Luis Alvarez says he's been fascinated by space for as long as he can remember.
He's always liked math, too, so when he enrolled in College of San Mateo almost two years ago, he decided astrophysics would be the major for him.
The trouble, Alvarez says, is that coursework in the subject can be abstract, based on models without the opportunity for much hands-on work or tangible experiences. But that will soon change.
In two days Alvarez will embark on a three week trip to the Arctic Circle, where he'll accompany a team of scientists on an astronomical research project at the Haughton-Mars Project Research Station.
While there, the 20-year-old will help test space suits and assist in astrobiology-related studies of permafrost. But his main task will be evaluating sites to set up a planned research telescope, which will take advantage of the Arctic's long nights and days to study the sun and planets outside the Solar System.
The data from the telescope will be transferred to the college's observatory for astronomy students to analyze and conduct original research.
If a suitable spot is found, the college will utilize private donors to purchase the telescope and the necessary equipment to transfer data, according to astronomy Professor Mohsen Janatpour.
Janatpour said the project, referred to by the acronym SMART, or San Mateo Arctic Research Telescope, is a new collaboration between CSM, San Mateo County Astronomical Society, Mars Institute and SETI Institute.
"I am extremely, extremely excited about this," said Janatpour, who has headed the astronomy department at the college since 1992.
It all began last spring. That's when Pascal Lee, chairman and cofounder of the Mars Institute at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, spoke at the college's planetarium as part of a regular speaker series sponsored by the astronomical society.
Lee, who also serves as a research scientist at the Mountain View-based SETI Institute, encouraged students to contact him if they were interested in an internship, which included a trip to the Arctic to assist his research team on their annual trip there.
Alvarez said he approached Lee after his talk and said he wanted to work with him. He then followed up in an email listing his academic qualifications, and Lee took an interest in him.
"It just coincided really well with CSM wanting to expand its astronomy program," Alvarez said. And so, beginning last November, CSM faculty worked with the various astronomical organizations to develop a pilot program that would utilize the unique facilities available at the college given its small size.
Janatpour said he was already thinking of a plan to expand the program, and the new collaboration would be a great incentive for students to undertake the major. He said Alvarez was the perfect student for the initial phases of a project that could turn out to be an integral part of astronomy students' studies at CSM.
"We found Luis to be the most qualified to do the job," Janatpour said. "He's a great student."
Alvarez said he takes the responsibility seriously.
"A lot of the success that CSM wants (for the project) is riding on how successful I'm going to be in the Arctic," he said. "We want this to be a lasting program for students."
He credits Janatpour and his other professors at the college for supporting them throughout his college career so far.
"They fuel your desire to learn more. They want to see their students succeed," he said.
Alvarez was scheduled to begin his journey Saturday, July 9, flying out of Moffett Field in Mountain View on an Air National Guard C-130 to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, which is north of the Arctic Circle.
But he said Friday that the group's departure date has now been postponed until sometime next week. Exact details are not being released per Mars Institute policy, Alvarez said.
When the team does arrive in Resolute Bay, they will then be transported to the Arctic desert on the edge of the Haughton Crater, which scientists say resulted from an asteroid impact 39 million years ago. Alvarez will be back on the Peninsula Aug. 3.
Once he returns, Alvarez plans on completing his lower division studies at CSM this fall, after which he said his dream is to transfer to California Institute of Technology.
Faculty and administrators at the college have helped chip in money to put toward the cost of Alvarez' travel expenses, as have individual members of the San Mateo Astronomical Society. The rest of his trip is funded by the Mars and SETI Institutes and from a grant by the San Mateo Community College District.
A native of Daly City, Alvarez has lived in San Mateo for the last couple years and took classes at CSM while still in high school.
When he's not studying, Alvarez said he loves outdoor activities, playing the guitar or reading classic novels. He recently got into surfing, too.
"I've been trying to go as much as I can before I leave," he said.
If you want to keep up with Alvarez during his time in the Arctic, follow his blog atastroboyprime.blogspot.com.