Meet Our Scientists - Elisa Quintana

Elisa QuintanaElisa Quintana in front of the Hyperwall at NASA Ames. Image credit Seth Shostak

Elisa Quintana is a Research Scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center where she works on the Kepler Mission to help search for and characterize extrasolar planets. Most recently, she led a team of astronomers to confirm Kepler-186f, the first Earth-sized planet found to orbit within the habitable zone of another star.  Her research also includes creating computer models to study the formation, dynamical stability and habitability of rocky planets within and beyond our solar system.

A Q & A with Elisa Quintana

artist conceptHow long have you been working on the Kepler Mission?
I joined the SETI Institute in 2006 to work on Kepler, several years before the spacecraft was launched into space. I came to NASA Ames in 1999 as a graduate student to work on the Vulcan Camera project, a ground-based exoplanet search program at Lick Observatory which was a precursor to the Kepler mission, and I’ve been at NASA Ames ever since.  I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed all of the stages of Kepler, including the early technology demonstrations, the selection as a NASA Discovery Mission in 2001, the launch at Kennedy Space Flight Center in 2009 and the many exciting discoveries since then! 

Describe your role in the Kepler Mission.
For the past few years I’ve been working on modeling the thousands of Kepler's “Objects of Interest” (KOIs), helping to determine which KOIs are good planet candidates by refining the star/planet parameters, and working towards confirming and characterizing some of the more interesting and promising planet candidates. I’ve also remained active in planet formation research, and it’s much more fun now to develop models when you have observations to constrain your theories (we now have hundeds of exosolar systems, whereas a decade ago we just had one, our own solar system). It’s also fun to see new discoveries test your previous theories.  Exoplanet science is a fast-moving field, and perfect for my attention span.

If we were going to observe you at work, what would we see?
You would see me typing away on my laptop (not very interesting!).  For many years I worked in a cubicle, but a few years ago I graduated to an office with a window that faces the Moffett Field landing strip.  I get to see all sorts of planes and jets take off and land, including Air Force One sometimes! When I’m not staring out the window, I’m either programming or working on a manuscript.

Professionally, what are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
I enjoy collaborating with scientists around the globe. Everyone has their own specialties, so I find it very rewarding when a project comes to completion, seeing all of the pieces come together -- all of the Kepler discoveries are truly a large team effort.  I also enjoy traveling to conferences to present my work and build new collaborations.

What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
Finding a job in the field (Astrophysics) that I spent thirteen years in school, and another decade afterwards, preparing for.  I would love to continue my research with SETI, but it will always depend on winning very competitive grants every few years. There are definitely sacrifices you have to make in order to do the work that you love to do.

How can the Kepler data impact future space missions?
One of Kepler’s goals is to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of other stars. The discovery of Kepler-186f is a major step towards this goal and also proves that these types of planets exist around M dwarfs, the most abundant type of star.  Discoveries like Kepler-186f motivate further research on these types of planets. NASA’s James Webb telescope (a successor to Hubble) will have the potential to probe the atmospheres of nearby planets around M dwarfs looking for biomarkers, which are essentially elements that could only be attributed to life on that planet. To prepare for this mission, we should try to learn everything we can about planets orbiting red dwarfs, and knowing that they actually exist helps to justify this.

Kepler186f artist concept
An artist’s concept depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone—a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth. (Download full size image) Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyl

What first sparked your interest in science and astronomy in particular?
I was a late bloomer.  I wasn’t one of those people who looked up at the sky when they were five and knew they wanted to be an astronaut.  It wasn’t until college when I started to realize that I sort of enjoyed math and physics.  I went to a Junior college after high school and during this time I still had no idea what I wanted to do.  Once I decided to pursue physics, I transferred to UC, San Diego and my advisor was Sally Ride.  That was my first NASA stint, I worked at the California Space Institute on Sally Ride’s pet project KidSat (now EarthKam), which was a camera onboard the space shuttle that took photos of Earth, the locations of which were selected by school kids.  From that time on, I’ve always been affiliated with some sort of NASA project.

What motivates you?
Knowing that it’s very possible that we - mankind - might discover life beyond planet Earth in the next few decades. Either with SETI monitoring other stars to detect engineered signals coming from other advanced civilizations, small satellites searching for life in the moons of our solar system, or with future space missions searching for biomarkers in the atmospheres of exoplanets. It’s all very exciting science, and given that mankind has been pondering whether life on Earth is unique for thousands of years, we’re all very fortunate to live in this generation where we are close to solving the question of "Are We Alone?”.

What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to be a ballerina or a drummer (and I secretly still want to be both).

If you were speaking to a group of teens about your career, what would you tell them?
That its never too late to pursue your passion, no matter how well you’ve done in the past.  Of course, doing well in school makes things much easier, but you shouldn’t let any past performance or time lag deter you. It’s ok to take lots of time to decide what you want to do, but once you decide, just go for it full force.

Who do you admire and why?
I admire the visionaries that made Kepler what it is today. Bill Borucki wrote a paper in 1984 on the photometric technique to detect exoplanets, and worked for 30 years to get the satellite in space and data down to Earth. Several others, including SETI’s CEO David Black, were part of that movement. People like myself happen to be at NASA at the right time and get to cherry pick through the goldmine that is Kepler data. I would love to be able to work on something in the near future that would one day provide revolutionary data for the next generation of scientists.

What is your favorite vacation destination?
My family lives in San Diego so I visit quite often. It always feels like a vacation since all we do is swim, barbeque and watch Chargers football.  On my wishlist is a trip to the Greek Islands. I went to a conference years ago in Santorini, Greece. I loved the country, the food the culture, and I can’t wait to go back. Maybe I will retire there one day.

How do you spend your free time?
Working on science papers or exploring San Francisco. For a city that is 7 miles by 7 miles, it never gets old, ever.

What is the coolest thing about your job?
Witnessing the discoveries!  My thesis from 2004 was on “planet formation in binary star systems”, so of course I was thrilled when Kepler started detecting circumbinary planets.  In 2007 I did some theoretical work on planet formation around M dwarfs, and here we are finding small planets around M dwarfs.  We knew these types of “extreme solar systems” had to exist, but to see and participate in some of these discoveries has been a bit surreal!

Then there are days that are just fun.  While working on the Kepler-186 system, we were lucky to have some wonderful artists create some illustrations for the system.  There was one day where I was doing research on what these planets around M dwarfs might look like (to provide some guidance to the artists), and I just thought to myself, I can’t believe that my job is to sit at my desk and imagine what other worlds might look like.  Of course some days are tougher than others, but its times like that where I feel really fortunate to be able to work for SETI and NASA.

If you had a one-year sabbatical to learn something entirely new, what would it be?
I never thought I’d say this, but I’d love to learn more biology.  To me, adding the “Astro” in front of biology makes it much more interesting. I would love to learn Astrobiology so I could help understand how we might be able to detect life on other moons or planets. There are people that work on studying whether plant photosynthesis could occur on other planets (for example, under the infrared radiation from red dwarfs). Mapping everything we know about life on Earth to what would happen on planets around other types of stars sounds like fun.  

What's in store for you in the future?
I love doing pure research. Now that we have so many exoplanetary systems to study and so much more data to explore, I look forward every day to solving some of the puzzles that will help us understand how Earth-like planets form, and what makes a planet habitable.