Hilo’s own Devin Chu helping discover the secrets of the universe as an astronomer

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Devin Chu’s journey through the universe began when he was in elementary school, growing up on the Big Island.

Devin Chu records data at W. M. Keck Observatory headquarters on the Big Island. (Courtesy of Devin Chu)

He and his mother would go most weekends to the Hilo Public Library to check out books. On one of those occasions, while he was in third grade, he discovered a tome called “Our Solar System” by Seymour Simon. Seeing Earth’s neighboring planets and how different they are fascinated the young Hilo boy.

“How is it that we are able to live on this planet; whereas, on Venus or Mercury there’s no way it could work for us?” Chu recalled wondering. “Then seeing how you have these super gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn with all the rings, seeing those differences was really interesting to me.”

That “aha” moment, like a tiny big bang, if you will, not only wowed him but opened his eyes to the cosmos and the study of them — astronomy.

The now 32-year-old is a postdoctoral researcher and astrophysicist, peering even deeper into space as a part of the University of California, Los Angeles Galactic Center Group, directed by his mentor, professor and Nobel Prize winner Andrea Ghez, to reveal the secrets surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

He also is part of a team of engineers and scientists at W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea working on a project to advance adaptive optics technology for the next generation and deliver even sharper images of the universe.


Chu’s interest in astronomy continued to expand after Simon’s book — and all of his others — provided that initial spark.

Devin Chu and his third-grade teacher at E.B. deSilva Elementary School in Hilo, and a timeline about my life, thinking about the future and becoming an astronomer. (Courtesy of Devin Chu)

“As I continued to look more into these books, I saw these huge stars that are different from our sun, like how galaxies are different than our own galaxy,” he said, adding that made him think about the sheer vastness of the universe. “Getting the sense of scale, just how small we are in a sense, was pretty mind-boggling, but also to me meant that there’s so much more to learn. What we know and experience here on Earth is a tiny, miniscule of what is out there.”

Making his way through the Hilo school system, his curiosity about the universe and interest in astronomy was further buoyed by several science programs, including the annual weeklong Journey Through the Universe, that offered him the chance to hear local astronomers talk and present information about their work and even work alongside them.

Future Flight Hawai‘i got him even more familiar with what it’s like to be a scientist trying to conduct experiments and learning about the scientific process. The program also featured camps that simulate being on Mars or the moon.

In eighth grade, he worked on a science fair project that found him interacting with staff at the Big Island’s Gemini Observatory. Chu even got to check out a telescope that he took around the island to look out into the stars.

Devin Chu as a keiki during a past Future Flight Hawai’i science camp. (Courtesy of Devin Chu)

His work with Gemini and on science projects continued through high school, cementing his path to becoming an astronomer by the time he graduated in 2010 from Hilo High School.

Heading to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he wanted to keep his options open as to what specific focus of astronomy he wanted to get into. During his time there, Chu was able to come back one summer to the Big Island to again work at Gemini, watching scientists observe and record data with the observatory’s telescope on Mauna Kea and giving him a better sense of what it is to be an astronomer.

He also had an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., providing more opportunities to try his hand at astronomical observing.

He received his bachelor of arts degree in physics and astronomy in 2014 from Dartmouth.

Going into graduate school at UCLA, he knew observational astronomy — using telescopes and capturing data — was what he wanted to do. He also began working with the Galactic Center Group, which has revealed very young stars where none were expected and a lack of old stars were anticipated around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.


Chu received his doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 2020 from UCLA. His doctorate research found there are no binary stars close to the black hole. Now, his post-doctoral research is focused on understanding why.

As part of the team working on the Keck All-sky Precision Adaptive Optics project, or KAPA, his research now includes improving the way a near-infrared integral field spectrograph tool is designed for the project works and functions. The goal is to achieve better data by being able to observe in more detail the objects and environment surrounding the galaxy’s central black hole.

The work that KAPA is already doing and the more advanced instruments on the horizon can also help answer fundamental questions about physics and how the universe works — questions that might not have even been thought about or considered possible to get to the bottom of 20 years ago.

Technological advances since he was a child looking at his first book of planets and the teams of people, organizations and agencies behind them and discoveries made through the years are key to where astronomy is now and its future.

Devin Chu poses with professor and Nobel Prize winner Andrea Ghez at his doctorate graduation ceremony in 2020 at the University of California, Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Devin Chu)

“It really is a team effort that makes this possible, just to get the data,” Chu said, adding its the computer engineers, technicians and engineers who keep the equipment running and updated; astronomers only play a small role sometimes. “Then, once we even get the data, you’re working with different scientists and different specialists that will be able to interpret that data.”

It takes even more teamwork to disseminate the information about what astronomers learn and develop. Chu feels a huge responsibility as a member of the team to not just do the research but to share his work, calling it a vital aspect of his profession.

His colleagues are glad to have him onboard.

“Devin is a very talented scientist!” said Ghez. “He brings curiosity, rigor and creativity to his work. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with him.”

The Galactic Center Group works closely with the Keck team on the KAPA project. Keck Chief of Technical Development Peter Wizinowich echoed Ghez’s accolades for Chu. The center’s team works closely with the observatory on the KAPA project.

“Devin is a Hilo boy participating at the cutting edge of astronomical research,” said Wizinowich. “I’ve found him to be a very pleasant and thoughtful collaborator.”

Working with Keck and a project on the Big Island now is rewarding for Chu because the island’s observatories played a large role in his development not only as an astronomer but also as a person.

“The science that comes out of Mauna Kea is amazing,” he said. “To be able to be a part of that is just very surreal.”

It also gives him more of a sense of obligation to share and connect. He wants to pay forward the opportunities he was afforded by the observatories and the greater Big Island community that helped him every step of the way to get where he is today.

The University of California, Los Angeles Galactic Center Group team, of which Devin Chu is a member, poses for this photo next to the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island. (Photo by the UCLA Galactic Center Group)

Having that community support and mentorship while he was growing up as a burgeoning astronomer made all the difference. He said it’s not about just getting people interested. The astronomy sector also provides opportunities for other science, technology, engineering and math jobs and professions for people to stay in the islands.

It’s all about providing that base of support. He had that and now wants to give it to others.

“Especially knowing that it did so much for me, and if I can be part of it, that helps inspire another generation,” Chu said. “That is something I would love to do.”

You might be thinking what does it matter if they find a new star or planet, whether or not the laws of physics govern places in the universe other than Earth or if they are able to test Einstein’s theory of relativity in real time?

But there are Earth-bound applications for much of the research astronomers do, including the technological advances they make.

Astronomy has led to new developments in instrumentation and processing, even computer science. In fact, the KAPA project and its focus on better quality imaging through adaptive optics is now helping advance medical imaging and could even be applied to climate science.

“So that’s really cool to see sort of in a practical technology sense,” Chu said. “Those developments work hand-in-hand with other things outside of astronomy.”

While he admits some of the research astronomers do is abstract, it can all be boiled down to a fundamental nature of humanity — curiosity and trying to get a sense of where we fit in the cosmos.

“For me, it’s scratching this itch of us as humans wanting to know more,” Chu said, adding the species has been exploring what’s around it and life itself since it began. “This is just one of the frontiers of how we are currently trying to explore ourselves.”

He’s always been awestruck by how Polynesians were able to find the Hawaiian Islands using the stars to navigate. Chu looks at the astronomy being done on the Big Island as a way to pay homage to that.

It’s almost the next level of that voyage that started so long ago.

Looking through his first telescope even before he opened Simon’s book and seeing the rings around Saturn was cool, but now being on the other side and able to observe stars close to a black hole, look at galaxies billions of miles away, find planet after planet and watch supernova events sometimes on a nightly basis amazes him.

“Completely mind blown,” Chu said.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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