Introducing Ben Montnet

Ben Montet (@benmontet) is a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of Chicago. He works to find and characterize planets with Kepler and K2, and soon, the upcoming TESS mission. He also uses Kepler data to better understand stellar activity through observations of long-term brightness variations of stars. (Ask him about KIC 8462852, or “Boyajian’s Star.”)
Ben is originally from the Chicagoland area, receiving his BS from the University of Illinois before heading to sunny California for his PhD at Caltech. When he’s not in the office, he enjoys traveling, watching the Cubs, and exploring his old and new hometown of Chicago.
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Reintroducing Jonathan Fortney

Jonathan Fortney is a Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz, and the director of their Other Worlds Laboratory (owl.ucsc.edu). He received his PhD in Planetary Sciences in 2004 from the University of Arizona and was a postdoc for 4 years at NASA Ames Research Center before starting at UC Santa Cruz in 2008.

Jonathan’s major fields of interest are the atmospheres, interiors, spectra, composition, and evolution of planets, both inside and outside the solar system.  He focuses on modeling and theory of these objects, with targets that range from terrestrial planets to brown dwarfs.  He was a member of the Kepler Science Team during its prime mission and is currently a member of the Cassini Science Team.

Introducing Maria Womack

Maria Womack (@StarzanPlanets) is Research Professor of physics at the University of South Florida in Tampa.  Her research involves multi-wavelength spectroscopy of comets and exoplanets. She is mainly interested in the chemical abundances and physical parameters that can be measured from volatiles with spectroscopic techniques. Lately, her cometary interests have focused on the activity of distant comets: those that are too far from the Sun for water ice to sublimate, but nonetheless have comae. Her work on exoplanetary science was mostly devoted to extracting signal from relatively faint ground-based spectra of hot Jupiters and super-Earths, which gave her a deep appreciation to the problems of Earth-atmosphere contamination.

Maria earned a B.S. in physics from Florida State University and a Ph.D. in physics from Arizona State University. She held a postdoctoral position in astronomy/planetary science at Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff) and her first faculty position was at Penn State Behrend (Erie). After three years, she left Erie to start a new faculty position at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where she worked for 18 years. She carried out research with over 60 undergraduate students and managed student-run observatories at both universities. From 2011-2015 she worked as a ‘rotating’ astronomy program director to the National Science Foundation. She used her cometary and exoplanetary expertise at NSF to manage the stellar and planetary astronomy individual investigator grant programs; and to help create and establish the joint NASA-NSF EXPLORE program for exoplanetary science. She started her USF faculty position in 2015 and occasionally helps out NSF as a part-time “expert.”

Introducing Matthew Kenworthy

Matthew Kenworthy is an Associate Professor at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands.

His interests are in the direct imaging of exoplanets, along with the coronagraphic optics and image reconstruction techniques that can increase our sensitivity to seeing these faint companions. More recently, he’s become interested in circumstellar and circumplanetary material detected when it eclipses its parent star, most notably the complex two month long eclipse seen towards the young star J1407.
He grew up in Ewell, a small town just outside of Greater London, and became interested in astronomy despite the bright orange skies at night. He did his undergraduate degree at Oxford University, and then went to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge for his PhD on astronomical instrumentation, building fibre-fed integral field spectrographs. Spending a decade in the USA, mostly at Steward Observatory with the Center for Adaptive Optics group and a short stint in Cincinnati, he moved to Leiden just over six years ago. He cycles around the Netherlands with his family, makes bread and beer, and occasionally tries to run in the more scenic parts of town. He’s on twitter as @mattkenworthy.

Introducing Mark Marley

Mark Marley is a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View California and also a Consulting Professor at Stanford University, where he teaches classes on planetary and exoplanet science. As a theoretician his research primarily focuses on the atmospheres of solar and extrasolar giant planets and brown dwarfs. Specifically he aims to interpret the spectra of these objects to help understand their composition, cloud and thermal structures, and ultimately their origin and evolution through time. As a member of the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey team he recently helped to interpret the first planet discovered by this ground based coronagraphic imaging camera, 51 Eridani b. He has served on a variety of NASA committees, including both the Terrestrial Planet Finder-Coronagraph and the Exo-C space telescope Science and Technology Definition Teams. Beyond planetary and brown dwarf atmospheric modeling his research interests include giant planet seismology and atmospheric variability in a variety of substellar atmospheres.

A third generation Arizonan, Mark grew up in Phoenix, attended Caltech where he majored in Geophysics and Planetary Science, and then moved back home to attend graduate school in Planetary Science at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. His thesis work with Bill Hubbard and Carolyn Porco explored how perturbations in Saturn’s gravity field induced by planetary oscillation modes of the planet might create gaps and waves in the rings. The predictions of this work were ultimately confirmed, 25 years later, by the Cassini mission to Saturn. After graduate school he held a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship under the late Jim Pollack, where he studied the atmospheric structure of ice giant planets. In 1993 he accepted a faculty position in the Astronomy Department of New Mexico State University where he stayed until 2000, at which time he moved back to NASA Ames as a civil servant scientist. When not modeling exoplanet atmospheres Mark enjoys hiking and exploring with his wife of 25 years, Mars scientist Ginny Gulick, his two daughters, and intrepid dog Pepsi.

Introducing Henry Ngo

Henry Ngo is a fourth year graduate student in Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. He is interested in exoplanets—planets that orbit around other stars. In particular, he studies systems that host “hot Jupiters”, a type of gas giant planet that orbits very very close to the host star. These orbits are so small that one trip around their Sun is less than a week. They beg the question: how did the planets end up on such strange orbits? Henry’s research involves using the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to look for additional stars in hot Jupiter systems to determine whether these extra stars have something to do with the hot Juptiers’ strange orbits.
Henry grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and graduated with a BSc in Physics & Astronomy at the University of British Columbia in 2010, where he enjoyed the nice weather and the rain. He then moved to Ontario to pursue a Masters degree in Astronomy at Queen’s University where he experienced the harsh Canadian winters for the first time. He is glad that Caltech is in sunny Pasadena, but does miss the rain. His hobbies include softball and cooking: his latest project is mastering macarons. He normally tweets as @AstroDino.

Introducing Cayman Unterborn

I am a 5th year Ph.D Candidate at The Ohio State University working in the School of Earth Science. My research looks at what it takes to build a habitable planet from a geologic perspective rather than the more traditional definition of the “habitable zone”. My work blends astronomy, geology and physics to understand which planetary compositions produce a planet able to sustain liquid water on its surface as well as control the carbon content of the atmosphere. On the Earth, this regulation of water/carbon is a consequence of plate tectonics, which in turn is driven by compositional differences in the mantle and an internal heat budget great enough to support interior convection. My previous work has looked at some of the extremes of this “geologic habitable zone”, such as so called “diamond planets” as well as measuring stellar Thorium abundance as a proxy for extrasolar heat budgets. The end goal of my research is to understand just how special the Earth may be with regards to it being habitable, or perhaps there are a range of compositions, perhaps even very un-Earth-like ones, that are able to produce dynamic planets capable of sustaining surface water and maybe even conditions to support life.