SOEST alum receives 51 Pegasi b Fellowship for planetary science

SOEST alumna Emily First (Ph.D., Geology and Geophysics, 2017) has been selected for the generous 51 Pegasi b Fellowship from the Heising-Simons Foundation. The three-year fellowship provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct research in planetary astronomy and the time and space to establish distinction and leadership in the field.

First will receive $375,000 to support her research at Cornell University to understand the composition of rocky planets across the galaxy by cataloguing and interpreting geological signals.

Viewing a meteorite from Mars under a microscope served as a moment of awe for First, one of her early connections to the wonders of planetary science. With a wide-ranging background in geology, she is well equipped to tackle some of the most intriguing problems in exoplanet research today. From elucidating the history of Earth’s volcanic rocks to probing the origins of Moon rocks, she is an expert at considering minute details within their broader contexts.

“Emily will be generating the calibration set required to take advantage of the enormous data streams that will be arriving from the 2021 James Webb Space Telescope,” said Julia Hammer, SOEST Earth Sciences professor and First’s advisor during her doctoral work at UH Mānoa. “Given her skills in geology, petrology, sample analysis, and numerical modeling, Emily is exceptionally well equipped to characterize sources of variability in the emission spectra of exotic rocks and contribute to our understanding of exoplanets.”

“Pursuing challenges in exoplanet research feels like a natural way to branch out from my background in geology,” said First.

In her fellowship, First will gather diverse rock types from across the solar system that span a range of compositions and textures. After examining each specimen at a microscopic level, she will measure how the rocks absorb and emit light, and synthesize her findings into a robust and accessible dataset. Other planetary scientists will be able to compare this information to light signals from exoplanets to infer more about their compositional properties, and recognize ways these signals could be affected by rock textures and other physical properties. First’s interdisciplinary work will bridge the contributions of two fields, and support future research in determining the material compositions of potentially hundreds of exoplanets.

“It’s energizing to know that the database I’m building has the potential to support countless exoplanet research projects in the years to come,” said First.

More about the Foundation and Fellowship

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California. The Foundation works with its many partners to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.

Established in 2017, the Heising-Simons Foundation 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. The growing field of planetary astronomy studies celestial objects both within and beyond our solar system, bridging planetary science and astronomy. From accelerating understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, to advancing new technologies for detecting Earth-like worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make a unique contribution to the field.

Read the announcement from the Heising-Simons Foundation.