Where are you from?
I was born and grew up in Toronto, Canada. I moved to the U.S. to go to graduate school at Harvard and I have been living in the U.S. ever since. It is still true that America is the "land of opportunity."
|"I was always interested in astronomy |
and in the mid-1990s, I began working
on the newly discovered exoplanets."
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
One of my first memories is of the Moon following me. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car when I was quite young and looking out of the car window at the Moon. The Moon was following me -- I could not understand why the Moon would follow me. No matter how far the car went or how many times the car turned, the Moon was always there.
Another one of my early vivid memories is of the stars. When I was about 10 years old and on my first camping trip in Ontario, I remember waking up late one night, stepping outside the tent and looking up. I was completely stunned by what I saw: stars -- millions of them it seemed -- filled the entire sky. I had never imagined that there was such a vast expanse beyond Earth.
How did you end up working in the space program?
I was always interested in astronomy and in the mid-1990s I began working on the newly discovered exoplanets. (Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars other than our sun.)
Space telescopes are needed for achieving detailed characterization of exoplanets since they allow us to get above the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere. Although several exoplanet discoveries have been made using data from ground-based telescopes, my main interest of exoplanet atmosphere characterization is, for almost all cases, best done from space. Also, finding the smallest exoplanets that orbit sun-like stars is more easily done from space than from the ground: NASA's Kepler Space Telescope discoveries are a great example of this type of exoplanet discovery.
Currently, I am leading a space mission comprised of a fleet of nano-satellites, called "ExoplanetSat." The ExoplanetSat prototype space telescope is a 3-Unit CubeSat that is about the size of a loaf of bread (following the 3U CubeSat form factor of 10-cm x 10-cm x 34-cm). The goal of the ExoplanetSat is to search for transiting planets orbiting the nearest, brightest sun-like stars. We plan to build and launch a fleet of ExoplanetSats where each will observe its own star.
What is an astrobiologist?
I am a professor of physics and planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My job description includes astrophysicist, planetary scientist and astrobiologist. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. As an astrobiologist, one of my main goals is to find signs of life on exoplanets. Since exoplanet discovery involves the same observational tools as observational astronomy I am an astronomer as well. As a theorist, I am also an astrophysicist: I write large computer programs based on applied physics. And I work on understanding, in the utmost detail possible, the interiors and atmospheres of planets -- so I am a planetary scientist too.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
I've had lots of favorite moments in relation to the discovery of each new kind of exoplanet. Many of these discoveries were observational, including the first light from an exoplanet (via the Spitzer Space Telescope), the first spectrum of an exoplanet (also via the Spitzer Space Telescope) and the first Earth-size exoplanets (via the Kepler Space Telescope). Other discoveries were theoretical, such as the prediction of sodium as a way to detect a hot Jupiter atmosphere (later used for the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere), the prediction of various observational characterization effects and the prediction of carbon planets.
However, I was pretty excited when I wrote my first computer code that was able to generate a theoretical spectrum of an exoplanet.
Who inspired you?
Marie Curie. I admire Madame Curie because she wildly succeeded in in her endeavors even though she went against other people's advice. She was also a very hard-working scientist who was dedicated to a singular set of goals.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
My advice is always, "Find something you love doing that you are also good at doing." This is true generally, but also more specifically within a given field of science or engineering research.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy anything related to outdoor adventures such as canoeing and hiking in remote places. Recently, my six year old son and I hiked up Hawaii's 10,000-foot Haleakala Mountain. This hike is 18-miles long and we did it in a single day.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Take math and physics classes to have the appropriate background for astronomy and planetary science studies. Read books to gain a broad general knowledge of science. There are so many great popular books too, which are accessible to audiences at any level. These books will not only entertain you, but also aid you in your abilities as a thinker.
Also, find a summer internship. A local college is a good place to look for internships. Taking advantage of a summer internship will give you the experience you need to help confirm if a career in science and math or engineering is right for you.
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Last Updated: 3 January 2013
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