From the Kepler-16b travel poster

ExoGuides Archive

2023 ExoGuides

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  • Nestor Espinoza
    Nestor Espinoza

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet detection & characterization; exoplanet atmospheres.

    Affiliation: The Space Telescope Science Institute

    Short Bio: Dr. Néstor Espinoza is an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). He works both on the detection of new exoplanets as well as on the characterization of their atmospheres. His research interests focus on trying to understand what planets as small as ours and as big as our very own Solar System giants look like and are made of elsewhere, so we can put our own neighborhood into a cosmic context. In essence, his entire research revolves around a simple question: how special are we?

    Dr. Espinoza was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and did both his undergrad and graduate studies at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. After finishing his PhD in 2017, he moved as a Bernoulli Fellow to a joint position between the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy in Heilderberg and the University of Bern in Bern, Switzerland. In 2018, he was awarded the prestigious IAU-Gruber Fellowship for his contributions to the field of exoplanetary science. In 2019, Dr. Espinoza moved to STScI, where he splits his time in half. One part of his time is spent on the science he and his team --- the ExoSTScI group --- lead, which is mainly focused on characterizing transiting exoplanet atmospheres. The other half of his time is spent providing support to the JWST mission in anything that has the word “time-series” in it; he is the lead of the JWST Time-Series Observations (TSO) working group at STScI, as well as the science lead for ExoCTK: the Exoplanet Characterization ToolKit. He also leads the NIRISS/SOSS team at STScI.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    I think the main obstacle I had to overcome throughout my career was not having a very wide research network, in particular very early in my career (i.e., grad school). An important part of this was due to my geographical location, as exoplanetary science is not as popular in Latin America as it is in the US or Europe. This is in turn something I’m very passionate about changing and working towards: inclusiveness in academia needs to take into account the fact that this is an international endeavor, and research opportunities (particularly very early in the academic career) need to get everywhere around the world.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    I love playing my electric guitar; I was very close to going into music professionally early during my bachelor’s degree (fun fact: a couple of records out there have my name on it!). I also really like playing team sports; (rink) hockey and football (the “real” football) are my favorite ones.

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    Equity in science to me means recognizing and -at the very least to try- understanding the different backgrounds people come from and experience, such that we can make adjustments to realize everyone’s scientific potential. Equity in science is central to scientific research, as it truly enables instances in which different perspectives and backgrounds can come together to find the best routes to solve problems --- which include equity problems in science itself!

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    I see a lot of positive change coming from the younger generations, as they seem much more knowledgeable, interested and curious about ways of improving and acting towards DEIA than those same generations in times past. It is positive as well that our community itself also is starting to look at this kind of work as something valuable and central to our scientific endeavors. I think there’s a lot of work to be done in academia as a system which is still very research-output oriented.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    I would love to see a field (and a system!) that is more conscious about the lack of opportunities outside of their geographical spheres. I’m personally committed to do all in my power to, in particular, help the Latin American community expand their networks and expertise abroad (and vice-versa). I’m convinced a lot of opportunities could arise if policymakers around the globe understood how valuable this is for international relations.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    How to write effective proposals. This is one of the single, most important skills that can really slingshot a career.

  • Yamila Miguel
    Yamila Miguel

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet atmospheres (chemistry, radiative transfer, started playing a little bit with neural networks) and Interiors. Always from the theoretical/numerical perspective. Occasionally, a little bit of planet formation.

    Affiliation: Leiden University

    Short Bio: I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was always curious and knew I was going to be a scientist. I did my undergrad and graduate studies in La Plata, Argentina. For my PhD, I studied the formation of planetary systems and developed a population synthesis code. I then moved to be a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, where I started studying chemistry and radiative transfer in exoplanets’ atmospheres (rocky and giant planets). After Germany, I moved to Nice (France) and worked at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur where I had two fellowships: the Henri Poincaré Postdoctoral Fellow and later a CNES Postdoctoral Fellowship. In Nice, I started working on the interior structure of giant planets (especially for the solar system giants) and became a member of the Juno mission science team. In 2018 I started as an assistant professor at Leiden Observatory where I have now my group.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    Well, I always knew I was going to be a scientist. And I always particularly liked Astronomy, so I am happy with my work! It is true that I spend most of the time in front of the computer, but I also travel a lot, which I enjoy, and I also enjoy teaching and interacting with my group! If I am particularly unmotivated, going to a small conference (those where you actually have interactions with everyone, let's say up to 50 persons) and/or doing some outreach, always keeps my motivation up :) . The general public loves what we do and it makes me remember how amazing the work we are doing is :) .

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    Lots! I am from Argentina, and when you come from a place where no one knows your advisor, and you travel alone and don’t know anyone, it is not easy to meet relevant people and make them use and read your work. It is a bias in our field, we only read the papers of people that we know or names we heard at a meeting, but there is so much going on that is difficult to keep up also with the work happening in countries or groups you don’t know of.

    Also, in Argentina everything happens in Spanish and I didn’t know English very well and even had to memorise my first talk because I didn’t know the language… I really had to start from the bottom, no one really helped me or introduced me to anybody, and I also didn’t have money to travel, had to find fellowships or apply for money, so definitely not an easy path during my PhDs.

    Following that, I made my PhD on planet formation and then I did two postdocs, one on chemistry in atmospheres and another one on interiors of planets. The three topics are completely different, with different physics and codes, so I had to learn almost a new field from scratch each time, which was challenging.

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer?
    My identity changed a lot thanks to the challenges I faced. I appreciate what I have very much because I know what it is not to have funding to buy a computer or to go to a meeting. I also lived in 4 different countries and I’ve seen the way different people live, and the good and bad things of different places, and this also helped me to be the person I am today. And the fact that I had to learn three different fields, gives me a big overview of the field, which I thought was going to be a problem when finding a permanent job (because I am not really an expert in anything, but know a little of many things!), but I manage to turn it in my favour. My PhD advisor was also quite absent, so I try to be different and be there for my students when they need me.

    All the challenges I had to face made me the scientist and person I am today.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    I enjoy doing sports, I run triathlons, sail and occasionally go to boulder. I also like fashion design, I design and make clothes (for me!). And enjoy travelling and experiencing different cultures a lot. And finally, although is not really a hobby, I have two cats that I love unconditionally, pets are the best <3 !!

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    To me, this means that everyone should have the same opportunities to reach their career goals, regardless of where they come from, which gender they choose to have or their general life choices.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    I think I see some positive change in the diversity (in all aspects) that we see at conferences and international institutes these days. It definitely improved compared with when I started working on this (15 years ago). I also see less tolerance for aggressive behaviour, which is a really nice thing, we need to be nicer to each other, and I’ve seen a positive change. Finally, different institutions simply don’t tolerate bullying behaviour anymore and this has shown some changes and challenges but we are moving in the right direction to create a nice and inclusive environment.

    I have to say, that while I compare the environment we see today with the one I’ve witnessed all these years, I see positive change, but of course, we have a long way to go. The work pressure to be perfect and perform in all aspects still makes work-life balance difficult, and this is a challenge for everyone, but I see that this is, in particular, difficult for people with kids, many of which decide to leave academia because of this. Also the fact that our careers make us move a lot, is many times not compatible with our partner's careers, and two body-problem is an increasing issue.

    We need to get better at not asking impossible things of our students and colleagues and respecting their times, holidays, weekends and breaks. We are all normal people, not superheroes, and we tend to forget this and value the wrong things. For example, I’ve seen that giving talks online when you get Covid is the new normal, when in reality if you are sick, you shouldn’t be working. And we tend to admire those persons that are amazing in everything, we only show our achievements and not all the many times we get rejected and all of this creates a superhero image that is only damaging us.

    Finally, the increase in diversity and mix of different cultures in different places makes them amazing environments to work in, but there are also huge challenges that need to be addressed that come from differences in culture and behaviour. We all need to learn to be more tolerant and to respect and understand the different backgrounds, histories, experiences and choices of others.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    I think that our field is becoming too big too fast. A challenge is to keep up with the great work done by others and not to reduce the quality because we have to be faster. Also, we need to change this superhero image that is not true and only damages our work-life balance and our expectations and increases the anxiety of all researchers.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    So many things! On science, I wish someone told me (and taught me) that when studying planets, chemistry matters and not only H and He. Also, I had no idea how important it was going to be to know about computers. My career was mostly physics, but I wish I had more computing as well.

    In my career development, it took me a while to understand how politics worked, to learn that connections were (unfortunately) important, to learn which were funding agencies relevant for me and when was a good time to start applying (I came late to almost all the big grants).

    And on a personal level, how to be tolerant and understand that people coming from different backgrounds, might have different ways of thinking and I shouldn’t expect everyone to behave like me. And also that if I can not make it, I can not make it, it is Ok to say no and not create impossible schedules and unrealistic expectations.

  • Ben Montet
    Ben Montet

    Research Specialty: Transiting exoplanets, stellar activity, and software development

    Affiliation: University of New South Wales

    Short Bio: I am a Senior Lecturer (this is the Australian version of an associate professor, approximately) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia. I'm originally from Chicago, Illinois, and did my undergraduate study at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Along the way I fell into astronomy research accidentally, but enjoyed it enough to go to a PhD at Caltech and get involved with exoplanet research. That work led to me working with Kepler and K2 data, and to branch out and to start using these data to investigate stellar activity.

    After grad school I was lucky enough to be awarded a Sagan Fellowship to head back home and work on K2 and TESS data at the University of Chicago, where I started a program developing software for the TESS mission. In 2019, I accepted a faculty position at UNSW, where I've been ever since. Australia has given me chances to get inolved in new projects ranging from solar system science with TESS to planning the next generation of ESO facilities, and to co-lead the development of an astronomy curriculum inside of our School of Physics as we develop an astrophysics minor.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn't consider the possibility I would be an astronomer until I was halfway through my undergraduate degree. Before that point I didn't really understand that professors did things other than teach the classes I was taking! I love my job but the parts I really find satisfaction in are the problem solving aspects: coming up with new ideas on how to analyse data to find the signals we're interested in. I always enjoyed puzzle games growing up and find a lot of similar challenges in astronomy research. This has led me to branch out into problems I find interesting over time, from looking at stellar flares and activity cycles to exploring solar system objects in transit search data. I am excited every day knowing each day will be some new puzzle to work on, that every day will be a little bit different from the previous one, and that I get to work with a wonderful team of people to solve these puzzles.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    I've come into this career with a lot of privilege, due to my gender and background in particular, as well as a healthy dose of luck, which have combined to provide me with fewer obstacles than many of my colleagues. I've had some mild challenges along the way. I've had off-and-on struggles with mental health throughout my career, particularly at career points when I did not effectively manage my work-life balance. That balance is admittedly much easier to find and maintain in a tenured faculty position, the extreme point of privilege I now find myself in, but it is also something I tried to prioritise at previous career stages in order to build a sustainable research program.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    I've taken up running this year, and it was a surprise to me how much I've enjoyed it, but I have! I ran my first half-marathon in September and have signed up for a full one in 2023. Most of the remainder of my free time is spent playing with my dog Daisy, who doubles as my shadow around the house and neighborhood.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    We have gotten better as a field in meaningful ways that have very little cost. For example, moving proposal schemes to a dual-anonymous process has objectively decreased the bias in who receives telescope time and funding: this is a great change for our field. However, there's a lot of work to be done around the structure of graduate education, where DEIA is often considered only as a afterthought if at all. For example, the push towards increased undergraduate research and the perceived almost de-facto requirement of a first-author publication to be admitted into top US grad schools means these programs are largely closed off to all but the most privileged, who can do long-term research projects often without worrying about campus jobs or carer's responsibilities. I think our hiring practices at nearly every level are fundamentally broken and the university bold enough to restructure them significantly will be seen as an example for other programs to aspire to.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    I'd like to see more recognition of nontraditional research outputs (i.e. not just papers) in early career stages. Our field runs in many ways on the usage of community-developed software tools, but for students and postdocs the incentives to create and maintain these tools are often not there in regards to job and funding opportunities. Doing my own data analysis and writing first-author papers is not the majority of my job these days, but hiring is predicated on that skill. I'd also like to see more of a normalisation of moving to careers outside of academia as not a failure, but as a valid pathway towards finding a satisfying job. Our field is better at this than we were even ten years ago, but there is progress to be made yet. I try to make sure this is the case in my own sphere, at my university and inside of my team, and try to communicate with both undergraduate and postgraduate students the broad range of opportunities available to them both inside and outside of academic settings.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    Who you work with is just as important as what you work on. Working with kind and friendly teams makes me more excited to carry forward projects than the alternatives. Choosing teams and collaborators who share your values can make a huge difference at the end of the day. We're lucky enough to often be in positions where we can define what we work on and who we work on it with, and kind collaborators can make all the difference between a positive relationship with a project and a negative one.

  • Evgenya Shkolnik
    Evgenya Shkolnik

    Research Specialty: Stars, exoplanets, team building, leadership development, and space missions

    Affiliation: Arizona State University

    Short Bio: Evgenya Shkolnik has been a researcher and educator at ASU for over seven years. She is a professor of astrophysics at Arizona State University in the School of Earth and Space Exploration studying exoplanets and stars, including the Sun. She uses telescopes both on the ground and in space to answer questions involving stellar evolution and exoplanet magnetic fields, atmospheres, and habitability.

    She is the principal investigator (PI) of the NASA SPARCS CubeSat mission, the PI of UV-SCOPE, a NASA Mid-Ex mission concept, and the PI of the Hubble Space Telescope’s HAZMAT (Habitable Zones and M dwarf Activity across Time) program. Dr. Shkolnik is also a member of NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, and several Science & Technology Advisory Committees for NASA’s upcoming space missions, as well as a panelist for the Astro2020 Decadal Survey.

    As an Associate Director of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, she co-led the development of the Technological Leadership Bachelor of Science degree and leads the development of ASU’s SciTech Leadership Certificate.

    In 2015, Asteroid 25156 was named “Shkolnik” and that is just fun.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    Back when I was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Hawaii - Manoa, I devised a research question that has guided me ever since: “What is the distribution of habitable environments in our galaxy?” And everything I work on relates to chipping away at answering this one Big Question. The question itself inspires me.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    Firstly, I need to acknowledge all the privilege I’ve had. I was raised in Canada by two parents who valued education, taught me I could (or rather should) be a scientist, and have a supportive spouse. These make having a successful, joyful career in Astronomy so much easier.

    But, of course, there were challenges – all of them stemming from my gender. Being a woman in Astrophysics isn’t as easy as it should be. Endless overt sexism, sexual harassment, unconscious biases is exhausting and not going away quickly enough. But it is happening…

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer?
    My identity is primarily defined by being a scientist and knowledge creator. Seeing myself as a creative this way has really helped me understand my ability to obsess over science and the joy it brings me. It took a while to get to this point, but by adopting some of my identity as such, I can overcome the challenges and ensure my sense of belonging. The other part of my identity is as a mother. Birthing three children during my postdoc years and now raising up those kids who are nearly all teenagers (eep!) made me realize that being an astronomer is the easier of the two jobs – so love it even more! 😊

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    I fill my time with family, friends, and research – and spending as much time outside as I possibly can hiking, camping, kayaking, etc. I don’t have any other skills that would constitute a real hobby (yikes!). I would like solo-backpacking to become a hobby, but I’m not there yet.

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    Equity to me will be reached when people expect just as much skill, intelligence, and commitment from me and members of other under-represented groups in science as from white men.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    All the conversation about DEIA is a positive change, and small changes are being made. But it is for the most part still at the conversation stage. Sustainable action is needed.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    I would like to see our community rally around the Big Questions in our field, not the Big Names. I would like to see people working together valuing everyone’s contributions, not just the PI’s or first author’s. Here is an article I found articulated much of these thoughts. I try to promote this line of thinking across my teams, run brainstorming workshops for groups looking to do what’s next, and teaching undergraduate and graduate students to follow the path of the big science questions and develop their own curiosities and confidence in their chosen research paths.

2022 ExoGuides

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  • José Caballero
    José Caballero

    Research Specialty: Exoplanets, brown dwarfs and instrumentation
    Affiliation: Spanish Centro de Astrobiología; (CSIC-INTA)

    Bio: Jose is a research astrophysicist at the Spanish Centro de Astrobiología; (CSIC-INTA). He played a major role in the design, construction and, now, in the scientific exploitation of CARMENES. Apart from in exoplanets, he is an expert in stellar multiplicity, astrophysical parameters and young stars, brown dwarfs and substellar objects below the deuterium burning limit, especially in open clusters. He has developed his career in a number of institutions in the Spanish mainland, the Canary Islands and Germany. He will apply his expertise with current science missions (Gaia, TESS, CHEOPS) to the design of future spacecrafts for the detection of biomarkers, such as the European Large Interferometer For Exoplanets.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work? Currently, most of my research time goes to coordinate CARMENES-related projects, collaborations and publications. CARMENES is a Spanish-German high-resolution spectrograph that covers simultaneously the optical and near-infrared that was designed specifically for searching for Earth-like planets around the closest stars. Apart from discovering new planets with our radial-survey, alone or in collaboration with other teams elsewhere (Italy, Japan, Switzerland, US...), we also determine masses of transiting planets detected with TESS (and Kepler), investigate their atmospheres, and characterize their stellar hosts. I got my first inspiration already when I was four years old, when I saw Star Wars (A New Hope). Studying exoplanets and their stars is what I have ever wanted!

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science? I have many hobbies. For example, I ran marathons and triathlons and played basketball and soccer; now I prefer trail running and hiking. Everything related to sci-fi is a magnet to me; I can talk for days on the Star Wars universe. But I am well known in Spain because of my outreach activities on music and astronomy: I collaborate with several professional rock bands and sometimes present programs for Spanish Radio Clásica and Radio 3.

    What does equity in science mean to you? DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Access) in science is different in US and Europe. The greatest problem in some countries in the Old Continent is, by far, the female-to-male ratio, which gets worse and worse when one goes from undergraduate students to professors. However, we should take care of any possible involution of the European system to access to a research career, which has allowed all good students in poor families to get grants.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future? Almost three decades ago we found the first exoplanet around a solar-like star with the radial-velocity method. Then, transiting planets and mini-Neptunes. Then, exo-Earths and planets in the habitable zone... However no "Terra Nova" has been detected yet: a 1 Earth-mass, 1 Earth-radius planet at 1 au to a G2V star. In parallel, we need to develop technologies for detecting incontrovertible biomarkers in habitable planets, and for that we need that engineers, astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, atmosphere scientists... work together elbow to elbow.

  • Bruce Macintosh
    Bruce Macintosh

    Research Specialty: Direct imaging of extrasolar planets, adaptive optics, and astro-policy.
    Affiliation: Stanford University

    Bio: I grew up in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. (Being raised by Canadians is something like being raised by wolves, only much more polite.) My undergraduate physics degree is from University of Toronto. I did my PhD at UCLA when the UCLA Infrared Laboratory was getting started, working on a dual-channel infrared survey camera for Lick Observatory and on failing to find brown dwarfs. Then I worked as a postdoc and then a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the early days of the adaptive optics program there, on AO systems at Lick and Keck Observatory, and on science from Io and Titan to extrasolar planets. We developed a lot fo techniques for high-contrast imaging with AO and I co-led the team that discovered the HR8799 system.

    The biggest project of my career was the Gemini Planet Imager - I was privileged to lead an incredible team of scientists and engineers that put GPI on the sky in 2013. In the same year I moved to Stanford University as a Physics Professor, and now as Deputy Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. I’ve also been extensively involved in astro policy, from a role on the Exoplanet Task Force in 2006 through to the Steering Committee for the astro2020 Decadal Survey

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work? My main focus these days is the GPI2 upgrade - moving GPI to the northern hemisphere and upgrading the AO system for much higher performance.

    There are probably two things that inspire me. The first is that moment at a telescope when you see something for the first time - whether it’s Io going into eclipse, or a new exoplanet. (Maybe the latter doesn’t really happen at the telescope, to be honest.) That sense of this huge complicated universe moving beyond our sight, that for a moment we can reach out and understand a tiny part of. The second part is the chance to work on really fundamental questions - “where do planets come from?” “Are life-bearing worlds rare or common?” - that connect with human existence.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career? Honestly: very few. I recognize that I have a lot of privilege, by gender and background and random aptitude for standardized tests, giving me opportunities most people don’t get. There were mild challenges - the attitude within astrophysics to people to build instruments used to be a complication, though that’s shifted a lot - but those aren’t really fundamental. Recognizing this shapes a lot of my current attitude (see below)

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science? These days, my main hobby is “buying boardgames and pen-and-paper RPGs I don’t have time to ever play”. (Also hiking with golden retrievers.)

    What does equity in science mean to you? A necessary-but-not-sufficient moment is making sure everyone treats everyone else with respect and understanding. Beyond that, I know that I’ve done good science because of all the opportunities I’ve had, so now I try to make sure that people without as much privilege still get the same opportunities, no matter where their interest in science comes from or when they realize it, no matter what their background is.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done? Astronomers are now having more conversations about DEIA and recognizing the scope of the problems, at least, and the worse behavior is now less tolerated. But there’s a lot of work in all areas still to be done.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future? I’d like opportunities to be fair and available - I’d like everyone to have the chance to have that moment I mentioned above, when you can feel the whole universe moving, and perhaps to be inspired to go into science because of it - and then to have the resources and mentoring they need to succeed. I try to make sure the institute I’m part of and the group I work with makes those opportunities available. And I try to be a voice whenever barriers are thrown up and people are hurt by those barriers.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career? I’d happily trade either my advanced general relatively course or quantum mechanics for a course in project management and systems engineering. (And I also wish I had recognized the barriers alluded to above much earlier in my life.)

  • Sarah Rugheimer
    Sarah Rugheimer

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet atmospheres and biosignatures
    Affiliation: Oxford University

    Bio: Dr. Sarah Rugheimer is an astrophysicist at Oxford, and next summer will be starting a faculty job at York University in Toronto. She works on how to detect life on an exoplanet by looking for atmospheric biosignatures. Her research interests are modelling the atmosphere and climate of extrasolar planets with a particular focus on atmospheric biosignatures in Earth-like planets as well as modelling early Earth conditions.

    In addition to research, Sarah is interested public outreach and teaching. In May 2021 she gave a 5 minute TED talk called “The Search for Microscopic Aliens” which has over 1.3 million views on She previously has been awarded the Barrie Jones Award and the BSA Rosalind Franklin Lectureship in 2019, and the Caroline Herschel Lectureship Prize in 2018. Her new astrobiology course for the public is available on Amazon Audible Originals, called “Searching for Extraterrestrial Life.”

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work? I want to help find signs of life on another planet before I die.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career? I started my undergraduate studies at a community college in Montana, and then went to University of Calgary. While I did well, I felt utterly inadequate to apply to top name institutions, and nearly didn’t, for grad school. When I was accepted and arrived at Harvard for my first semester, I nearly dropped out several times in the first six months, overwhelmed with feeling out of place. Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges has been overcoming the impostor syndrome. I still have it! I just try to not let it stop me from self-selecting out of opportunities - to not apply for fellowships, jobs, awards etc.

    While in grad school, I also had a serious health problem which took time to figure out how to manage with the stresses of doing a PhD. This has led to a much better work/life balance, and one where I prioritize my mental and physical health as a key component to navigating academia successfully and sustainably.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science? I can’t pick only one! I have many hobbies I enjoy outside of science, but I find that due to time constraints, I am never able to do many of them at any given time. I usually cycle through each hobby with different years and seasons. I love to do high altitude mountaineering, the next climb I have scheduled is to attempt Denali in May 2022. I love to write, paint, and dance (especially Argentine Tango, swing, salsa and ballroom).

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done? While there is still much to be done in DEIA for science, there also has been some progress. One is that the rate of new faculty hires for women in astronomy is at the same rate of women obtaining PhDs in astronomy (around 40%). Yet, much of this progress has been for white women, and we still have a long way to go to achieve meaningful progress in racial, gender, disability, socio-economic, and other areas of equity in science. Unfortunately, many people in science do not think there is a problem to be solved, despite the many peer-reviewed research studies showing direct discrimination where the exact same resumé but with white and/or male sounding names (John vs Jennifer, or John vs Jamal, or Emily vs Latiska) receives a higher starting salary and is more likely to receive an interview or be hired. So there is still work to be done in highlighting the continuing inequities in our fields as well as working to correct those inequities. Ultimately, this is probably a life-long journey, and we can each take steps to make an impact, take opportunities to learn how to be more effective in improving DEIA, and critically examining where our shortcomings are.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career? I wish I learned python in graduate school instead of IDL! But more seriously, I wish I had seen how random hiring and fellowship committees are. As an applicant, and especially since our careers are on the line, it is easy and normal to take hiring decisions personally. But having sat on the other side now of several committees, I have seen how common it is for aspects completely out of your control to dominate the decision. It could be that the department really needs someone who can teach petrology, and even though the job ad made no mention of this, that drives the decision of who to hire. Or on fellowship committees, I’ve seen people argue most strongly for candidates they know personally or that are in their specific subfield of interest, not necessarily who has the most competitive background. Also, nearly uniformly, people spend very little time evaluating each application. I hope we, as the next generation, will take active steps to avoid making these sorts of personally biased decisions when we are ourselves on committees. But until then, I have found that just knowing this has made me take rejections less personally and to apply more broadly to opportunities where I didn’t fit 100% the job advertisement.

  • Elisa Quintana
    Elisa Quintana

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet formation, detection, and characterization
    Affiliation: Goddard Space Flight Center

    Bio: Elisa Quintana is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Quintana is the Principal Investigator of the Pandora SmallSat mission which seeks to characterize the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, with a focus on measuring star spots and their impact on exoplanet atmosphere measurements. Dr. Quintana has been working on exoplanet research since 1999, when she began her graduate research at NASA Ames to study how planets form in extreme environments. She received a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2004, and has since held science and management roles on a variety of space missions, including Kepler, K2, TESS and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. In 2014, she led a team of astronomers to confirm Kepler-186f, the first definitive Earth-sized planet found to orbit in the habitable zone of another star. Dr. Quintana joined NASA Goddard in 2017 and currently leads the Exoplanet Group, and co-leads the Sellers Exoplanets Environments Collaboration (SEEC) which fosters exoplanet research across Goddard’s Astrophysics, Planetary, Heliophysics, and Earth Sciences divisions.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work? I study planets and am interested in anything that has to do with planets! Back in the mid 1990s when I was an undergraduate at UCSD, I worked for Dr. Sally Ride (who was a Physics professor at the time). She had a graduate student who showed me a plot he had made of the half dozen extrasolar planets that he and Dr. Ride were studying. Since I was never interested in science fiction, this concept totally blew my mind, and I've been hooked on exoplanets since then. Even when the day-to-day work gets tough, it's so easy to pause and remember why it is exciting - we are very fortunate to live in a time when we get to study new worlds at such a rapid pace.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career? I started out at a California community college because I had no clue what I wanted to do in life. Once I took a physics class and really enjoyed it, I (despite a poor grade) decided that physics is what I wanted to study. I was always several steps behind everyone, and had a really rocky path throughout graduate school, but at the end it didn't matter. I pursued my passion, did my best, and ultimately landed a dream job.

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer? I am much more aware that there is a huge population of talented students who have great potential, but don't have the opportunities to realize that potential. For many, it may not even cross their minds that astronomy is something that is feasible. For others, they may realize that too late - the current path to becoming an astronomer has become so competitive since I was in school, that it is nearly impossible to compete without having established yourself in high school now. Then there is a population who are pursuing astronomy, but have other obstacles (taking care of children or elders, etc.). Academia is a road built for the privileged, and identifying ways to change that, helping others navigate that path, and showing students that there are also many other glorious paths, is something that I strive for.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done? There has certainly been a larger effort at my home institution aimed at fostering open discussion, acknowledging disparities, and identifying positive steps forward. Actions always speak louder, and hiring a diverse workforce does make a difference. In my lab, there are two Latina permanent hires, and the exoplanet group we run (that includes a mix of students, postdocs, contractors, and gov employees) is wonderfully diverse. It takes proactive efforts for recruitment, but having representation also matters when aiming for a diverse workplace.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future? I would like to see a bigger effort in identifying career options for physics and astronomy majors, for varying degrees. A question I get asked often is - do you need a PhD to work at NASA. The answer is no, but there aren't a whole lot of resources that identify potential jobs/careers options for various degrees and majors, across government/industry/academia. I am currently working with one of my former interns to identify the gaps and how we can make this better.

2021 ExoGuides

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  • Knicole Colón
    Knicole Colón

    Research specialty: Discovery and atmospheric characterization of transiting exoplanets in the optical and infrared
    Bio: Knicole Colón is a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She is the James Webb Space Telescope Deputy Project Scientist for Exoplanet Science and also the Deputy Director of the TESS Science Support Center. Knicole has previously worked on the Hubble Space Telescope project, the Kepler and K2 missions, and the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) transit survey. She earned her BS in Physics from The College of New Jersey and her PhD in Astronomy from the University of Florida.

    If someone made a movie based on your day-to-day life, what would the trailer look like?
    I imagine the trailer would open with some epic shots of TESS and JWST flying through space and pointing to different stars on the sky. There would then be a zoom-in to artist renditions of exoplanets like KELT-11b with its puffy atmosphere and HD 80606b whipping around its host star on its eccentric orbit. The narrator would say (quite dramatically), “Knicole spends her time working on the planet-hunting machine TESS, preparing for the launch of the incredible JWST, and studying the most extreme exoplanets.” Next would be shots of me fervently writing emails on my laptop while on phone calls and video calls, looking at endless budget spreadsheets, and fighting with Python and LaTeX, with Slack messages constantly popping up in the background. The closing shot would be an image of all the different people I work with at NASA and around the world, with me saying “It’s a lot of work, but at least I have a lot of awesome people to work with!”

    What’s a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career?
    One challenge that stands out to me was figuring out what I wanted to do after graduate school. On my journey to working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center I ended up moving around the country four times in five years – from Florida to Hawaii to Pennsylvania to California to Maryland. It was exhausting and frustrating at times, but I learned so much about both my personal and professional goals along the way. And I finally ended up at a place that is right for me!

    What makes you excited about being an ExoGuide?
    We have a lot to look forward to with the James Webb Space Telescope launching soon, the Roman Space Telescope in the works, and the prospect of additional future missions on the horizon, in addition to all the ground-based efforts. I am excited to help guide a cohort of Exoplanet Explorers however I can, so that they feel prepared and also excited to use their expertise to help make the next thirty years of exoplanet science as extraordinary as the last thirty years have been.

    Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
    I’ve been dedicated to collecting handbags from a certain brand for years, and I have what some would say is a very large collection now. I have had some unique experiences thanks to this hobby, like getting to visit the headquarters of the company and meeting the co-founder! I’ve also gotten to take some fun vacations with my mom to go shopping at the company’s enormous annual warehouse sale.

  • Ian Crossfield
    Ian Crossfield

    Research specialty: Observations of exoplanets and stars
    Bio: I entered the exoplanet field before ever entering academia, working as an optical & systems engineer on TMT and SIM at NASA/JPL. After several years I left for graduate school at UCLA, where I pursued infrared characterization of numerous exoplanets. I was a postdoc at the MPIA in Heidelberg, Germany, and was then a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona and at UC Santa Cruz. After that I was an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT, and I have since joined the faculty at the University of Kansas.

    If someone made a movie based on your day-to-day life, what would the trailer look like?
    That is a great question! I really have no idea.

    What’s a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career?
    The "two-body problem" -- my spouse and I are both professional astronomers, and at times each of us has pulled the other to new locations, new jobs -- and new opportunities & adventures.

    What makes you excited about being an ExoGuide?
    I'm excited to meet the next up-and-coming cohort of exoplanet researchers and to follow their careers & discoveries.

    Tell us a fun fact about yourself
    I own two cats who have traveled with us from Los Angeles to Germany to New Mexico to Arizona, back to California, to Massachusetts, and thence to Kansas. But they keep a positive attitude on life!

  • Courtney Dressing
    Courtney Dressing

    Research specialty: Detecting and characterizing small, rocky exoplanets similar to Earth.
    Bio: Courtney is an observational astronomer focused on detecting and characterizing planetary systems. Her research group uses telescopes on the ground and in space to search for planets, probe their atmospheres, measure their masses, and constrain their bulk compositions. She is curious about planet formation and evolution, the frequency of planetary systems in the Galaxy, and the prospects for detecting life on planets outside of our Solar System. Courtney was a member of the Science & Technology Definition Team for NASA's Large UV/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) mission concept study and is serving on the panel on Exoplanets, Astrobiology, and the Solar System for the Astro2020 Decadal Survey. She has been awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Hellman Family Faculty Fellowship, and a Packard Fellowship. Courtney obtained a bachelor's degree in Astrophysical Sciences from Princeton University, earned a Ph.D. and A.M. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Harvard University, and completed a NASA Sagan Fellowship at Caltech. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Astronomy Department at UC Berkeley.

    If someone made a movie based on your day-to-day life, what would the trailer look like?
    The trailer would be a blur of Zoom login screens punctuated by interesting science discussions with students, lesson prep, writing sessions spent on papers and proposals, and work with data sets from ground- and space-based telescopes.

    What’s a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career?
    During graduate school, I led a Kepler proposal to obtain light curves of several thousand cool stars that hadn't previously been observed by the mission. The proposal was selected, but the Kepler spacecraft suffered a reaction wheel failure before the program could be executed. I remember reading The Boston Globe and seeing a comment from my thesis advisor David Charbonneau that one of his students needed to find a new thesis project: that student was me. In the end, everything turned out fine. I wrote a few more papers based on existing Kepler data and follow-up observations of interesting candidates. A clever team of scientists and engineers also figured out a new way to use the Kepler spacecraft despite its injury and the K2 mission was born. I love this story because the scientific return from the K2 mission was incredible and never would have happened if Kepler had continued observing the same patch of sky. The genesis of the K2 mission is a nice reminder that astronomers are creative and will find ways to turn challenges into opportunities.

    What makes you excited about being an ExoGuide?
    I'm eager to give back to the community and meet the next generation of exoplanet scientists. I can't wait to learn about your research interests and aspirations!

    Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
    My fiancée and I have two dogs that differ in mass by an order of magnitude.

  • Victoria (Vikki) Meadows
    Victoria (Vikki) Meadows

    Research specialty: Theory and observations of terrestrial exoplanet evolution, habitability and biosignatures.
    Bio: Victoria Meadows is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington and director of the UW Astrobiology Program. She is the Principal Investigator for the NASA Virtual Planetary Laboratory research team which uses interdisciplinary exoplanet models to understand how to search for life beyond the Solar System. Previously, she worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the HST/WFPC-2 Science Team and as a Venus scientist, and at the Spitzer Science Center/ California Institute of Technology as the Solar System Scientist. Victoria has served on several NASA and National Academies Committees developing strategies for the fields of exoplanet, astrobiology and solar system science. She earned her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Sydney.

    If someone made a movie based on your day-to-day life, what would the trailer look like?​

    Pre-pandemic: Shots of excited young people (and me) talking together in meeting rooms and showing each other plots...interspersed with me heading to the airport in a taxi....and then me unpacking my suitcase in a whole array of different, yet somehow similar, hotel rooms....wide shots of me talking to rooms filled with engineers and scientists, followed by dinners and drinks with colleague friends from all around the world, many of whom are at least as close as people I work with at my own institution.

    Post-pandemic: A lot of sitting in my home office talking to squares of people.

    What’s a challenge that you’ve overcome in your career?

    Building a massively interdisciplinary research group to search for life in the universe.... from scratch. The Virtual Planetary Laboratory was started nearly 20 years ago, and it's been enormously rewarding to define and then steer our focus on how to best recognize habitability and signs of life on distant exoplanets. But there were always challenges in picking the right questions, developing the right tools, and growing such a diverse team with such a breadth of expertise, that nonetheless works so well together!

    What makes you excited about being an ExoGuide?

    Learning about all our participants' research, and supporting a whole new generation of exoplaneteers by contributing whatever I can in the way of professional tips and tricks for success as a scientist. A lot of success in our field comes from the non-research parts of being a scientist, and I'm super excited that the ExoGuide program will help to address those aspects.

    Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

    I'm a lifelong swimmer and kayaker and I'm at my happiest when I am in or on the water. It's probably part of why I am so obsessed with habitable planets, because light on water is just the most beautiful thing to me! When I was younger I surf skied, white-water kayaked, and windsurfed, but now I really enjoy lake kayaking up here in the Pacific Northwest.