In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 241st AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here, and read our other interviews here!
If you are on Twitter, you have probably come across Dr. Jessie Christiansen, the person in exoplanet science. Dr. Jessie Christiansen is an Associate Research Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute and Project Scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. She completed her PhD at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Not only that, but she also loves engaging with the general public and talking with them about astronomy. For example, she recently gave a TEDx talk, which will be available soon!
Talking to Jessie Christiansen felt like I had to take notes, because everything she said was so profound and well-thought. What really surprised me was that astronomy was not Jessie’s first or even second choice! Her first choice was to join the Air Force in Australia because she “wanted to be a fighter pilot.” Unfortunately, she was rejected from the Defense Force Academy. Fortunately for astronomers, though, she enrolled in a degree in biotechnology and did not like it, soon after switching to astronomy – that’s how we got Jessie in our community!
As she tells me, this life experience taught her a lot. “When you’re young, it can feel like every decision you make is the biggest decision you’ve ever made, and it’s the biggest decision you’ll ever make. And you have to get it right,” she told me. “What I would say to myself in retrospect, is it’s okay to reexamine your choices anytime you want. It’s always okay to reassess. You’re never locked in.”
Christiansen started hunting for planets outside of the solar system in 2004. Exoplanet science was very different back then, because the community was still new and quite small. She calls those early days “a stamp-collecting phase” for exoplanet science, because astronomers were just trying to get a sense of what’s out there.
“The first transiting planet was found from the ground and the first microlensing planet. All of these firsts were still happening and it was a really exciting, vibrant time,” she nostalgically recalled. Now in 2022, with more than 5000 exoplanets detected to date, we can finally study their demographics across a whole population.
“There’s this Ernest Rutherford quote, ‘That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting’. So exoplanets has gone through the stamp-collecting phase. Now we get to do science,” Christiansen said. “That’s why what I get really excited about is exoplanet demographics…and why I’m interested in what it tells us about the underlying physics. What is it about turbulence and radiation and planet formation that gives us the populations we see today? How do the planets interact with each other to produce these resonant systems and the misaligned systems?”
Exoplanets is a very rapidly developing field. It is sometimes wild to think that now we are able to say something about the molecular composition of exoplanets far-far away. Hence, I got curious, from the perspective of a person who saw all these changes since 2004, how much has changed. “Back when 51 Peg was first announced, it was a real cottage industry. Small teams spread around the world. And then one of the big changes in the field, which I think is really wonderful, is how much it’s grown to the point that teams are big and connected and overlapping and everyone’s working with each other. So there’s been this pivot to larger and more interconnected teams. I find…more interesting that I can be part of these huge collaborations.”
The explorer instinct
Christiansen has been fascinated by space since she was little. “I have always loved the planets in our solar system. I’ve been an amateur astronomer my whole life, and I just love looking at our planets because they’re so tangible and you can see moons and features and rings and storms,” she said. “For me, the visual of brand new planets around other stars and what they look like is just so delightful and really sparked this explorer instinct in me.”
However, as with most academics, Christiansen’s science was not always all smooth and nice – there were failures, too! Even unsuccessful projects, though, taught her important skills. “The first three projects I worked on to look for planets were failures,” she laughed. “We didn’t find planets. It was only my fourth project that I worked on, which was when I joined Kepler, that I was even remotely successful.”
She had been hunting for exoplanets for six years and had not found any! As it turned out later, the planets she had been looking for, hot Jupiters, are very rare though easiest to find. “I think the important takeaway was it wasn’t the discoveries I was making, it was the skills I was getting,” she said.“When Kepler was launched and they had millions of light curves that they needed scientists to come and work on, they were like, ‘This woman has done it a bunch.’”
Grad students today are phenomenal
I wondered: how can one do research, science communication, and take care of a family simultaneously? Dr. Christiansen taught me that sometimes we all have to reassess our priorities and let go of some things that don’t bring us joy, even if we agreed to do them.
As a senior scientist, dealing with an extreme workload as is common in academia, Christiansen admits it’s a challenge to follow that advice and actually say no to things. “Two months ago, someone asked how I was doing, and I just started crying. There was no answer I could give because my brain was so full of everything I needed to do. And it’s a very easy trap to fall into as a researcher – to oversubscribe yourself,” she explained. “To be a good member of the astronomical community, you need to do this much service and this much research, this much mentoring, and it’s really hard to know where the line is…so the pressure is always to say yes. It’s okay to say no. You literally have to practice saying no.”
She also mentioned that graduate students right now are doing a “phenomenal” job, and the bar in the academic job market has become really high – so there’s a lot to handle for us, folks! However, of course, I had to ask her how to handle all of it.
“Find your peer mentoring group. They might not be at your institution. They might not be in your field,” she suggested.“You can hear each other, and can share strategies. You can understand that you’re not alone. And even now, I have a peer mentoring group.
The other thing I would say is it’s very easy to take on more work. As a person of color, as an underrepresented minority, it’s very easy to see the problems in a department because often they affect you in some way. The challenge then is identifying people in the department who have power, and who can be your allies in fixing that problem. Make it their problem.”
Thank you, Dr. Christiansen, for being such a kind and open member in our community!
Come hear more about exoplanets and how to wrangle 5000 of them at Dr. Jessie Christiansen’s AAS 241 talk, currently scheduled for Monday, January 9th 11:40am-12:30 pm PDT.
Astrobite edited by: Briley Lewis
Featured image credit: American Astronomical Society