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Gabriela Canalizo

Professor of Astrophysics
Gabriela Canalizo
Illuminating Secrets of the Universe
Active galactic nuclei (AGN)—galaxy centers containing supermassive black holes—are some of the most powerful and luminous objects in the universe, yet we know very little about their origin and astrophysics. Using the finest optical telescopes in the world, Professor Canalizo is unlocking AGN’s secrets through a detailed study of their environment and host galaxies.

Areas of Expertise

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • PAT Outstanding Postdoctoral Scientific/Technical Publication Award (2003, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
  • University of California Faculty Enrichment Program Award


Q: Describe your research and its applications.
I study the interaction between supermassive black holes and the galaxies where they live. The broad field in which I work, Galaxy Evolution, seeks to answer the question: "How did the universe get to be the way it is today?" This is a question that resonates with much of our society, since it is closely related to the timeless question, "Where did we come from?" Children and adults alike are fascinated by exotic phenomena in our universe such as black holes. With the recent discovery of a supermassive black hole in the center of our own galaxy as well as in every other galaxy in our universe, people want to know what, if any, effect these monsters will have in the life of their host galaxies.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to address?
The majority of supermassive black holes in the universe are "inactive," that is, they are not accreting or "eating up" matter. Yet a small fraction (less than one in 10 million) are being fed prodigious amounts of gas and, in the process, they form small disks around them that become the brightest things that exist in the universe (aka quasars). Researchers are trying to understand how a black hole becomes active; what would it take for the black hole in our galaxy to become one of these most luminous and powerful objects? How long would it remain in that state? How would it affect the development of the stellar populations in our galaxy? How would it affect our lives?

Q: What is the biggest myth about your research?
A very common myth is that black holes are some kind of cosmic vacuum cleaners that will devour everything and that nothing is safe from them. While it is true that the force of gravity in the immediate vicinity of black holes is extraordinarily strong, the gravitational effects of black holes on anything that is outside of their (relatively small) sphere of influence are the same as they would be if they were caused by any other kind of mass. Thus, if our Sun were suddenly replaced by a black hole of the same mass, our planet would be completely unperturbed and would continue its path on its orbit. If it weren't for the darkness and cold weather we would experience, we would not even notice the difference.

Q: Who is the most influential public voice in your field?
Prof. Andrea Ghez at UCLA led one of the first teams to produce convincing evidence that the object in the center of our galaxy is a supermassive black hole.

Q: What does "Living the Promise" mean to you?
I think college is a very crucial stage in life when students can transition from thinking "What can the world do for me?" to "What can I do for others and how can I transform the world?" For me, to live the promise is to provide students with an experience that will broaden their horizons, that will fill them with a sense of wonder, and that will allow them to realize that they have the potential to truly make a difference in their communities and beyond.

Q: What is it about UCR that makes this a great place to do research, compared with other institutions?
The University of California has a long tradition in Astronomy, and it is arguably the leading institution in this field. Researchers from the eight UC campuses that have Astronomy programs work together through a single unit, the UC Observatories, developing strong collaborations and multi-campus programs. We own the finest optical telescopes in the world, the two Keck 10-meter telescopes on Mauna Kea, which our community has used to make innumerable discoveries, including the recent Nobel Prize-winning discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. We also develop much of the cutting-edge instrumentation in our field. At UC, it is really true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And at UCR in particular, we have a young, dynamic program with huge potential to answer many of the pressing questions regarding origins and galaxy evolution.

Q: Do you have a personal hero?
My mother became an orphan at an early age, had to be a child head-of-household, and had to overcome many difficulties. Yet she managed to become a physician and gave (and continues to give) everything to her family. She is one of the most generous people I know. Today I work with orphans and child-headed households in Africa, and my mother's story has been a huge inspiration to me.

Q: If you had unlimited resources and no constraints, what would you do to further our research?
I would build a telescope with about 10 times more light gathering power than the best telescopes that we have today. This telescope would allow me to study the sphere of influence of black holes to great distances, when the universe was younger, so that I would be able to better investigate how these black holes and their host galaxies co-evolved. As a bonus, this telescope would allow us to detect the very first galaxies in the universe as they were forming, and we would be able to study the atmospheres of the recently discovered Earth-sized planets to see whether they are habitable and to search for signs of life. Fortunately, this is not just some wild dream: the University of California, together with Caltech, is leading an international effort to build this amazing telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
It's your turn to live the promise. You've been given the opportunity to explore and discover, to realize your potential and to succeed. Go and do likewise.

Gabriela Canalizo “Children and adults alike are fascinated by exotic phenomena in our universe, like black holes. I remember one of my first Hubble images and thinking about the fact that I was the first human being that had ever seen this galaxy.”

—Gabriela Canalizo