Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Meet your CSWA: Sara Seager

In our series on the Women in Astronomy blog, we'd like to introduce our readers to the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy. Today's feature is on Sara Seager, who was also recently highlighted by The New York Times.

Sara Seager is the Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Seager’s research team develops theoretical computer models of atmospheres and interiors of all kinds of exoplanets, to make predictions and interpret data, with a prime interest in atmospheric "biosignature" gases. She is widely credited with conceiving of and formulating the main technique used to analyze exoplanet atmospheres today, work that also led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. Professor Seager actively works on the search for another Earth, including: her CubeSat (ASTERIA now being implemented at JPL); Deputy Science Director on the MIT-led TESS Mission (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission scheduled for launch in 2017; and recent leadership of the NASA Science and Technology Definition Team for a space-based, "Probe-class" Starshade and telescope system for direct imaging discovery and characterization of exoEarths orbiting sun-like stars. Among her recent accolades, Professor Seager was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2015, was awarded an honorary PhD from the University of British Columbia in 2015, is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and was awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences in 2012. For more on Professor Seagar, visit http://seagerexoplanets.mit.edu/.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with the planets and stars?

As a small child, looking out of the car window at night, I noticed the moon would not stop following me. This was a perplexing issue that my Dad could not explain. Later, he took me to a “star party” where I saw the moon through a telescope. “Wow!” I had no idea the moon’s surface was so rich in detail. As a ten year old I went on my first camping trip. Stepping outside of the tent at night, all by myself, I looked up to find a tremendous number of stars filling the entire sky. I feel like my heart skipped a beat at this “jaw dropping moment”. I had no idea so many stars were out there.

How did you end up working in the field?

As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto I participated in an internship program in the summer at the (now retired) David Dunlap Observatory. My work was quite tedious, but it was exciting to be working at a real live observatory. While in graduate school exoplanets were first reported to orbit sun-like stars. I was looking for a PhD research project when my advisor suggested atmospheres of the planets we now call hot Jupiters. I jumped on the chance to work on exoplanets, and the rest is history.

Who inspired you?
No one in particular inspired me, but no one “uninspired” me. I never heard I couldn’t do science. The only reason I was given for not pursuing a science career was that I could choose a more lucrative career and be able to support a future family more easily. Looking back more recently, however, I would say both the well known physicist and chemist Marie Curie and the less well known astronomer Helen Sawyer Hogg were both widowed single mothers and in that way exceptionally inspiring for me during a low point for me in a similar phase. If they could do it, I could do it.

What is a Professor?

A professor is a teacher at the college level. I teach undergraduates and graduate students a variety of subjects, including planetary science, Earth atmospheric science, data analysis, and more. My duties also include mentoring undergraduate and graduate students as they learn how to research, as well as helping to run the university through participation on various committees. At a major research university, my professor job enables me to do research on my own and with students and other team members.

What community issues are important to you and why?

Equality is important to me and I don’t yet see this in the professional astronomy world at the highest professional levels of academia, government, and industry. In terms of the “pipeline” of students in my particular field of exoplanets has a large number of women at the graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, and junior faculty level and I aim to see all who want to populate the senior professional level.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

As a graduate student working with one of my first computer programs, I was astonished and thrilled when my program actually worked and output a reflected light spectrum of a hot Jupiter exoplanet. I knew the code had worked, because the planet spectrum should contain reflected features of the stellar spectrum at visible wavelengths. I still remember the moment of happiness, excitement and accomplishment, a feeling I can still recall nearly 20 years later.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?


Find something you love doing and that you are good at. Learn how to computer program and become proficient at it. Surround yourself with mentors, peers, and mentees who have a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to learn new skills at any time in your high school, college, graduate school, or professional career.

What do you do for fun?

Spend time with my husband and children, and dog, including playing tennis and watching TV (Futurama reruns have been a recent favorite). In the summer I visit my summer cottage in Canada, on Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes. We go to the beach and do all kinds of water sports, including paddle boarding and diving for golf balls.

What are your goals as a part of the CSWA?

Continue to raise awareness on implicit bias and explicit harassment and how to overcome them. Support the community in standing up against senior male faculty harassers.