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2019 Class of 51 Pegasi b Fellows Announced

The Heising-Simons Foundation is pleased to announce the 2019 recipients of the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship in planetary astronomy. Recipients are recognized for their outstanding research achievements, their creativity, and their great promise in tackling risky and novel ideas.

Since its inception in 2016, the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship has supported early-career scientists at a critical stage of their research by giving them the resources, flexibility, and freedom to test and drive new discoveries to advance the field of planetary astronomy. Each 51 Pegasi b Fellow receives a three-year grant of up to $375,000 to conduct independent observational, theoretical, or experimental research at their selected host institution. Each fellow is paired with a faculty mentor to provide guidance and ensure a fruitful scientific and career development experience.

This year’s fellows join a growing, collaborative 51 Pegasi b community that convenes annually to share research progress, discuss the latest ideas, findings, and theories in the field, and explore new avenues of exploration and discovery.

The Foundation extends its warmest congratulations to the 2019 recipients:

Juliette Becker, who is currently working on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and will join the geological and planetary science team at Caltech for her 51 Pegasi b Fellowship. During her fellowship term, Juliette will develop techniques that connect observational data and theory to reveal more about distant stars, exoplanets, and their unseen companions. She seeks to better define the types of planets that can and cannot exist in individual systems, advancing other scientists’ efforts to detect and study these bodies. Juliette will be mentored by Professor Konstantin Batygin.

Cheng Li, who is currently a NASA postdoctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This fall, he will join the UC Berkeley astronomy department to conduct his postdoctoral studies. Cheng will use information recently collected from the Juno mission to challenge and refine theories about the atmospheres of giant planets. His work will include profiling exotic cloud-forming materials on distant worlds to better understand their formation, distribution, and dissipation. He will be mentored by Professor Imke de Pater.

Benjamin Rackham, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona. In the fall, he will move to the east coast to join the earth and planetary science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During Ben’s fellowship term, he will conduct a series of projects to study exoplanet host stars and ultimately produce an open-source tool that disentangles stellar and planetary signals. Ben will be mentored by Professor Julien de Wit.

Clara Sousa-Silva, who currently holds a postdoctoral research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with Professor Sara Seager. The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship allows her to continue her theoretical research at MIT, which involves simulating 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 in exoplanetary atmospheres—particularly gases that are associated with life. Clara will be mentored by Professor Seager.

Jessica Spake, who is currently a visiting graduate scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Jessica will join the department of geological and planetary sciences at Caltech. In her fellowship, Jessica will focus on exploring what helium detection can unveil about extreme atmospheric conditions in exoplanets. Using ground-based telescopes, she will target helium in her observations to measure the rate at which exoplanets are losing their atmospheres to space. Jessica will be mentored by Professor Heather Knutson.

Xinting Yu, who is currently completing her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. In the fall, she will move to UC Santa Cruz to pursue her postdoctoral research and continue to explore one of the most important questions in the field: how clouds, haze, fog, dust, and other matter interact with different wavelengths of light, and how these relationships impact the signals we receive from exoplanets. Xinting will be mentored by Professor Xi Zhang.

To learn more about the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, please click here. Applications for the 2020 fellowship cycle will open in late Spring 2019.

In addition, over the past year the Foundation’s Science program sought feedback and guidance from the field regarding how to implement improvements that would move the fellowship’s application, review, and award processes towards more inclusive and equitable practices. To learn more about some of the major changes that have been implemented, please see here.