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College of Arts and Sciences

Cornell linked to three 51 Pegasi b astronomy postdocs

By: Alisha Gupta
Cornell Chronicle
March 26, 2020

Cornell will have connections to three of this year’s eight winners of 51 Pegasi b Fellowships in Planetary Astronomy. Two are coming to Ithaca for three years of postdoctoral work; another is a recent Cornell graduate.

The fellowship, in its fourth year, is awarded by the Heising-Simons Foundation. Cornell was selected to be a potential host institution this year. The fellowship provides up to $375,000 of support for independent research over three years to postdoctoral scientists who are conducting theoretical, observational and experimental research in planetary astronomy. The award is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a sun-like star.

Coming to Cornell will be Emily First, who received her Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa; and Eileen Gonzales, a doctoral candidate in physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This marks the first time Cornell will host 51 Pegasi b fellows.

Emily First

Samuel Birch, Ph.D. ’18, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences, will spend his fellowship years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“I’m looking forward to welcoming our first 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellows to Cornell,” said Nikole Lewis, assistant professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and deputy director of the Carl Sagan Institute. “One of the key aspects of the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship Program is to foster interdisciplinary research, which will be well-supported through the Carl Sagan Institute. The fellows will be undertaking forward-looking research that is well aligned with Cornell’s historic strength in planetary astronomy.”

Eileen Gonzales. Photo by Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History

First will gather a wide variety of rock types, representative of those on rocky planets across the solar system. She will measure how the rocks absorb and emit light and synthesize these findings into an accessible catalog.

First will be mentored by Esteban Gazel, associate professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences in the College of Engineering. She will also work with Lewis and Lisa Kaltenegger, associate professor of astronomy in A&S and director of the Carl Sagan Institute.

“It’s energizing to know that the composition catalog I’m building has the potential to support countless exoplanet research projects in the years to come,” First said.

Samuel Birch Ph.D. '18

Gonzales plans to merge observation and theory to apply learning about brown dwarf atmospheres to gas giant exoplanets. She will adapt a tool originally created to study brown dwarf clouds to address a more diverse set of atmospheric features and chemistries. She will be mentored by Lewis and will work with the Department of Astronomy.

“I hope to find answers to fundamental questions around exoplanets,” Gonzales  said, “the influence of clouds on atmospheres, key chemical processes that shape formation and evolution, and what techniques we need to prepare for future studies.”

Birch, who earned his doctorate in planetary science, will be investigating the surfaces of outer solar system objects to better understand their geological and climate history.

Alisha Gupta ’20 is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.

Read this story in the Cornell Chronicle.