Faculty & Student Spotlights

Kiranjyot (Jasmine) Gill, PhD candidate specializing in core-collapse supernovae gravitational wave astrophysics, is the youngest member of the LIGO-Virgo collaboration and was apart of a global team of scientists who helped discover the existence of gravitational waves, which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Because of her contributions, she was named a co-recipient of the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Princess of Asturias Award given by His Majesty the King of Spain, the UK Royal Astronomical Society 2017 Group Achievement Award in Astronomy, and the Bruno Rossi prize in High Energy Astrophysics from the American Astronomical Society. Jasmine is a co-author of more than 70 scientific publications with over 9000+ citations and has given over 30 invited talks at universities, government summits, and media conclaves. 

Spotlight: Shelley Cheng

Shelley Cheng

Shelley Cheng is a Peirce Fellowship PhD student working with Avi Loeb on star formation in quasar accretion disks. She is originally from Sydney, Australia and completed her Bachelor's of Science in Physics at UCLA in June 2020. She has worked with Smadar Naoz and Michael Fitzgerald at UCLA on triple-body dynamics and exoplanets, and Jim Fuller at Caltech on asteroseismology. She mentors undergraduate students as part of Harvard University's WiSTEM Mentorship Program and served as a volunteer mentor for The Women+ of Color Project.


Shelley on hike with other grad students

Spotlight: Fernando Becerra 

Becerra selfie hikingFernando Becerra is a 6th year grad student working with Prof Lars Hernquist on the formation of the first supermassive black holes (SMBHs) in the Universe. Observations suggest that quasars were already powered by SMBHs when the Universe was less than one billion years old, but the presence of these objects at early times is still a mystery. One explanation is that these SMBHs most likely grew from smaller seed BHs that formed earlier, but the origin of these seeds also remains unclear. To investigate this, Fernando runs numerical simulations that mimic the formation of such seeds in the early Universe. Before his PhD, Fernando got his Master degree at Universidad de Chile. There, under the supervision of Prof Andrés Escala, he studied the relation between the formation of stars and their environment using numerical simulations of isolated local galaxies.

Lately, Becerra has been interested in data visualization as a tool to communicate science and engage people. Motivated by this, he created astrollytelling.io, a project that explains basic astronomy concepts and ideas through visual stories in a compelling and easy to understand style. This tool is originally aimed to undergrad and grad students, but it is also useful for any astronomy enthusiast who wants to learn about the sciences astronomers do.

Spotlight: Tansu Daylan

Tansu Daylan

Tansu is a 4th year PhD student in the Physics Department, working with Douglas P. Finkbeiner in astro-particle physics. The main focus of his research is dark matter, i.e., how dark matter forms structure and its potential interactions with the Standard Model. In the beginning of his PhD, he worked on the gamma-ray emission from the inner regions of the Milky Way, showing that the previously discovered excess emission is consistent with the self annihilation of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. Although there are equally consistent astrophysical explanations for this anomaly, if this is a truly exotic signal, it could potentially be a smoking gun signature of dark matter. More recently, he has been interested in implementing a Bayesian framework to perform transdimensional inference on a hypothesis space, given some astronomical observation. Using this framework, the underlying catalog in the astronomical images can be inferred despite large modeling covariances. This allows extraction of maximal information from the dataset, even in the crowded and low signal-to-noise limits. Before his PhD, he was an undergraduate at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, double majoring in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and Physics. In the meantime, he was a summer student at CERN in 2011, when he started working on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2 experiment until his graduation in 2013. He loves communicating and advocating the scientific method and has participated in numerous science outreach projects. In his free time, he likes to dance Tango and Bachata and fly airplanes.

Spotlight: Maurice Wilson

Maurice Wilson

Maurice Wilson is a 1st year graduate student working with Prof John Johnson and Dr. Jason Eastman on characterizing Earth-like exoplanets around our nearest stars.  Maurice began collaborating with Prof Johnson and Dr. Eastman in 2015 as an undergraduate summer intern of the newly founded Banneker Institute at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  He proudly credits the Banneker Institute for preparing him—as a senior undergraduate—for graduate school academically through the daily classes, professionally through the exoplanet research experience and emotionally through the social justice curriculum.  By the end of the internship, he was deeply immersed into the exoplanet research that he continues to work on now.  By observing the brightest stars in the night sky with the MINiature Exoplanet Radial Velocity Array (MINERVA), Maurice obtains photometry and radial velocities both with the high precision necessary to characterize rocky exoplanets with radii similar to the Earth’s radius.  

During his summer and winter breaks, Maurice presents his research and teaches youth about astronomy at the Adler Planetarium in his hometown of Chicago.  He also teaches a variety of scientific concepts via his blog, which is geared towards lay(wo)men outside of the scientific community.  Aside from blogging, Maurice likes to dance Salsa and Bachata in his spare time.

Spotlight: Marion Dierickx

Marion Dierickx

Marion Dierickx is a 4th-year graduate student working with Prof Avi Loeb on galaxies in the Local Group. With approximately fifty members, the Local Group is our cosmic backyard. In the same way that detailed studies in the Solar neighborhood have informed our understanding of stellar populations, the Local Group is the closest laboratory to study galactic evolution. Marion works on modeling the infall of dwarf galaxies into their larger neighbors, the Milky Way and Andromeda. Leveraging the capabilities of N-Body simulations, she hopes to learn about the evolving structures and morphologies of Local Group dwarfs. Marion serves as a student representative to the Astronomy Department’s Committee on Academic Studies. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking adventures, traveling and horse riding.

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Spotlight: Elisabeth Newton

Elisabeth Newton photo

Elisabeth Newton is pursuing her PhD with Prof. Dave Charbonneau as a member of the MEarth Project. MEarth is robotic survey looking for transiting planets around red dwarf stars in the solar neighborhood, with sites in the northern and southern hemispheres. Elisabeth, along with fellow graduate student Jason Dittmann, leverages MEarth's extensive data set to study the properties of these small, nearby stars. Elisabeth is currently investigating the stars' rotation periods, which are essential to understanding their magnetic fields and angular momentum evolution. In her previous work, she obtained near-infrared spectra of nearly 500 of the MEarth targets and developed techniques to measure the stars' absolute radial velocities and to estimate their metallicities, temperatures, and radii. 

Elisabeth helped found the daily astronomy blog Astrobites and the ComSciCon workshop series on science communication. She recently talked at the CfA's public Observatory Night and tweets about science at @EllieInSpace. Elisabeth also enjoys art and baking, and can often be found rock climbing or biking around Cambridge.

Spotlight: Nathan Sanders

Nathan Sanders imageNathan Sanders received his Ph.D. from the Department of Astronomy in May, 2014, from the research group of Prof. Alicia Soderberg.  Since then, Nathan has served as Director of Quantitative Analytics at Legendary Entertainment's new Applied Analytics division in Boston, MA.  Legendary is a leading media company with film, television, digital, and comics divisions delivering content like The Dark Night and Godzilla to mainstream audiences, with a targeted focus on the powerful fandom demographic. At Legendary, Nathan applies the experience in scientific data analysis, Bayesian statistics, and machine learning that he developed during his thesis work at Harvard.  Using these techniques, Nathan and his colleagues at Legendary leverage emerging datasets to quantitatively model and predict consumer purchasing decisions in the entertainment industry, projecting market outcomes and optimizing targeted marketing campaigns at the individual consumer level.

Spotlight: Charlie Conroy

In July 2014, the Harvard welcomed Charlie Conroy, new assistant professor of Astronomy, from UC Santa Cruz.  He brings with him two graduate students, Meng Gu and Jieun Choi. His research interests span a broad range of topics including stellar evolution and spectroscopy, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the large scale structure of galaxies and dark matter.  His group is developing innovative techniques for probing the stellar populations within galaxies, including new observational strategies and theoretical tools. In 2013 he was awarded a Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship and a David & Lucile Packard Fellowship. Before arriving at Harvard, Charlie spent two years as an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz. Charlie spends his spare time tending to a small organic farm with his spouse and two children.

Spotlight: John Asher Johnson

After spending four years as an assistant professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech, John Johnson is now a Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2012, he was awarded the Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, the David & Lucile Packard Fellowship, the Feynman Teaching Prize, and the AAS Newton Lacy Pierce Prize for "for major contributions to understanding fundamental relationships between extrasolar planets and their parent stars." In 2013, he was named one of Astronomy Magazine’s “Ten Rising Stars” in astrophysics.

His primary research focus is on the detection and characterization of planets outside our Solar System, commonly known as exoplanets. His most recent work is focused on studying the properties of Earth-like planets around the Galaxy’s least massive stars, commonly known as red dwarfs. His group's notable discoveries include three of the smallest planets discovered to date, each smaller than the Earth and one the size of Mars. His group's statistical analysis of planets discovered around red dwarfs has revealed that there exist 1-3 Earth-like planets per star throughout the Galaxy. In addition to papers in professional journals and conferences, his work has been featured in the magazines Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Discover and New Scientist. He blogs regularly at this URL and you can follow him on Twitter as @astrojohnjohn.

Spotlight: Matt Holman

Matt Holman

Matt Holman is a Smithsonian astrophysicist and lecturer with the Department of Astronomy and was featured in a recent Gazette series on Harvard’s engagement in Latin America, in this case through telescopes such as Las Campanas and Magellan. His work focuses on long-term dynamics of the Sun’s solar system and extrasolar planetary systems.  In 2003, his team of astronomers at the CfA and JJ Kavelaars of Canada discovered three previously unknown moons of Neptune, the first discovered from a ground-based telescope since 1949.  Sometime in 2015 Matt’s team will utilize NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to explore objects in the Kuiper Belt, leftovers from the creation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Spotlight: Li Zeng

Li Zeng is a graduate student currently in his fifth year and hails from Chongqing, China.  Li is very passionate about holistic health and traditional healing.  He is a practitioner of Tai Chi and specialized forms of martial arts.  In conjunction with faculty member, Dimitar Sasselov, Li has created a new interactive tool to characterize and illustrate the interior structure of exoplanets. This tool, distributed at no cost to the public, is useful for observers to quickly constrain the interior structure of an exoplanet, for modelers to use in their computer simulations, and for instructors to illustrate the diversity of planetary structures in the classroom.

Spotlight: Edo Berger

Edo Berger is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences and, as of July, Acting Director of Undergraduate Studies for the department.  He is pictured above with graduate student Wen-fai Fong in front of a model of colliding neutron stars that they assert are responsible for the creation of such heavy metals as gold in the universe.  His research group (view students and postdocs) is focused on the study of gamma-ray bursts, optical transients (mainly from the Pan-STARRS project), and magnetic fields in low-mass stars and brown dwarfs, using observations across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio to γ-rays. Prof Berger was recently selected as the recipient of the 2013 Fannie Cox Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching awarded annually by Harvard's Faculty of Arts & Sciences.

Spotlight: Karin Öberg

The Department of Astronomy welcomed Karin Öberg as its newest assistant professor in July of this year. She is pictured here at her Leiden University dissertation defense  in 2009. Karin moved to Harvard from the University of Virginia where she held a joint faculty appointment in Chemistry and Astronomy. She previously held a Hubble Fellowship at the CfA.  Karin’s expertise is in astronomical and laboratory infrared spectroscopy of ices, laboratory investigations on ices dynamics and chemistry, single-dish and interferometric millimeter observations of molecular emission, and theory on how protostellar and protoplanetary disk chemistry affects planet formation. She is a Swedish native.

Spotlight: Yuan Sen Ting

Yuan Sen TingYuan-Sen is a graduate student working with Dr Alexey Vikhlinin and Prof. Christopher Stubbs. He is analyzing data from the NASA Chandra X-ray observatory to understand how often galaxy clusters merge. He is also very interested in galactic dynamics,  and plans to dissect the formation of the Milky Way via the motions and elemental abundances of stars in the Milky Way. He loves public outreach activities and has developed new educational tools for teaching.  Yuan-Sen is pictured here presenting at the Boston Museum of Science.