Meet the ExoGuides
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.
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.)
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 TED.com. 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.
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.