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Track and cross country athlete Carvalho awarded Fulbright Fellowship

Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Daniel Schrager     4/21/20 7:09pm

Track and cross country athlete Adolfo Carvalho began his path to receiving one of the most prestigious research grants in the country by studying dust.

“[Dust] sounds very dull,” Carvalho said. “But the more you know about dust, the more you find out how you go [from] dust to rocks to asteroids to planets and stars.”

Carvalho, who just completed his master’s and fifth year at Rice, was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research on protoplanetary disks in Chile. If that isn’t enough,  he is also the captain of Rice’s track and cross country teams. 

Initially a walk-on, Carvalho rose through the ranks of the Rice cross country and track teams, earning a scholarship before eventually becoming a captain.

“I came in as one of the slower guys, but I was able to eventually start contributing in races,” Carvalho said.

Carvalho, an astrophysics and mathematics major with a master’s in space studies, began research on star formation, which gave him an interest in young stars. Last summer, he began working with professors in the statistics department on a project to map protoplanetary disks. These disks of gas and dust surround young stars as planets form around them. As Carvalho puts it, they are the places “where the current theory holds that planets are formed.” Carvalho’s pitch to the Fulbright board: applying this new method of mapping disks to Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter Array, the world’s most powerful telescope of its kind. 

Next year, he’ll spend nine months in Chile figuring out just how effective this method can be. According to Carvalho, the implications of this could be huge.

“Learning about the composition and structure of these disks can tell you a lot about exactly what the formation process of planets are,” Carvalho said. “It can help us understand the most exotic systems that we see all the way down to the most average ones.”

Since last May, Carvalho has developed his idea, written application essays and undergone a drawn-out interview process. Receiving the fellowship was the culmination of nearly a year's worth of work. The entire time, Carvalho was still working to meet the demands of being a Division I athlete. Although he says he’s gotten used to being “really tired, pretty often,” Carvalho’s passion for both these pursuits keeps him motivated.

“I have the luxury of being so passionate about astronomy [and running],” Carvalho said. “Even when I’m doing the little nitty-gritty things that take up a bunch of time, I still feel energized.”

Carvalho also attributes his success to the others around him. In a list long enough to put an Oscars’ acceptance speech to shame, Carvalho credited nearly all of his accomplishments to his coaches, teammates and Rice support staff. He also dismissed his third-team all-conference honors as something he’d “like to have gotten more often.”

But his cordiality goes away the second he sets foot on the track. According to Carvalho, his fierce competitiveness is what drives him during each race.

“I don’t like to lose,” Carvalho said. “If there’s somebody in front of me, I wanna go and get them. And then if there’s still someone in front of me after that, I’m gonna go and get them too.”

Carvalho’s lofty career goals have helped fuel his motivation for research. After completing his fellowship in Chile, he plans on attending the California Institute of Technology to complete his doctorate. 

Afterwards, Carvalho wants to become a professor, using his ability to explain the most complex concepts of star formation in the clearest, most understandable terms to help inspire students. Carvalho says that has always been a goal of his.

“[Astronomer] Carl Sagan was a big inspiration when I was younger,” Carvalho said. “[Both] for studying and doing astronomy at a high level, but [also] being able to communicate it as well — communicating what you do to a broader audience so that people can see what you’re doing.”

Unfortunately, Carvalho will never get to use his final season of eligibility. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the country just as the cross country team was about to begin its season. Next year, he will be in Chile and unable to race. For Carvalho, the sudden end to his track career came as quite a shock.

“We were a week out from our opening race,” he said. “It pulled the rug out from under us.”

Still, Carvalho will leave Rice having made an immense impact. This was not lost on Carvalho, who said that the impact he made on his team was his greatest accomplishment in his time at Rice.

“I’m really proud of the culture I’ve been able to contribute to here, and the team I’ve been able to lead,” Carvalho said.

Rice cross country and track & field head coach Jon Warren echoed this sentiment.

“On a daily basis, both through words and actions, he positively motivated and guided his teammates to be better,” Warren said. “The successes Rice has had, especially in cross country, can be greatly attributed to the work Adolfo put in.”

Still, Warren was reluctant to discuss Carvalho’s impact as a leader, for fear of overshadowing his accomplishments on the track.

“I don’t want to get too caught up in how influential he was as a leader, and forget that he was also very successful as an athlete,” Warren said. “It is easy to repeat that overused cliché ‘he was a joy to coach.’ But truly, Adolfo was a joy to coach.”

As his time at Rice comes to a close, Carvalho says that he’s especially grateful for the opportunities he’s had over the past five years.

“It’s been really special to represent Rice, to wear the big Olde -English ‘R’ on my chest,” Carvalho said.

While his running career came to an abrupt, untimely end, Carvalho sees his Fulbright Fellowship as the perfect send-off.

“This has been a big follow through on Rice’s promise that you can do anything here,” he said. “I preach that to anybody that comes to Rice, there is a reward for hard work here. It’s not always obvious at first, but if you stay diligent, things will come together.”

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