Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. Her
science research focuses on theory, computation, and data analysis of
exoplanets. Her research has introduced many new ideas to the field of
exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first
detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. Professor Seager's space
instrumentation group is focusing on "ExoplanetSat", a 3U CubeSat capable of high precision
pointing, with the science goal of detecting small transiting
exoplanets orbiting bright, sun-like stars. The prototype is intended
to be the first of a planned fleet of nanosatellites, aimed to
demonstrate the graduated growth of a constellation as a new paradigm
for space science missions. In addition to being the PI of
ExoplanetSat, Professor Seager is co-leading CommCube, a platform to
demonstrate novel small satellite space communication technology, and
is involved in the MIT-Harvard REXIS instrument on NASA's OSIRIS-REx
asteroid sample return mission.
Before joining MIT in 2007, Professor Seager spent four years on the
senior research staff at the Carnegie Institution of Washington
preceded by three years at the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton, NJ. Her PhD is from Harvard University. Professor Seager is
on the advisory board for Planetary Resources and the Rosalind
Franklin Society. Professor Seager is the 2012 recipient of the the
Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences, the 2007
recipient of the American Astronomical s Helen B. Warner Prize and is
an AAAS Fellow. She has been recognized in the media by Popular
Science Magazine's Fifth Annual Brilliant Ten in 2006, Discover
Magazine's "Best 20 under 40" in 2008, Nature's Top Ten in 2011, and
Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012.
Professor Sara Seager was born and grew up in Toronto, Canada. Among her first memories is a trip to a “star party” with her father, to see the moon through a telescope—spectacular! Professor Seager graduated from Jarvis Collegiate Institute, a 200-year old public high school known for its science education. During high school she was astounded to learn that one could be an astrophysicist for a living, only to be deterred by her father, who believed the best career was as a doctor or lawyer.
Professor Seager entered the University of Toronto with the idealistic view that anything and everything could be described by a physics equation. She soon learned, that, in reality, approximations are not only rampant but necessary. This realization motivated Professor Seager to eventually leave pure physics to pursue her “first love” astronomy. After graduating with a BSc in the Math and Physics Specialist Program at the University of Toronto, Seager attended the PhD program in Astronomy at Harvard .
While at Harvard, in the mid-1990s, the first reports of exoplanets around sun-like stars begain appearing. Encouraged by her PhD supervisor, Dimitar Sasselov, Seager studied the atmospheres of these so-called hot Jupiter planets. At the time, many scientists were skeptical of the new planets, preferring to believe they were the result of a different phenomenon, such as star variability. Others thought the claims made in Seager’s thesis would never be substantiated. But exoplanets kept turning up and Seager’s early work was eventually validated.
After earning a PhD from Harvard in 1999, Professor Seager joined the cadre of postdoctoral fellows at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. There, she benefited enormously from the mentorship of the late John Bahcall. Unlike most scientists at the time, John Bahcall supported Seager’s new ideas in exoplanets with almost unbounded enthusiasm, as long as the underlying physics was sound and the phenomenon was detectable some day in Seager’s lifetime. Bahcall’s support enabled Seager to initiate several new topics in exoplanet characterization.
Professor Seager’s research now focuses on theoretical models of atmospheres and interiors of all kinds of exoplanets. Her research has introduced many new ideas to the field of exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. She was part of a team that co-discovered the first detection of light emitted from an exoplanet and the first spectrum of an exoplanet.
The exceedingly surprising diversity of exoplanets has led Seager’s maxim, “For exoplanets, anything is possible under the laws of physics and chemistry.”
Professor Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. She lives with her two sons in Massachusetts.