Image taken from the Kepler-16b travel poster

Meet the ExoGuides

2023 ExoGuides

  • 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.

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