Courtesy of Giri Vishwanathan

Malena Rice GRD ’22 has spent her academic career as an astronomer gazing into the farthest expanses of the solar system. Now, her research on the distant solar system has earned her a prestigious postgraduate fellowship, counting her among eight of the nation’s most promising early-career astronomy researchers.

This year, Rice was named a 51 Pegasi b Fellow by the Heising-Simons Foundation, which awarded her a three-year grant of up to $385,000 to pursue postgraduate research in planetary astronomy. Eight recent doctorates from across the country were awarded the prestigious fellowship. Rice plans on using the fellowship’s funds to research the distant solar system as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.

“This really is my dream job,” Rice said. “I’d be working with a really incredible group of people. It’s just an amazing team that is so multifaceted and so talented. And [the fellowship]  allows me the flexibility to basically just do whatever research I want to do. It’s with a really fantastic group doing the research that I’m most excited about, so I really could not be happier about it.”

Rice, who defended her dissertation in February, will be starting her fellowship in June working with the team of George Ricker, a senior research scientist at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. The research that she aspires to do expands on part of her dissertation work, investigating the distant solar system and unexplored objects within it. 

Rice notes that the farthest parts of the solar system she hopes to research are the “least well understood.” Many objects in the outer solar system are relatively unexplored: Since they don’t emit light, those bodies are only detected with reflected light from the sun, which can be difficult given the distance that sunlight must travel to reach those objects and reflect back to Earth.

“The goal of this research is to better understand those populations to understand what they can tell us about planetary system formation more broadly, how our solar system fits into a broader context of all planetary systems and what our place is in the universe,” Rice said.

According to Greg Laughlin, a professor of astronomy at Yale and Rice’s dissertation advisor, Rice’s work connects detailed observations of “small bodies” in our own Solar System to larger conclusions regarding the “formation and evolution of planetary systems orbiting other stars.” 

“With Malena’s work, we’re gaining profound improvements in our understanding of how the familiar objects in our Solar System are placed within the entire galactic census of planetary systems,” Laughlin wrote to the News. “This in turn gives us a sense of Earth’s uniqueness that cannot be obtained in any other way.”

According to Sarbani Basu, a professor of astronomy and chair of the astronomy department, Rice’s work has spanned other research in planetary sciences as well. She’s been involved in ways to discover the purported Planet IX — a hypothetical ninth planet in the outer solar system — among other undiscovered solar system objects. 

Rice has also conducted research about the formation of exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars outside of the solar system. She’s investigated how hot Jupiters, or Jupiter-sized planets that orbit close to a host star, are formed and has explored methods of applying machine learning techniques to characterize exoplanet hosts.

During her fellowship, Rice plans to analyze data collected from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, a space mission designed to collect information about exoplanets. While Rice will be utilizing the dataset to research solar systems, she notes that others around her will be exploring other topics using the same data. 

“I think it’ll be really great to be working with people who are looking at the same data for completely different purposes,” Rice said. “Because that is a really wonderful playground for creativity, to just have lots of people thinking about the same thing in very different ways.”

Rice is also eager to take advantage of the flexible nature of the fellowship. She noted that while many postdoctoral positions hire researchers for specific tasks, limiting the ability of researchers to pursue creative interests, the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship allows fellows to “follow [their] instincts and [their] interest in science to [their] heart’s content.” Rice says that she looks forward to using that flexibility to approach her own research on solar systems and exoplanets in a multifaceted way. 

According to Basu, Yale has hosted two postdoctoral researchers through the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship before: Songhu Wang, a member of the inaugural 51 Pegasi b cohort who is now a faculty member at Indiana University, and Rachael Roettenbacher, who chose to remain at Yale after her fellowship. This year, another graduating student, Joel Ong GRD ’22, received the Sagan Fellowship, a different postdoctoral astronomy fellowship.

Laughlin noted that the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is considered to be the most prestigious opportunity for scientists setting out on a career in the astronomy of extrasolar planets. Basu agreed, noting that “it means a lot to get either of these fellowships.” 

“This is the first time that one of our graduating students has received [the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship], so it means a lot to our exoplanet effort,” Basu wrote to the News. “It means a great deal for our program, which is smaller than that of our peer institutions, to have two of our graduating students get prestigious postdoc offers.”

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship was established in 2017 and is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. 

GIRI VISWANATHAN