Can we talk about your early interest in young planets?
When I was a kid, I did a school project on the first-ever discovered “exoplanet,” or planet that had formed around another star. We didn’t know anything for certain about the existence of planets outside our own solar system until 1995. Now we know of thousands of them, and people like me make whole careers out of studying them. It’s really cool working on something that would have been sci-fi to my parents’ generation.
The science question that drives you is understanding how planets form around other stars. How do you study that?
I use a technique called direct imaging, which uses some of the world’s biggest ground-based telescopes to isolate the light from young planets forming around other stars. Our solar system is middle-aged. It’s about halfway through its life cycle, so even big planets like Jupiter are dim, because they have already radiated away all of the energy from their formation. When young planets form, they’re very bright, because they still have all this energy left over. So, they’re easier to find. At the same time, even very young planets are millions of times fainter than the stars they orbit, and they’re very close together in space. If I take an image of a young star system, the stars are all that I’m going to see until I process the images.
Kate Follette, Assistant Professor of Astronomy (Photo by Ben Barnhart)
Your students have been excited about what you do next to make the planets visible.
My work interfaces with computer science in a way our students have really responded to. It uses algorithms to isolate the light from planets within a halo of starlight. The data that we have—which are pictures—present a really interesting computational challenge.
Using algorithms to analyze the pictorial data is quite new, isn’t it?
The first directly imaged exoplanet was discovered when I was in graduate school, in 2008. For quite a while after that, there were only two discovered exoplanet systems. That is, until the instrument teams that I’m a part of developed the algorithms and came up with dedicated instruments behind telescopes that are optimized for this work. This niche—the study of the very, very youngest of the planets—is still in the process of being born.
What will you be doing with the first of the two NSF grants you won this year?
The first grant has two different aims. One is to improve the algorithms that we’re using to isolate planet light to improve the significance of our detections. Right now, our detections are all at the very hairy edge of what we can do with the technology, so there are many opportunities for error. The other aim is to leverage “brown dwarfs,” which are these funny things that are in between a planet and a star. Brown dwarfs are much brighter than planets and may help us answer a really fascinating unanswered question about whether our solar system is a typical planetary system or a strange one, in terms of how planets are formed in the universe.
Your first grant proposal emphasized your lab’s tiered mentoring structure, which features accessible “near-peer” mentors for everybody.
The grant will employ a graduate student and three summer postbacs who will serve as near-peer mentors for the more junior students in the lab. Tiered mentoring works really nicely, and it’s the only way that I’m able to maintain as many research projects and as many students in my lab as I have currently. We also usually have 10 to 15 undergraduates each summer who go through a week-long boot camp to learn about all the computational tools that they need. We also train them in “soft skills” like time management, how to read a science paper and how to write up results. We encourage independence and good research techniques, and try to give some structure to the open-ended research process.
Your second NSF grant is also about ensuring that everybody who is interested in science has a shot at succeeding in a STEM major.
Sadly, too many students who struggle with numeracy or who come to college with math anxiety decide that STEM fields aren’t for them, and these students come disproportionately from underrepresented groups. Our survey project will reveal how some introductory science instructors are finding ways to keep students engaged and confident around math concepts. Whether or not a student opts for a STEM major, the mastery of core quantitative skills is something everyone needs for making decisions in today’s complex world.