“I love research,” enthuses The University of New Mexico alum Raven Otero-Symphony. “Not only did research give me the freedom to question and explore in my own capacity on topics that interest me, it also provided support during challenging moments in my life.”
Anyone reviewing undergraduate research at UNM will inevitably come across her name in any number of programs, including El Puente Research Fellowship, Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement Program (U-RISE), and the Harvard T. Chan summer research program. She graduated in the spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in statistics.
The list goes on of various research and other scholarly programs Otero-Symphony has participated in. She recently returned to Albuquerque after a gap year in Washington, D.C. interning for U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) and taking a gap year before pursuing a Master of Space Studies next fall.
A first-generation college student, Otero-Symphony comes from a multi-generational New Mexico family.
“I was raised lower-middle class and moved around quite a bit, so I consider all of Albuquerque to be my home. It didn’t take long for me to become homesick while interning this past summer in Washington D.C., and I also experienced a culture shock. New Mexico requires exploration to showcase how unique and beautiful it is compared to the rest of the United States, and to take genuine interest in our history, literature, music, art, wildlife, philosophy, folk stories, and generational communities. The more I uncover about my heritage, the prouder I am to be a New Mexican.”
Long-range, Otero-Symphony is working to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. In 2022 she became the first New Mexican to be selected for the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which provides women and other gender minorities with opportunities in the aerospace field.
Otero-Symphony’s first encounter with research was in El Puente Research Fellowship, a program under El Centro de la Raza that supports and promotes undergraduate research. Mentored by Sociology professor Colin Olson and UNM alumnus Dr. Ronald Orozco, she investigated how news reporting and online media influences community perception of crime in Albuquerque and, with their help, produced “a cohesive and intersectional proposal by the end of the fellowship.”
The intersectionality continued in the MARC Research Fellowship (now U-RISE) where Otero-Symphony conducted quarterly research projects under assistant professor of Biostatistics Li Luo in the UNM Department of Internal Medicine.
“I loved my biostatistics research! Through it, I explored infectious disease, cancer genomics, environmental health, and spatio-temporal modeling of cancer incidence in New Mexico.”
In 2021, she followed up on her study of outcomes of pediatric congenital heart surgery as a summer research assistant at Harvard.
“Each research project was a stepping stone toward my true interest: space research. UNM uniquely embodies my values of interdisciplinary and intersectional study because I want my research to always involve the community and benefit them somehow. That is why, combined with my gradual confidence in STEM, I did not readily pursue space research through traditional means like engineering. I am much more interested in health, sustainability, and community wisdom.”
On the pathway to becoming an astronaut, Otero-Symphony recently completed a Citizen Astronaut application to become a commercial astronaut. She recently completed a ‘discovery flight’ where she flew a plane for the first time, thanks to UNM associate professor of Statistics Erik Erhardt and went skydiving for the first time. She also plans to join an astronaut analog mission along with her Brooke Owens colleagues, where they plan to diversify space research by including more diverse backgrounds such as themselves in an analog mission, where previous case studies that overwhelmingly emphasized findings exclusive to Caucasian men.
Otero-Symphony wants to develop intersectional and sustainable space solutions for technology, climate, and medicine.
“Our Earth is a closed system, and space is very much an applied ‘big picture’ that teaches us how to overcome societal challenges. Through space, we can improve international relations, experiment in a unique environment, and redefine what it means to be an astronaut and a human. Space doesn’t just sound cool: I believe that it will shape the next phase of societal evolution, and I want to be on the frontlines for that. The exact ways that I will do this in my research will be better refined through mentorship in graduate school.”
Otero-Symphony is currently working on “Space Resources at UNM,” a student- and alumni-led website to help UNM students find information and pathways into the space industry.
“I founded this project and am working with student delegates Collin Nesbitt and Giovanni Cordova to launch the site in spring 2023. UNM is a hidden gem in many ways, but throughout my undergraduate journey, I found many of these resources to be isolated or hidden from one another until it was too late to apply. In fact, all my research experiences—including the Brooke Owens Fellowship—were applications submitted the night of the deadline! My hope is that UNM can become a place where space thrives as a more holistic study of how we approach astronomical challenges. I intend to keep an active presence as a UNM alumnus through this project, and perhaps through other means yet to be determined. I am always down for a challenge.”
Armed with her robust research background from UNM, Otero-Symphony looks ahead. She expressed her gratitude to God for her aspirations and success and her family and community for raising her not only as a proud New Mexican, but also a practicing Christian.
“Besides becoming an astronaut, I aspire to become the first Ph.D. in my family. Along the way, I want to serve New Mexico as a legislator, earn my pilot’s license, become a published author, and much more. I dream of eco-friendly cities, curing disease and community health disparities, and founding a non-profit to help disadvantaged and abused youth achieve their wildest dreams. You would think that my education helped narrow down my plans, but nope! Education is my foundation, support, and gateway to enjoy all that life has to offer and experiment freely on how to benefit the world around me.”