Flash Interviews 2020-2021: Learn more about our students!

A representation of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)
A representation of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The dynamism of iREx is largely due to its graduate students. In order to introduce you to these promising scientists, we led a series of short interviews. Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, we posted these portraits on Facebook with the keyword #iRExGradStudents.

Here are some excerpts.

A few of our graduate students (from left to right, top to bottom) : Timothy Hallatt, Taylor Bell, Keavin Moore, Margaret Bruna, Michael Radica, Dereck-Alexandre Lizotte, Christopher Mann, Farbod Jahandar and Louis-Philippe Coulombe.


Can you summarize your project briefly?

Keavin: Since water is a crucial ingredient for life as we know it, I run simulations combining models of the deep-water cycle of Earth-like planets with evolution models for both the planetary atmosphere and irradiation from the host star to determine whether these planets are likely to have liquid surface oceans, as on the Earth. I focus on Earth-like planets orbiting smaller red dwarf stars due to their overwhelming abundance in the Milky Way compared to Sun-like stars.

Michael: By studying the starlight that filters through the atmospheres of distant planets, we are able to identify the molecules that make up these atmospheres. I am particularly interested in what the composition of a planet’s atmosphere today can tell us about its history, namely how the planet itself formed.

Christopher: My PhD project has been to adapt the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a unique instrument that was designed to image and research faint galactic structures, to the study of exoplanets as well. I use the transit method (i.e. observing the small decrease in starlight as the orbiting exoplanet blocks it) to confirm tentatively detected planets, check for false positives, and search for unseen planets by observing any variations in their orbital periods.

Farbod: I study the chemistry of different types of stars — currently M dwarfs — by high-resolution spectroscopy of their electromagnetic spectrum. A wise astronomer once said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a spectrum is worth a thousand pictures! From the spectrum of a star, we can get a wide range of information from its velocity and chemistry to its gravity and potential exoplanets in its orbit. I currently use the SPIRou instrument at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) to examine high-resolution spectra of nearby M dwarfs.

Louis-Philippe: Because exoplanets are so far away from the Earth, current telescopes are unable to spatially resolve their surface, forcing us to consider them as point source objects. My research consists of using the shape of the variation of light received by the telescope as the planet goes and comes out from behind its star to infer the spatial distribution of its atmosphere.

Déreck-Alexandre: My project revolves around detection of refraction effects in the atmospheres of exoplanets around the Period-Radius Gap. The goal of this project is to use the detection of these effects as a way to measure the differences in the populations split by the Period-Radius gap.

Ben: My project is generating models of Jupiter-like planets to then try and determine the interior structure of these planets. I hope to figure out how they form.

Margaret: My project seeks to determine if we can retrieve the orbits of exoplanets (from 2 or 3 pictures) to a higher degree of accuracy if our model considers the visible light they reflect, as well as their position in the sky.


Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in the field of exoplanets?

Keavin: I’ve been a fan of science fiction (especially Star Wars) since a young age, and the myriad and mystery of planets outside of our Solar System, compared to our familiar 8-planet system, drove me to study the Earth and planetary science in general, and apply the knowledge to more exotic systems elsewhere in the Universe.

Christopher: I chose to pursue the study of exoplanets because of its fascinating subject matter and because the field has recently exploded thanks to recent developments in techniques and technology. I believe that we will have the capability to detect life on another planet during the course of my career, and I love the idea of being able to contribute towards that goal!

Déreck-Alexandre: I decided to pursue graduate studies in exoplanet research due to a long-time fascination in “alien” worlds, no doubt fueled by too much science fiction.

Ben: My want to know “why” and “how” is why I pursued graduate studies in exoplanets. Figuring out why things are the way they are.

Margaret: I decided to pursue graduate studies in exoplanet research because I love their place in the field of astrophysics. They are always full of surprising behaviour, but we can also see how this compares to our own Earth and understand how our planet fits into this bigger picture.

Michael: Who hasn’t looked up at the sky on a clear night and wondered whether or not we are alone in the universe? It turns out that that question is not solely confined to the realm of science fiction. Astronomers and exoplaneteers across the world are currently searching for the next Earth, and in the process, finding thousands of planets orbiting distant stars – each with its own unique properties and history. Who could say no to such an adventure?!


What do you like the most so far about your studies/research in astrophysics?

Taylor: During my bachelor’s degree in physics, I minored in computer science, and I’ve had fun applying the skills I learned in those classes to my graduate research projects. I really like building up complex tools from basic bits of computer code while also making things clearly documented and easy to use. It takes more time to write your code that way, but you end up with something you and others can reuse.

Timothy: I love learning new things every day. Astronomers are exposed to so many incredible ideas and discoveries that I think we sometimes take it for granted. Every day I teach myself something new (either about what other scientists have discovered, or about what I am currently working on), or I learn something from my colleagues.

Farbod: In general, astrophysics has no limits meaning that you can go as far as your imagination, creativity, and technology go. What I like most about my research field is that you never find two identical study targets. One day you can find a star that has no metals, and the other day you can find a star that is exponentially metal-richer than our Sun! You find surreal-like scenarios of super-earth exoplanets that could potentially host life, to Hot-Jupiter exoplanets that were discovered only a few decades ago for the first time! This always-surprising element in stellar and exoplanet studies continuously keeps me motivated not to stop.

Louis-Philippe: What I like most about my research in exoplanetary science is the interdisciplinary aspect, the science needed to observe and characterize exoplanets consists of fields such as thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, chemistry, and more.


What do you find the most challenging about graduate studies in astrophysics?

Timothy: It can be difficult to know which direction to take a research project. Choosing a good, productive research question is a skill that takes effort and time to develop.

Taylor: I think imposter syndrome is something that most people struggle with during grad school, and it’s something I’ve particularly been struggling with now that I am nearing the end of my PhD. Applying for postdoctoral researcher positions is a very competitive stage of the academic career path, and it can be quite stressful not knowing whether or not you’ll get a job or where in the world you’ll end up.