Exoplanet hunter Sara Seager is among 24 scientists and artists granted one of 2013’s prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as the “genius grant.”

Sara Seager

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Sara Seager, author of S&T’s August 2013 cover story “Exoplanets Everywhere,” is on the hunt for Earth’s twin. The MIT professor of physics and planetary science has pioneered — and continues to develop — new techniques to study alien planets. Her efforts were rewarded this week when she and 23 others (including a physician, an immigration lawyer, a neuroscientist, and a choreographer) received a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over five years.

Though commonly known as the “genius grant,” the fellowship rewards extraordinary creativity and individual potential more than hard-to-define “genius.” (Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows program, dispels the genius myth in an excellent Washington Post opinion piece.)

In Seager’s case, “tenacity, imagination, and risk-taking” manifested early in her career. She was already studying how a star’s radiation might affect hot Jupiters in close-in orbits in her 1999 Ph.D. thesis, long before such atmospheres could be detected. Her early theoretical results led to the first detection of an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

Since then, Seager has worked on characterizing the ins and outs of exoplanets, determining observational methods for exploring composition and atmospheres. At the same time, she is also leading a CubeSat initiative to put her ideas to the test. The ExoplanetSat is a fleet of low-cost nanosatellites that will carry small telescopes to observe exoplanets as they transit across the faces of their host stars.

And that’s not all. Seager is also helping develop NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled for launch in 2017, and she serves as a scientific advisor to the commercial asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources, Inc.

S&T editor in chief Robert Naeye sat down with Seager last June to discuss the future of exoplanet studies:

Thirteen scientists (7 women and 6 men) received MacArthur Fellowships this year. Meet all the MacArthur Fellows here. The foundation has posted videos introducing all the awardees, and you can watch Seager’s interview here:

(If you’re curious, the equation she’s writing on the blackboard in the video is for radiative transfer. Using this equation, she can calculate how much light an exoplanet’s atmosphere absorbs as it transits in front of its host star.)

Learn more: Download Seager’s eBook, "Is There Life Out There? The Search for Habitable Exoplanets".


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Anthony Barreiro

September 26, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I hope that Dr. Seager's public outreach and education (like publishing in a general interest magazine like Sky and Telescope) was a factor in her MacArthur award. At the end of the MacArthur interview video Dr. Seager says that she is a single mother. Wow, I am even more impressed at what she has accomplished, and looking forward to learning about her future discoveries.

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Justin S

September 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Dang! Brains, beauty and bucks! She has it all! I'd eat my heart out except that would break my teeth!

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Lawrence Crary

September 26, 2013 at 8:28 pm

S&T article showed Dr. Seager's great communications skills. Hopefully the MacArthur Fellowship will enable her to reach more folks who need to become inspired to love the awesome discoveries of science.

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