Kaden Oquelí-White
Category: 2022 High School Winner

Kaden Oquelí-White

“HOLD UP! Let me stop you right there!! Kaden WILL be an Astrophysicist!” insisted a boisterous Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson as my enthusiastically overeager and out of breath mum raced to present me to my mentor after he emceed the 16th Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate.

Moments earlier, she barreled me downstairs towards Dr. Tyson as he fielded impromptu queries. She saw an opening and emphatically urged that we find our way into the captive audience Dr. Tyson held.

It was not the first time; a kind security officer endeavored to connect me with Dr. Tyson after chatting in the gift shop that afternoon, to no avail. Several years prior, my mum followed behind me to “stage door” at the Saenger Theatre when I naively thought charm would be my friend. While both times were well- intentioned, the meeting did not come to pass. We were both adamant that would not be the case today.

My mum innately understood how Dr. Tyson opened me up to the world of astrophysics and how he inspired a partially-blind Latinx child to think of disability as the universe’s way to create a human telescope. His artfulness in championing knowledge and boiling weighty concepts down, how he weaves a story and delivers a punchline like no one else, and how his illuminations of dark matter and black holes lit a spark in me to pursue the farthest reaches of our universe.

I was always a science kid. Looking to the heavens as a small child, I wanted to know more, why, how, and what. I energetically devoured Dr. Tyson’s books and visual media, listened to his podcasts, and dove into theories. Dr. Tyson was a bridge to the COSMOS, our Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan, Icarus at the Edge of Time, Dr. Brian Greene, The Theory of Everything, and Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Dr. Tyson brought me to the edge of knowledge and curried me into astrobiology research on extremophiles with NASA and Hawking Radiation and the Information Paradox with a full scholarship and research fellowship with Pioneer Academics.

As a scientist of color and impassioned advocate for growing Latinx representation in STEM careers, I see Dr. Tyson as a world- changer for underrepresented communities. I see how his voice calls others to speak up and seek out futures as scientists. I see how he speaks to both the science-centric and the layperson, how he inspires and uplifts.

When Dr. Tyson was a senior in high school, he reached out to his idol, Carl Sagan, sparking a working relationship, which solidified my desire to share how he impacted my young life and future goals.

Thus, we find ourselves right back at the start of this narrative and why I frenetically went along with my mother’s hastily concocted plan to dart to the stage front to meet Dr. Tyson. Once there, she paused, still holding my twelve-year-old hand, waited for a break in the conversation, and breathlessly shouted a motherly run-on sentence into the void, “DR.TYSON! I-WOULD-LIKE-YOU-TO- MEET-MY-SON-KADEN; HE-WANTS-TO-BE-AN- ASTROPHYSICIST-BECAUSE-OF-YOU!”