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Introducing the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship

The Heising-Simons Foundation is pleased to announce the inaugural cohort of 51 Pegasi b Fellows.

Named after the first exoplanet, discovered in 1995, the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship recognizes exceptional postdoctoral scientists with great potential to advance scientific research in the field of planetary astronomy.

This relatively new field bridges planetary science and astronomy to further our understanding of the origin and evolution of planetary systems, both solar and extra-solar. Its rapid growth attracts many creative young scientists working on fundamental science questions including:

  • How do planetary systems form and evolve?
  • What is the atmospheric composition of exoplanets?
  • How do we explain the diversity of exoplanets?
  • Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

The Foundation aims to make a difference in this field by investing in exceptional early-career scientists tackling these challenging questions.

There are several exciting and unique aspects to this fellowship. Each fellow will receive up to $375,000 over three years to conduct research at a top-ranking research institution in the United States. The financial support of the fellowship will provide each recipient with the autonomy to explore and test novel research ideas at their respective host institution.

In addition, each fellow will be mentored by an established faculty member to support them in the development of their research ideas and ensure a rich postdoctoral experience.

Finally, the Heising-Simons Foundation will also host annual 51 Pegasi b summits bringing together students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members who are working in the field of planetary astronomy. These summits are designed to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas, and to build a community of researchers that promotes collaboration.

We believe that having access to these key ingredients – research autonomy, supportive mentors, and a network of colleagues – will empower each fellow to maximize their potential and make ground-breaking contributions to the field of planetary astronomy. We are inspired by the creativity and dedication of these young scientists, and we look forward to seeing them flourish in their research endeavors.

The inaugural 51 Pegasi b Fellows and their host institutions are:

Jason Dittmann – Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jason’s research focuses on the detection and characterization of exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zone of nearby low-mass stars.

He is currently pursuing candidate planets and ways to characterize their atmospheres using the advanced technology of new space telescopes. Jason also plans to continue to develop new analysis techniques and apply machine learning to increase the sensitivity in exoplanet detection by the new Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). In doing so, he will open up new exoplanet targets, specifically around low-mass stars, for follow up by major space-based and ground-based telescopes.

Jason received his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard University under Professor David Charbonneau in 2016. During his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship term, he will conduct his research at MIT and will collaborate with Professor Sara Seager.

Katherine de Kleer – California Institute of Technology

Katherine studies the processes coupling planet interiors, surfaces, and atmospheres. Katherine’s recent and ongoing work focuses on understanding the composition of ice giant atmospheres, as well as tidally-powered volcanism on Jupiter’s moon, Io. She performs this work using ground-based infrared and millimeter telescope observations, and employs novel techniques to study Io’s lava flows with high spatial resolution in order to disentangle the connections between geological activity, surface environments, and thermal histories of planets and moons. For this fellowship, she will continue to conduct her observational research on the geological activity of Io and the other Galilean satellites in order to advance our understanding of planetary formation and evolution.

Katherine is expected to receive her Ph.D. in astrophysics under Professor Imke de Pater at the University of California, Berkeley in May 2017. During Katherine’s 51 Pegasi b Fellowship term, she will conduct her research at Caltech in collaboration with Professor Mike Brown.

Peter Gao – University of California at Berkeley

Peter is interested in using microphysical models and observations to better understand atmospheric processes across the solar system and on exoplanets. Specifically, Peter’s research focuses on clouds and hazes, which are strongly coupled to an exoplanet’s overall atmospheric composition. During his fellowship, he will design and develop the Microphysical Exoplanet Cloud and Haze (MECH) model. This model will advance atmospheric analysis of exoplanets and will be pivotal for interpreting existing and future observations.

Peter received his Ph.D. in planetary sciences at Caltech under professor Yuk Yung in 2016. During Peter’s 51 Pegasi b Fellowship term, he will conduct his research at the University of California Berkeley working closely with Professor Imke de Pater.

Songhu Wang – Yale University

Songhu’s interests span the full range of techniques that are used for exoplanet detection and characterization. Songhu has extensive experience in leading various exoplanet observational projects at the Transiting Exoplanet Monitoring Program, the Antarctic-based Chinese Small Telescope Array (CSTAR), and Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder. Most notably, Songhu developed analysis techniques for the precise photometry generated by the CSTAR program which led to the discovery of six credible exoplanet candidates and hundreds of other unique celestial objects. Songhu will leverage his extensive experience of working with cutting-edge observations, numerical simulations, and theoretical insight to further our understanding on the composition and properties of super-Earths and hot Jupiters. Furthermore, Songhu plans to develop and apply novel approaches to analyze the abundant photometric datasets from NASA’s Kepler, K2, and TESS Missions to optimize the productivity of EXPRES, an ultra-precise planet-detection spectrograph currently being built at Yale and slated to go on sky in the summer of 2017.

Songhu received his Ph.D in astronomy from Nanjing University in China under Professor Ji-Lin Zhou in 2016. During Songhu’s 51 Pegasi b Fellowship term, he will conduct his research at Yale University and will work closely with Professor Greg Laughlin.

Click here to learn more about the fellows and their research.