Diego.

As part of the symposium, which was underwritten by the Inamori Foundation, UC San Diego welcomed approximately 400 high school students and 300 community members for a discussion with the acclaimed scientist, who received the 2011 Kyoto Prize for his contributions to the understanding of the early universe and the properties of black holes.

The university facilitated bringing the students—many from underrepresented areas of the county as well as Tijuana and Los Angeles—to the event. Students also got to experience the academic environment of the university setting, preparing them for their own future in higher education. For Lincoln High student David Huerta, it was his first time visiting UC San Diego.

Center, David Huerta of Lincoln High visited the campus for the first time.

“I’m very excited to be here,” said Huerta. “This is my first time coming to campus. I like it—UC San Diego is so big, but it’s inviting and welcoming.”

The symposium provided a valuable opportunity for high school students to see the sciences, specifically astrophysics, in action, as Sunyaev shared his research into the vast universe. Thanks to Sunyaev’s discoveries, astrophysicists are now able to determine the size, age and geometry of the universe to an accuracy of a few percent.  In addition, his work in high-energy astronomy is among the most often-cited original research in the field of astronomy.

He also shared his background and the challenges that came with being born during World War II in the German-occupied city of Tashkent, in what is now the capital of Uzbekistan.

He recounted the trials his mother suffered while his father was away at war.  “I was told by a colleague and friend that my mother had no milk when I was born,” said Sunyaev. “She spent her whole salary to get two glasses of milk for me a day.”

High school students from San Diego, Inglewood and Tijuana were brought to campus for the symposium.

Despite growing up in challenging conditions, Sunyaev’s parents encouraged him to seek a university education. As a teenager in the former Soviet Union, Sunyaev recalled his love for studying history. Yet, his father advised him to pursue a career in the sciences instead. “He told me that he had several friends who were historians, and they were all shot or sent to prison,” Sunyaev told a crowd of nearly 700. “It was a very dangerous profession.”

With great enthusiasm, the scientist went on to recount his triumphs and discoveries in astrophysics. Sunyaev finished by telling the students that he would trade all of his accolades and awards to have their youth. After all, he told them, “You still have a world of possibilities ahead of you.”