Feature | March 7, 2017

Bright star sets her sights on exoplanets

Sophia Sánchez-Maes

Eighteen-year-old Sophia Sánchez-Maes has done more in her short life than most have done with a career. Just don't call her a prodigy. Credit: Erin Michelle Yee

By Pat Brennan,
NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program

The main problem in describing the accomplishments of Sophia Sánchez-Maes is: Where to begin? There's the prestigious Jefferson Award for outstanding service “by a young American 25 or under.” Her handshake, at age 16, with President Obama, who said she was “helping to bring the world closer to using algae as a clean, renewable, and even inexhaustible energy source.” Then there's her part in some of the scientific work behind the Mars Curiosity Rover, which is, at the moment, preparing to climb a mountain on the floor of a Martian crater.

At age 18, Sánchez-Maes now takes her next scientific plunge. She’s joining the hunt for extrasolar planets—planets orbiting other stars. During a three-month stint at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena—her second—she will be helping map out the goals and technology for the next generation of space telescopes. After that, she begins her sophomore year at Yale, where she is pursuing a double major in astrophysics and computer science. A native of New Mexico, Sánchez-Maes said she enjoys mentoring and teaching, and hopes to inspire other young Latinas to pursue careers in science. She shared a few thoughts about her brief but impressive career as she settled into her workspace at JPL:

You’ve been described as a prodigy. What do you think about that?

I don’t know about that. I definitely don’t think of myself as a prodigy. Actually, I’m lucky, and I work hard— on really cool stuff. “Prodigy” says a lot of this came easy. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. So many nights staying up late, struggling with a lot of these things. When I was really little, and I was taking violin lessons, I told my mom I wanted to be a prodigy. She said, “Sweetie, that’s not how it works. Now go practice.” A lot of that attitude I carried forward. It’s not something you’re given, so if you’re passionate you have to put in so many hours to make things happen. There was a very “no excuses” attitude around my house.

As you were growing up in New Mexico, how did you become interested in space, in planets?

Whatever project I’ve worked on, I’m able to use my 20/20 hindsight to see this particular little path that got me here. When I was doing algae—I have a photo of myself in the lab with a little bioreactor. It looked like myself as first grader, holding onto a cloned plant [while I was wearing] little goggles. Now it’s exoplanets. In kindergarten, I entered a “My Space Trip” contest. I wrote about touring all these different planets with my aunt and my cousin. It wasn’t very realistic. There were wormholes, black holes, a lot of stuff in the solar system that I now realize isn’t there.

What pointed you in the direction of algae?

New Mexico has a lot of algae fuel startups and plenty of sunshine for it. So people come. But we don’t have so much water. It’s kind of a problem, living in the desert. It’s always challenging for these places. A lot of them are really struggling to produce biofuel. It’s nowhere near what crude oil can give us in terms of the scope of the cost. It was a cool problem; I wanted to see if I could improve some of my skills. I started solving it, I got some friends to start modeling the algae growth process with computers, to figure out a tool these growers could use to optimize the process, and start capitalizing on this beautiful alternative energy source.

We had the support of the Los Alamos National Laboratories and their amazing computing resources. Everyone was saying, “Look at this amazing tool we have. Wow. Awesome. But it’s doomed anyway, because it takes more energy to produce this algal fuel than it contained.” It was pretty much worthless. I took my hit, and I started reading up on that problem, too. We’re so lucky in that area to have a wonderful agricultural college with agriculture and engineering, the intersection between those two areas. I was able to get a National Science Foundation young scholar fellowship. I started working on this problem. It’s so crazy, so amazing. Me, a girl who had never really done chemistry at all, to let me have some free rein in a chemical engineering lab. I was able to show you can bring down the reaction process hundreds of degrees. It really does a lot to decrease the amount of energy to make this (biofuel production) happen.

And you were doing this in high school?

Yeah. So the process is called hydrothermal liquefaction. You pressure-cook everything, and it all becomes fuel. The team over there was so wonderful. Together we were able to kind of get it back in the black. It really went places. I was able to use energy from an extremophile (algae) in Yellowstone. I found it works wonderfully in this process. In addition, it’s really hardy. It doesn’t need fresh (water); it can stand brackish water. That’s a huge sell in New Mexico. It also can stand wastewater. All the contaminants in wastewater that anaerobic bacteria extracts, this algae can do it better. By integrating with wastewater treatment plants, the energy is positive, as opposed to a 33 percent drain on energy. It was amazing to be involved so young. It really taught me the collaboration thing you have in science.

What will you be doing here at JPL?

I’m really excited about the work I get to do here. Right now, my primary project is working on proposals for the next decadal (review), on proposed space telescopes. There’s a big one every 10 years or so. The best part about me working on this: This is the telescope that will define the data I get at the height of my career. It’s such an opportunity to have a voice in this process, because I’ll be doing the science.

"We're not just finding exoplanets anymore; we're trying to characterize them."
- Sophia Sánchez-Maes

Two of those [proposals] are being driven primarily by exoplanets. LUVOIR (Large UV/Optical/Near-infrared telescope) is going to directly image habitable planets. It will do everything HabEx (Habitable Planet Exoplanet Imaging Mission) will do, but it will do lots of other science. HabEx is pretty much exclusively meant to image these exoplanets.

My background is investigating the stellar noise influence on exoplanet detections using the radial velocity method. [Editor's note: Radial velocity is a planet-finding method that infers the presence of planets from the wobbles they cause their parent stars to make]. Right now people are proposing that the radial velocity instrument be included in LUVOIR. What we need is to really study these concepts. My job is to figure out what kind of measurements we could get from space. We need numbers to back up those hunches. As we’re imaging these worlds, it’s going to be really important to have their masses. That will tell us about the compositions of these worlds. We’re not just finding exoplanets anymore; we’re trying to characterize them.

I’m also working on the stellar jitter problem with radial velocity measurements. Stars have spots, flares, coronal mass ejections—lots of stuff that can either masquerade as planetary signals, or hide the signals. Identifying the noise will be critical.

You changed course from a mathematics major to astrophysics. Did you catch the space bug?

I think it might have been lying dormant for awhile, but it caught up to me.

When you want to relax and take your mind off things, what do you do?

I like to run. It’s a lot of fun for me to go long distance. There are a lot of stages you go through when you’re running lots of miles. At first you’re very in your head. Everything you’re holding onto up there is buzzing around even more. Your mind kind of clears after that. You get sort of focused.  It really helps my work, and it helps me get away from my work.