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Sara Seager

Sara Seager talks about her work in astrophysics

Sara Seager talks about her work in astrophysics

Sara Seager
MIT Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Physics

Professor Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist.  She joined the MIT faculty in 2007 to lead MIT’s efforts in the emerging subfield of exoplanet exploration and characterization.  Her pioneering research on the theory, computation and data analysis of exoplanets, and her innovative work on space instrumentation, are opening new celestial frontiers and fueling essential questions about life beyond the Earth.

Professor Seager holds a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Toronto and a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University.  She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 recognizing her work as a visionary scientist.

Highlights of this interview include:
•    Growing up in Toronto, Canada she observed the moon “following her”.  Around age five she had her first look at the stars through a telescope and marveled at the stars in the sky while on a camping trip.  These are indelible childhood memories.  
•    Realized she could be an astronomer for a job after attending an open house at the University of Toronto while in high school.
•    At her father’s request she took pre-med courses in undergrad school and then got a summer job at a local observatory.
•    Decided to pursue astronomy because she was good at it.  Applied to graduate school and went to Harvard and began working in cosmology.
•    Master’s level paper was “Recombination in the Early Universe” or how exactly did the universe become neutral.
•    Took a risk to study exoplanets for her Ph.D. dissertation in order to do something new and interesting.
•    A milestone in exoplanets was made with the discovery of a transiting planet, when a planet goes in front of its star as seen from the telescope.
•    She embarked on what became some of her most significant work and that was how to study exoplanet atmospheres by planets that transit.
•    Talks about the challenges of having children and juggling the demands of a tenured university job. 
•    Joined MIT and decided to try something big.  One is to find and identify planets are like Earth and can support life by understanding the atmosphere of a planet and look for signs of water. 
•    The story of developing ExoplanetSat.
•    Her role mentoring women graduate students and postdocs.
•    The role of women in the field of exoplanets. 
•    MIT’s role leading the NASA sponsored mission called TESS, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
•    Her role as the chair of the NASA Starshade project.
•    Advised the Vatican participating in a group called the Pontifical Academy of Science.
•    Story of how she learned of her MacArthur Fellowship and how she has used the grant. 
•    The story of her struggle during her time as a single mom while juggling her life as an MIT professor and researcher. 

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