Witnessing a solar eclipse occur exactly on its predicted schedule at a young age inspired Clara Sousa-Silva to pursue a career in astronomy. Her desire to understand the mechanisms of the universe now includes expansive ideas about exoplanet habitability—and a focus on the minute molecules that compose their atmospheres. As a theorist, Clara simulates the ways individual molecules interact with light so that they can be identified anywhere in the galaxy. She combines quantum physics and computer calculations to create molecular “fingerprints” that allow scientists to detect remote gases on exoplanet atmospheres—particularly gases that are associated with life. Her work has culminated in a new method, Rapid Approximate Spectral Calculations for ALL (RASCALL), that generates simulations of molecules. RASCALL can help scientists make rapid decisions about whether to follow up promising observational data with more detailed study.

In her fellowship, Clara will expand her RASCALL database to include thousands of molecules that scientists can use to recognize unknown features in exoplanet atmospheres with more confidence. As discoveries escalate in the coming years with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Clara’s work can provide important clues for establishing which exoplanet atmospheres contain signs of life. In 2015, Clara received a Ph.D. in molecular astrophysics from University College London in the United Kingdom. Prior to starting her 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, Clara worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I want to study every molecule on every possible exoplanet atmosphere, and then try to recognize under what conditions certain molecules can signify life.”