Image taken from the Kepler-16b travel poster

Meet the ExoGuides

2024 ExoGuides

  • David Ciardi
    David Ciardi

    Research Specialty: Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics

    Affiliation: NExScI - Caltech/JPL

    Short Bio: Dr. David Ciardi is the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) Chief Scientist at Caltech/JPL and has been a leader in infrared astronomy and exoplanet research for over 20 years. He earned his B.A. in astronomy and physics at Boston University and his Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming. At the University of Florida, he built infrared cameras for some of the world's largest telescopes before moving to NExScI at Caltech. He has been and is a member of the science teams for the exoplanet-finding space missions CoRoT, Kepler, K2, TESS, and ARIEL where he has contributed to the discovery of more than a 1000 exoplanets. He has published and contributed to nearly 400 refereed papers. In 2016, he was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his work on Kepler and his numerous contributions to the discovery of exoplanets and in 2020, he was awarded the NASA Silver Achievement Medal as part of the TESS Mission Project. On a personal note, David has been an aspiring athlete his entire life - his original plan was to be a shortstop for the New York Yankees. Once reality set in, he decided to pursue a career in science and eventually fell in love with astrophysics - and a special love for observational work. Over his career, he has observed at more than 2 dozen telescopes scattered around the world. He still pretends to be an athlete and he earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and continues to play softball, soccer, and racquetball. His most recent athletic passion is cycling where he just has to keep his balance and move his legs.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    Understanding who we are and where we come from can help become better people.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    Over my career, I had a difficult time overcoming my overwhelming shyness and imposter syndrome. It took my years of dedicated hard work and will power to conquer these fears and be confident in who I am as a person and as a scientist.

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer?
    I was never the superstar student or scientist. I carved out my career through persistence, hard work and will power. But I also recognize that simply by being white male, that enabled me to work through this in a manner that others may not have.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    Any athletic activity.

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    The ability to succeed in creating a career in science is only limited by the willingness of the person to do the work - and not limited by the resources and opportunities available to that person.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    As a community, we have done a wonderful job of recognizing the contributions of underrepresented populations and that people from these groups are often overlooked. But most of our progress has been made in areas where early career people have somehow already made it to 4-year institutions, but so often students with great potential are left behind because they never break out of their local personal situations to get to the 4-year institutions. The community college system is a largely untapped resource of wonderful potential that we can work to help make the transition to the 4-year institutions and beyond.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    I want "doing science" to be available to everyone - regardless of their background.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    I wish I understood better early on that I had the skills and tenacity to become an astronomer and that my inexperience was not the same thing as being unable and unskilled to the science.

  • Johanna Teske
    Johanna Teske

    Research Specialty: Observations of exoplanets and host stars

    Affiliation: Carnegie Earth and Planets Lab

    Short Bio: Johanna grew up in rural Pennsylvania, USA and received her B.S. in Physics from American University in Washington, DC in 2008. After college, Johanna attended the University of Arizona and received her Ph.D. in Astronomy in 2014. She then held the Carnegie Origins Postdoctoral Fellowship, followed by a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship, at a combination the Carnegie Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) in Washington, DC and Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, CA. In 2020 Johanna started a Staff Scientist position at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Lab (formerly DTM). Her research focuses on finding and characterizing planets around other stars using a range of techniques, and she also cares deeply about making science more inclusive and supportive of a diverse community. Her hobbies include reading, running, and Peloton-ing.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    I am an observational astronomer studying exoplanets and their host stars. I was inspired at a young age by the movie "Contact", which I saw before I read the book of the same name by Carl Sagan. In this story, a scientist is searching for extraterrestrial life, and faces different kinds of challenges along the way, including ones that cause her to really question her own perception of the universe. Seeing a woman scientist be dogged in her determination to help answer a big, important question left a big impression on me. In graduate school I got to meet Dr. Jill Tarter, the woman who inspired the lead character in this story, which was awesome! These days, I am more inspired by the ingenuity and brilliance and kindness of my colleagues and collaborators; if I were working alone I think I would be less excited about the pursuit of new knowledge.

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    I grew up with and still have a lot of privilege. I have had great mentors and my fair share of luck. One challenge I'm still facing, which I think is quite common, is the frequent comparison of myself with others. A senior colleague told me years ago that such "impostor" thoughts never go away, you just get better at managing them. I think this is important to share with early career folks.

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer?
    Both my parents are psychologists, which I think instilled in me a practice of listening to people and trying to understand their perspectives. I see this translated into my job as prioritizing conversations with people and, when I can, trying to be helpful in navigating both scientific and "practice of science"/social quandaries. My parents were also very encouraging of exploration, so I grew up and still am a very curious person; I was picked on in school for reading the dictionary for fun! Curiosity obviously translates well into a science career, although sometimes I struggle to concentrate on a problem for a long time. My interests and projects have evolved over my career and I expect will continue to do so.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    Running! I like having an activity that allows me to set goals and see progress that isn't work-related. Growing up, I thought being good at school meant being bad at/avoiding sports/athletics. But now I see how running helps me in other parts of my life, including very thinking-heavy parts; it's a time for me to work on problems and process big feelings. It's also a great way to tour a new place and meet new people!

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    To me, equity in science means people having the opportunity to pursue a scientific career and/or the questions they are interested in without being negatively affected by aspects of their identity or background.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    I think the normalization of dual-anonymous proposal review has been a positive change in reducing potential biases in the allocation of resources. Also, more hiring committees are now using rubrics, which I think is positive as long as the rubrics are calibrated (that is, everyone on the committee agrees on what the categories and ratings mean). In the last few years, conversations in departments/workplaces around DEIA issues have increased, which is better than no conversations but not really meaningful without actual action or change. Indeed, having only conversations and then feeling like a box has been checked is not good. In institutional strategic plans, there should be concrete DEIA goals with measurable metrics and input from social scientists/other experts where appropriate, that are not seen as separate from/less important than research output goals.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    I feel like I still have a lot to learn. But two things come to mind: (1) Trust yourself, you know you better than anyone. (2) There are other jobs/careers/problems besides astronomy that I could work on and feel similarly fulfilled and happy. For now I really like the job I have, but in both of these ideas I find a sense calm that I didn't have earlier in my career.

  • Hannah Wakeford
    Hannah Wakeford

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet Timeseries characterisation and atmospheric aerosols

    Affiliation: University of Bristol

    Short Bio: Dr Hannah Wakeford is an Associate Professor in Astrophysics at the University of Bristol where she leads the Exoplanet Timeseries Characterization (ExoTiC) Group. Her work encompasses everything related to atmospheres from brown dwarfs to small terrestrial worlds. Hannah is particularly interested in the formation and composition of high temperature aerosols, clouds and hazes, which she investigates through observation and theory. Hannah is currently leading work developing methods and observations to examine the multi-dimensional properties of giant exoplanet atmospheres.

    Hannah is originally from Woking in the UK. For her undergraduate she completed a Masters of Physics with Planetary and Space Physics from the University of Wales: Aberystwyth where she spent her final Masters year at the University Center in Svalbard to research the upper polar atmosphere and space plasma (the aurora). Hannah got her PhD in Physics from the University of Exeter, UK followed by a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship hosted at Goddard Space Flight Center, and a Giacconi Fellowship at Space Telescope Science Institute throughout which she has worked on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and preparing for the launch of JWST. Hannah joined the University of Bristol as a Lecturer in 2020.

    Alongside her academic research Hannah has also developed a career in science communication, running an award winning radio show while doing her PhD, and joining the team at NASA TV and working on documentaries while in the USA. Hannah is a co-host and producer of Exocast: The Exoplanet Podcast which has been running since 2016.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    Exoplanets as a field is great because it is so broad that you can study almost anything and it can still be relevant. I am fascinated by atmospheres and the way all the different things driving them come together to make the environment -- especially the clouds; they are so complicated but simple all at the same time.

    When there are times I need to remember why I am doing what I am doing I let the 5-year old out: What?, Why?, How?, Why?, Where?, Why? And if I can't find inspiration or something positive it normally means I need to take a break or sleep.

    As was said by a wise person in Stargate; "I want to explore the universe and I want to eat pie."

    What challenges/obstacles have you overcome in your career?
    While being a woman in physics has been a barrier to many, I have only had very minor instances where this has been the dominant trait people focus on. In my career I have more often been called out or looked down on for my young age/appearance -- 5'1" with a "baby face" -- which can be quite alienating. This has been harder in some places than other.
    But external obstacles and challenges imposed by others are not the only ones we face and a lot of mine come in the form of anxiety and depression.

    I come from a working class background and I was never really aware of research as a career; I thought it was something people did as a hobby in their spare time. But we were always surrounded by curiosity in all subjects and I wanted to do everything. I put a lot of pressure on myself to constantly do, learn, and experience something new. That self-imposed pressure has manifested in many ways. Since I was a teenager I have struggled with mental health challenges and dyslexia. This makes everything fundamentally harder to navigate because you have to fight your own brain.

    However, I have been immensely privileged in my family support, career timing, and advisors and mentors along the way -- even the mentors that taught me what not to do and who I didn't want to be. So everyday can be a struggle but I fight because I can and in doing so maybe help remove barriers for others.

    How has your identity shaped who you are today as a scientist/engineer?
    I have changed a lot as I have moved through my career but each step has been (or felt like) a challenge to my identity and I still struggle with what that means sometimes.

    I think I am a no-nonsense person, I enjoy efficiency (can be a blessing or a curse) so I do like the management side of being a scientist which takes over more and more time as you move through this career. I have also never really treated those people might think of authority figures as anything but an equal -- thanks dad for that one! -- which has more often than not made me friends with or at least recognized (for good or bad reasons) by the right people. A lot of opportunities start by people knowing you exist.

    I do believe that being dyslexic has made me a better communicator, simply because I don't know what complex words mean or how to even say them. I like to keep things simple and break it down into logical steps.

    We are all wonderfully simple in our complexity and understanding the simple and respecting or embracing the complexity is something I think we can all work on more.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    I have loved the water all my life and became a scuba diving instructor before undergrad so I could share this passion with other people and get more diving in. I have been fortunate to dive in some remarkable places but have many left on my bucket list. Most of my free time these days, however, is spent doing DIY or garden landscaping, or painting Warhammer minifigures in as many bright colors as possible.

    One new hobby, thanks to the Kindle, is reading fiction. The Kindle allows you to change fonts and font sizes to dyslexic friendly versions, it also tells you how much you are through a chapter so I can let myself stop or set a goal when I want. I never really read fiction as a kid because words are hard and I cannot conjure images in my mind very well. But in the pandemic me and my partner challenged ourselves to read all 41 books of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, which was an absolute joy. He tried to cheat by reading the last one quickly when he knew I was nearly done (but was unsuccessful!), but the act of picking up a book each night and just reading away was wonderful and new for me and I have not stopped since. So I am open to recommendations -- especially books I should have read as a kid but never got the chance to!

    What does equity in science mean to you?
    It means ultimately not needing to ask this question. But short of that it means equal access and attitude to all who want to pursue science, and equal attitude to those who do not. Equity is the act of bringing everyone to the same level, preferentially by lifting people up rather than knocking others down. That starts by recognizing and understanding that everyone is different in their privileges and the influence those privileges have in the system that has been setup in science, locally or globally. In the UK poor white men are the least likely to go into Physics at University (or go to University at all). Women make up nearly 60% of University students on average across the UK but only about 25% in Physics; similar numbers can be found in the USA. Sometimes I wonder if the question isn't how do we get more women into Physics but how do we get more men into Biology or the Arts. Equity in science is not limited to science, but expands to equity in society and the nature of the job market -- making equity something we all should be collectively working towards.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    There have been a lot of initiatives in place to expand what diversity in science looks like, and over the last decade I have seen the field change in a good way towards a more respectful environment, which is exciting. We are unique in exoplanets I think in that there are a lot of women in the field as well as LGBTQ+ representation, but it is also wonderfully international, which makes for a more imaginative field to work in. But we still struggle to make spaces as comfortable and inclusive as they can be and that I think comes with better communication across cultures, background, or simply points of view, to find a place of agreement and respect.

    I have also seen a lot of improvement in discussions around work-life balance which I think is important. Our outside experiences shape who we are as scientists and starving ourselves of everyday actions and limiting our sphere to research is damaging. While this is recognized more now that ever, I think there are still changes needed to the system of valuation for that time. People's world experience needs to come with as much weight as their science skills -- we should value people as a whole package -- but too much is still set on publications, volunteer work, and the people you know. Places are making great strides to improve this once you are in the system but there is less to help you in the door in the first place and we need to change that.

    What’s one change you would like to see in your field? What actions do you plan to take to realize that future?
    The work we do, especially in exoplanets, requires a wide range of knowledge, skills, and creativity.

    We are starting to see more and more recognition for the different roles people play in science, from the researches, to the software engineers, managers, and communicators; and that as a community we get things done so you don't have to be all of those things yourself. A huge amount of our work relies on software and it has been great to see software sections listed in journals but those careers are still not held equal to that of researchers and I think that needs to change to recognize the metrics they need to be able to succeed or be merited for their work and contribution.

    But it is broader than that too, it is the overall recognition for peoples time and work and that can start with simple kindness.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    That it is okay to stop. You don't have to do everything yourself and be the only one that can do it. In my current role I try to counter this feeling I had my whole career by connecting people: if I need expertise in statistics I talk to a statistician, if I want to know how silicates will react under high temperatures I talk to a materials physicist, want someone who can design an observation talk to an observer, want to know why you are making that observation talk to a theorist. We share the field (and beyond) with experts and diversity of thought. Use it! If in this role as an ExoGuide all I do is connect you with people other than myself who can potentially help then I have done my job; we can "network" our way to an answer and not diminish our worth, but instead enhance it with a community around us.

  • Andrew Vanderburg
    Andrew Vanderburg

    Research Specialty: Exoplanet detection and characterization

    Affiliation: MIT

    Short Bio: I am originally from Austin, Texas. I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley (graduated 2013) and I got my PhD in Astronomy from Harvard University (2017). Afterwards, I moved back to Austin as a Sagan fellow at the University of Texas. In 2020, I joined the faculty in Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then moved to MIT in July 2021.

    My research focuses on developing cutting-edge techniques and methods to discover new planets outside of our solar system, and studying the planets we find to learn their detailed properties. In recent years, astronomers have found that planets the size of Earth are common in our galaxy, but little is known about their characteristics. Are these planets mostly rocky like the Earth, or do they have thick gaseous atmospheres like Uranus and Neptune? From which elements and materials are these planets built, and are their geologies similar to our own planet’s? My team and I tackle these problems by conducting astronomical observations using telescope facilities both on Earth and in space (including TESS and JWST). Eventually, we hope to help answer questions like “Are the planets orbiting other stars throughout the galaxy anything like the worlds in our Solar system?” and “Could any of these planets be hospitable to life like the Earth?”.

    What do you do and what inspires you to do this work?
    In my bio (above), I talk about my research in grandiose terms, but as I like to joke, at this stage of my career, I spend much more time meeting with advisees, sending emails and preparing for classes than I do actually looking at data or writing code. But what I've found is that I enjoy working with students more than I liked doing the work myself. After a while, the process of discovery became routine to me, but when I go through it with students, I can experience the excitement of the first time all over again.

    What’s your favorite hobby outside of science?
    For a long time, I lost touch with my hobbies. Recently, though, I have been working on improving my work/life balance, and I am really enjoying photography. It's fun to be able to take some of the technical knowledge I learned as an astronomer and apply it in a more artistic format.

    Where have you seen positive change when it comes to DEIA and where do you still see work to be done?
    The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem, and I think we as a field are beginning to reach consensus that there are major challenges to DEIA that must be addressed. Even in the ~10 years I've been in the field, I've seen some major shifts in attitudes and understanding as the result of DEIA advocacy and initiatives. So now, we are left with the harder work of actually solving the problems we identified, figuring out which of our long-standing practices and customs introduce bias, and devising ways to mitigate those biases.

    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 our community prizes kindness and empathy too little. There seems to be a sense that when selecting who will receive job offers, we must choose whether to prioritize achievements (number of papers, citations, etc) over the applicant's character. I think this is a false choice - there are lots of excellent scientists on the job market who are also amazing, kind, and caring people. When I am part of groups evaluating candidates, I will push to weigh an applicant's character as highly as (or even more so than) their h-index.

    What do you wish you knew earlier in your career?
    Work with people you like! For me, the people I collaborate with are what make astronomy fun. I wish I had learned earlier that the way to ensure I had fun was to choose projects and collaborations more based on with who I enjoyed interacting with.

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