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Collaboration Meets Inspiration to Advance Planetary Science

Hot Jupiters. Super-Earths. There is nothing like these types of exoplanets in our own solar system—which makes them an ideal focus for Dr. Songhu Wang’s research. His goal is to explore how our solar system fits into the grander scheme of the cosmos.

Songhu is working with the field to find the answers to burning questions like: How can Jupiter-sized gas giants orbit dangerously close to their host stars? What explains the origins and prevalence of super-Earths around other stars? Is our solar system unique within the cosmic context?

Dr. Songhu Wang

During his tenure as one of the inaugural 51 Pegasi b Fellows (2017), Songhu’s research approach shifted significantly. Originally focused on studying individual planetary systems, he became increasingly intrigued by the broader insights offered by population-level results.

“If you only study one system, you want to do that in great detail,” Songhu said. “But eventually you want to put them together and see what the general picture looks like. This helps us to constrain most fundamental physics processes for planet formation.”

He attributes this shift, in part, to the 2018 launch of Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) along with advanced spectrographs that have expanded access to a wider population of exoplanets—and a deeper statistical analysis. In the last year of his fellowship, Songhu led the first TESS Hot Jupiter discovery. Since then, TESS has detected hundreds of exoplanets.

Throughout his career, Songhu has embraced a collaborative and inclusive approach to scientific research. In the first year of his fellowship, his joint work with graduate student Sarah Millholland and advisor Greg Laughlin at Yale University revealed that super-Earths within the same system tend to have similar radii and masses, hinting at common formation processes.

He later partnered with 51 Pegasi b Fellow Malena Rice (2022) to carefully analyze the Kepler dataset and discover that more Hot Jupiters have a planetary companion than previously thought. Their work strongly suggests that Hot Jupiters form through less volatile processes than indicated by earlier studies, and provided a new paradigm for their origins.

The freedom to follow his curiosity as a Fellow led Songhu to his current position as assistant professor of astronomy at Indiana University. There, he is building a program to support astronomers who speak English as a second language, inspired by the language training he received during his fellowship.

“I believe this is of great importance and it’s not only a moral obligation, but also a strategic move,” said Songhu. “Many people from different backgrounds have their own perspective, which can be very valuable to contributions to science.”

As a way to pay it forward, Songhu uses startup funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation to support his students’ attendance at conferences and workshops, including the Code/Astro workshop led by 51 Pegasi b Fellow alumnus Jason Wang (2018).

“Science is about creation and communication,” Songhu said. “The communication part is important for early career researchers. It makes them feel relevant and that they belong.”

Driven to bridge subfields to open more collaboration, Dr. Wang seeks to connect the study of planetary formation with atmospheric research. In addition to fostering generative links between people across fields, Songhu believes in meaningful personal connections to the work—that finding joy on the job will be crucial for the next generation of scientists, as they unlock new advancements in the understanding of exoplanets and beyond.

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