Fulbright Spotlight: Interview with David Vizgan (’21), Astronomy Researcher in Denmark

Exploring Denmark... and the Earliest Origins of the Universe

Blog post prepared by Shiven Sankalia (’24), Fellowships Assistant, Spring 2022, with additions and edits by Dr. Erica Kowsz, Assistant Director for Fellowships at the Fries Center for Global Studies

A young man in a black parka stands in front of a stone pedestal with a stone owl's nest on top. The statue says Niels Bohr's name.

David Vizgan (’21) stands beside the grave of Danish physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen

David Vizgan is a Wesleyan alum currently on a Fulbright Scholarship in Denmark. David graduated in 2021 with a double major in Physics and Astronomy.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a fellowship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and designed to expand the perspectives of young Americans while contributing to local host communities around the world. A Fulbright award allows graduating seniors, graduate students, and young professionals the opportunity to study abroad, conduct research, or teach English in one of 140 partner countries. Recipients of a Fulbright are considered cultural ambassadors from the U.S. and are expected to interact and engage with their host country. David was awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship, allowing him to spend 8 to 10 months in Denmark.

David kindly spent a half-hour with Wesleyan’s current Assistant Director for Fellowships, Dr. Erica Kowsz, on Zoom, going through the Fulbright process, his time and research in Denmark, and advice for Wesleyan students interested in fellowship opportunities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Erica Kowsz: How did you get interested in applying for Fulbright?

David: There are two main reasons. The first is that the summer prior to my junior year, I spent the summer doing research at the Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen. At the time, I had not done much research, but I applied and was accepted to a program known as the DAWN-IRES Program, which is funded by the [U.S.] National Science Foundation. Unfortunately, I had to leave the summer  . I felt that my job was not finished and was eager to find a way to work again at the Cosmic Dawn Center. The opportunity came when in my junior year, I was recommended by my research professor, Meredith Hughes, for fellowships, in what I originally thought was a scam email, but was in fact real. I took the initiative and visited the fellowship office to determine what I could do post-graduation, and to assess which fellowship process I knew was very involved. Being a STEM major planning on doing research, the two fellowships which made the most sense for me were the Fulbright and the Churchill. The Fulbright, in particular, was attractive to me due to the flexibility it provides.

Fulbright U.S. Student Program grants for independent research require an applicant to establish an affiliation with a scholar, practitioner, or other professional who agrees to host the applicant at their university or other institution during the Fulbright year should the application prove successful.

Erica: So, you ended up finding your affiliation through this summer research program, correct?

David: Exactly, despite not finishing my full stay during my summer at the Cosmic Dawn Center, I was truly excited and very interested in the research I had been doing. Even once I had returned to the states, I would allocate a few hours a week to continue my research with Professor Thomas Greve, my program advisor in Copenhagen. During my summer working at the Cosmic Dawn Center, I coordinated my research with Prof. Greve over Zoom and through Slack, prior to such methods becoming the norm during COVID. When the switch to online communication became necessary, the shift to virtual research methods was easier for me, an advantage I think really benefited me. When it came down to it, it just made sense that I would apply for the Fulbright and do it in Denmark. And in fact, working in my favor was that written in the fine print for Denmark’s Fulbright program is a proclivity towards students studying, environmental, life, and space sciences. This factor was not really something that influenced my decision to apply for the Fulbright, but I believe definitely helped me to be selected.

While academic excellence will never hurt your case, match is a very important factor in Fulbright. If you are interested in applying for a Fulbright, visit the Fulbright U.S. Student Program webpage and read closely the country profiles for the countries you are interested in. You may find, like David did, that the country you’re interested in is a surprisingly good match! Or perhaps you’re interested in several countries and the specifics of the country profile can help you decide which one you will apply to. Fulbright applicants can only apply to one country each application cycle, so it’s important to think through your choice.

David on the process of writing the application:

Even at this stage, early in my junior year, I knew that this was an opportunity I really wanted to pursue, but my immediate plans – like many others – were halted by COVID. However, COVID also provided me with a chance to really focus on my application as I looked forward to a COVID-free or at least less-COVID future. Starting in April 2020, I diligently worked a few hours every week on my application materials – mostly the writing supplements, which are key to the application process. I had plenty of support in crafting my application; the fellowship advisor at the time, Magdalena Zapędowska, as well as my research advisors were very useful resources which I am grateful for.

Erica: So tell us a little bit about the research, I’m curious to know (for the layperson) what you are working on.

David: As I mentioned previously, I work at the Cosmic Dawn Center, which is a Center of Excellence funded by the Danish National Research Foundation that operates for 10 years. The Cosmic Dawn Center is specifically designed to explore the furthest corners of the universe. The term Cosmic Dawn actually refers to a time period about 300 million years after the Big Bang, when the “dark ages” of our universe ends and the first light, stars, and galaxies are visible. When we study objects in space we are essentially looking back in time due to the finite speed of light, so galaxies at “cosmic dawn” lie over 13 billion lightyears away. Due to this focus on the periphery of the observable universe, the Cosmic Dawn Center has been closely aligned with the development and launch of the brand-new James Webb Space Telescope. I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but the telescope launched in December of last year and is basically the most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

Erica: Yeah, I’ve heard of that.

David: The James Webb Space Telescope will be revolutionary for us astronomers as we will be able to see the most distant, youngest galaxies in the history of humankind. This year at DAWN we’re all doing a lot of prep work for the James Webb Space Telescope, including running simulations and creating data pipelines, in anticipation of the data that will be received once the telescope is fully operational. The fact that in just a couple of months, images and data taken from the James Webb Space Telescope will finally be transmitted back to Earth, means working at the Cosmic Dawn Center at this moment is especially exciting – we are excited to see what objects they will discover from light that has traveled 13 billion years or more. Which, in the context of the 13.8 billion years old universe, is extremely significant; we will be able to see some of the first light-emitting objects ever.

Some of the research I’ve done at DAWN has been published recently in a paper that I had been working on for 3 years. For the research, I looked at a simulation of galaxies which were simulated to be lying 12.8 billion lightyears away, at the end of the universe’s reionization. These simulations of galaxies allowed me to look at how the luminosity of one emitted spectral line from these galaxies –ionized carbon at 158 microns – could trace the molecular hydrogen in galaxies at such large distances. Molecular hydrogen is the fuel for star formation, thus it is extremely important for understanding galaxy formation and evolution. However, it cannot be observed directly with telescopes, so in the universe we look for other objects which can “trace” molecular hydrogen. The time period where these galaxies lie, the “epoch of reionization”, is when the first light-emitting stars and galaxies emerged after the long “dark ages”, reionizing hydrogen which until that point had been neutral.

Using the visible line of carbon, my co-authors and I were able to trace the molecular gas budget of these 12.8 billion-year-old galaxies with ionized carbon. Practically speaking this will allow astronomers with the James Webb Space Telescope to probe the fuel for star formation in some of the distant galaxies ever discovered, which can ultimately help determine where these galaxies lie within the greater context of galaxy evolution. Working on this research project was similarly a long-term affair, I worked remotely on this stuff for almost 2 years before arriving in Denmark, and I’m really glad that I got to wrap that up here. These days I’m also looking at the same simulation set, same line of carbon, except we’re trying to trace atomic hydrogen instead of molecular hydrogen. It’s so far a much shorter but more interesting project, in my opinion.

Erica: Great that’s so interesting. Any cool memories or things that are more about being in Denmark, aside from your life in the research sector?

A chess tournament. A young man contemplates his next move

David Vizgan (’21) contemplating his next move at a chess tournament in Denmark

David: Yeah, 100%, it took me a while, but after all the Fulbright is about cultural experience and cultural immersion. However, I needed to be proactive to find such experiences. The first way I chose to engage with the Danish population was to join a basketball team at the Danish Technical University. While I had fun living the “college-athlete” lifestyle, being on the team meant coming home late, and since I was not staying on campus as opposed to the other students I was struggling to keep up with an already busy schedule. Since then, I have joined the Danish Chess Union and have been very active with one of the biggest chess clubs in Copenhagen playing at weekly tournaments. Playing chess was a way for me to make Danish friends and to continue a hobby I had picked up at Wesleyan. Through chess and other hobbies, I have managed to make a few Danish friends, including my roommate who is Danish. Danish people have a reputation for being insular and cold, but from my experience once you meet the right people and have a few beers with them in the cloudy midwinter, they’re incredibly kind, thoughtful, and cozy people.

A young man in a brown t-shirts stands in front of a calm canal at sunset

David Vizgan (’21) in Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is also an incredible city. I think it has something for everybody… it’s the perfect size, extremely clean, has amazing public transportation and services, and truly delectable food and drink all over the city’s restaurants and bars. Also, there are a ton of parks and public activities year round for the city’s residents. Of the eight Fulbrighters in our group this year, I think only I and one other Fulbright student are staying in Copenhagen now, and not in a dorm or some other city in Denmark. And I’m really glad that I got to live within the city, because seeing the evolution of Copenhagen from humid August to dreary January and now to an absolutely gorgeous May and June has been the best way for me to understand Denmark and its people. December in Copenhagen is particularly charming with all the Christmas markets, bright lights, mulled wine & Christmas beer, and general cozy vibe all over the city. I’ve gotten to travel a bit around Europe on my Fulbright as well but every time I land in Copenhagen I really feel like I’m coming home.

A ground of young people stands smiling on the steps of a restaurant

David Vizgan (’21) on Fulbright with friends

I think that this Fulbright year has been the best of my life. I have been able to gain new skills, see new places, and accomplish a bunch of goals I had set out for myself. Despite not even having started my master’s, I’ve been able to work side by side with some of the brightest minds in astrophysics. I appreciate being surrounded by PhDs and Professors in a work environment, and recognize the amount of work that goes into doing high-quality research. A big reason why I am not eager to return home is that I feel at home in this academic community, with people who are really at the forefront of astronomy and cosmology. The inspiring nature of my time in Denmark has helped me determine what I really want to do as an astronomer when there are so, so many possibilities. And in a similar vein, I hope in the future to set an example for students at Wesleyan who are interested in astronomy and cosmology.


Erica: Now that you’re now winding down to the last couple of months of the Fulbright, what do you head off to do next?

David: Yeah, so in the fall, I will begin a Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois under Prof. Joaquin Vieira of the Observational Cosmology Group. Cosmology is a vast subject for many reasons, and while some people are interested in its theoretical nature, I prefer to answer questions relating to understanding cosmology through observations of galaxies and other phenomena, basically trying to tell the story of the universe from birth to today, maybe even predicting what the fate of the universe will be, via the things we see.


On his main goals for the Fellowship year… 

David: My main goals were two things. First of all, representing America the right way, as the fellowship is intended. You know, because America has had a rough patch the last few years. Although, if I am representing America, then you already know we are in big trouble.

Erica: [laughs]

David: But in all seriousness, you know, especially for me as a quadruplet, who has always had at least one of my brothers at my side, there was this fresh and interesting opportunity to live alone, on my own terms, in a totally different environment, for the first time in my life. My parents were both immigrants who arrived in the States around the same age as I am now, and had to mostly figure things out for themselves. I think that’s something I really think about lately, and I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I could live alone and immerse myself within a new country, on my own terms.

Erica: What advice would you give to Wes students, namely those in STEM, about considering and applying for fellowships?

David: First off, you definitely do not need experience in the country where you want to go. If you are interested in going to a country for any reason, consider funding it through a Fulbright. Also, take advantage of what I’ve been told is Fulbright’s supposed initiative to take more people from STEM. As I understand it, Fulbright is attempting to engage more scientists… after all there’s always been a humanities and social science focus that is associated with the fellowship. That’s why I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to apply for a Fulbright as a STEM student. Prospective applicants should be willing to immerse themselves in a new country and broaden their horizons. For the research scholarship, you do need to make a connection, have somebody to vouch for you, and then figure out a good project idea, but the sky is really the limit. I suggest starting as early as you can on the application and working hard on it because it does pay off. A benefit of the Fulbright is that you can keep applying for it, there are no age restrictions [for most awards]– there are older professors who get Fulbright [Scholar] awards. I personally would have kept applying until I got it.

Interested in applying for a Fulbright? Reach out to fellowships@wesleyan.edu to be added to the list for future communications about Fulbright. You can express interest any time, but it is rising seniors and alumni who are eligible to actually apply. Campus deadlines are in September and the national deadline in October each year. Read more about the process for applying for Fulbright at Wesleyan on the Fulbright Step by Step page of the Fellowships at Wesleyan website.