Meet the AAS Keynote Speakers: Dr. Thomas Beatty

In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the keynote speakers of the 244th 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!

Meet Dr. Thomas Beatty, an assistant professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Wisconsin. Before joining the team, he played a crucial role in working on the JWST/NIRCam instrument at the University of Arizona. Dr. Beatty is fascinated by planets outside our solar system, especially their atmospheres and how they form. He uses powerful telescopes on Earth and in space to learn more about these distant worlds, aiming to uncover secrets about how they came to be and their potential to support life.

Dr. Thomas Beatty (photo courtesy of Dr. Thomas Beatty)

Dr. Beatty will be a plenary speaker at AAS244, diving into what we’ve discovered from the first two years of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the field of exoplanets.

To boldly go where no one has gone before!

Dr. Beatty has been instrumental in discovering new exoplanets through the Kilodegree extremely LITTLE telescope (KELT, a quirky name that humorously contrasts with the superb titles of its cousin telescopes) transit survey. As a graduate student, he helped launch this survey, leading to the discovery of the first nine KELT planets. “I remember finding the 1st planet and confirming it; that was super exciting”, says Dr. Beatty. 

Dr. Beatty has extensively researched transiting brown dwarfs (read one of his works in this bite) to further understand their formation. Brown dwarfs occupy a unique position between planets and stars. They are often classified by their mass—around 13 Jupiter masses, which is a dividing line between planets and stars. Dr. Beatty’s work focuses on classifying brown dwarfs by their formation processes, investigating whether they form like stars or planets. This research could revolutionize how we understand the formation of planets and find a better physical motivation to categorize these mysterious objects.

Dr. Beatty also explores the atmospheres of smaller planets, such as sub-Neptunes, to uncover their compositions and formation histories. Unlike gas giants, primarily composed of hydrogen and helium, these smaller planets have atmospheres rich in various elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. By analyzing these elements, exoplanet astrophysicists can infer where these planets formed in the protoplanetary disk and their migration histories (how planets moved in their star systems). This research is crucial, as sub-Neptunes and Neptune-mass planets are among the most common types of planets produced by formation processes.

Another intriguing aspect of Dr. Beatty’s research involves detecting biosignatures on small planets, particularly sub-Neptunes, using the JWST. He examines how the atmospheric composition can indicate the presence of oceans, rock, or gas layers, focusing on how chemical cycles on these planets affect their atmospheres. This research aims to predict chemical reactions on distant worlds and understand how Earth-like oceans influence atmospheric composition. Starting this summer, Dr. Beatty will be part of a new interdisciplinary initiative, the Wisconsin Center for Origins Research (WiCOR). This center will bring together experts from astronomy, atmospheric and ocean sciences, geology, biology, etc, to explore planetary habitability and the origins of life on Earth.

“3, 2, 1.. and take off”

Dr. Beatty’s fascination with space started with a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, fueled by his love for Star Trek. He pursued a Bachelor’s in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Harvard University. During his undergraduate years, his interests were diverse—he even spent a year and a half majoring in political science and considered studying history. Reflecting on his interest in 20th-century Chinese history, Dr. Beatty notes, “It’s a lot like astronomy—there is a truth that happened, but there are all these different views trying to determine what’s the underlying truth, it was a very interesting exercise for me.” He went on to earn a Master’s in Physics from MIT, followed by both a Master’s and Ph.D. in Astronomy from the Ohio State University.

Dr. Beatty fondly recalls the companionship and collaborative spirit in astronomy, emphasizing the delight and thrill of working with colleagues to solve challenging problems. “We had an argument for 4 hours. We spent all afternoon arguing over something.” Dr. Beatty emphasizes the intellectual stimulation from participating in lively arguments and the gratification of solving riddles together. He states, “..that intellectual debate…I really enjoyed that.” 

“It’s hard to realize that you are having a good time until it’s over,” says Dr. Beatty, reflecting on his graduate school experiences. He advises students to enjoy the present and treasure their friendships with their peers. He also emphasizes the freedom to pursue one’s passions and the importance of prioritizing enjoyment in one’s career. “..if you start doing a PhD and you don’t enjoy it, then there shouldn’t be any stigma on stopping, right?” He acknowledges astronomers’ challenges but suggests minimizing tasks that aren’t enjoyable and focusing on what brings fulfillment. 

“I would strongly recommend that undergraduates engage in research as early as possible,” Dr. Beatty recommends to undergraduate students. Unlike undergraduate research, where solutions are known, research at graduate levels and beyond presents problems with uncertain outcomes, which is a significant mental shift. Participating in research as undergraduates gives them insight into whether pursuing research is fulfilling and enjoyable.

To hear more about exoplanets and biosignatures, tune into Dr. Thomas Beatty’s Plenary Lecture at 4:40 pm CT on Tuesday, June 11 at #AAS244! 

Edited by: Maria Vincent

Featured Image Credit: AAS

About Sowkhya Shanbhog

I am currently a first-year PhD student at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, where I am focusing on studying high redshift quasars. Prior to this, I completed a dual BS-MS degree at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, India. Now, I am eager to expand my involvement in science communication and outreach initiatives. I have recently developed an interest in cooking, particularly since moving to a new city. I find solace in listening to music during my leisure time.

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