Prof. Sara Seager is a professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also holds professorships in the departments of Physics and Aeronautics & Astronautics. Her research is in the fields of planetary science and astrophysics and focuses on the search for habitable exoplanets by detecting certain “biosignature” gases in planets’ atmospheres. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to interview Prof. Seager and was incredibly inspired by her insight and advice.
I noticed that you started pursuing astronomy research after completing bachelor’s degrees in math and physics. Why did you choose to do research, and why astronomy? More generally, what’s your favourite part of your research?
I always loved the stars and always watched the moon phases. When I realized astronomy could be a career I had to think about it for a long time because it is so seemingly impractical. But I decided to “follow my heart”. My favorite part of research is to ask my own questions about the Universe and find my own answers. I also love computer programming.
You started working on exoplanet research back when many people doubted its legitimacy. What motivated you to research exoplanets, and how did you deal with public skepticism?
What motivated me to work on exoplanets is the adventure of exploring something new. At the time I ignored the skeptics. I’ve had people tell me I couldn’t do things before and I ignored them then as well. Also, I wasn’t 100% sure I would stay in astronomy research after graduate school, so I had nothing to lose.
Many people think astronomy and astrophysics deal with ideas very far from real life. I’m also passionate about astrophysics, and I’ve been asked multiple times by my parents and friends why something so far from everyday life is important. How would you answer these questions?
The bottom line is there is no way to explain it. My grandfather told me if I was going to be a scientist it should be a geneticist—something practical. However, I do have some canned answers for when I get this question.
One of my canned answers involves reflecting on the purpose and past impacts of pure research. Huge advancing discoveries are almost always serendipitous and come after huge investments in seemingly random pure science. GPS navigation is one many people can relate to. Ask those people if they’d like to live without GPS. The people fooling around with rockets decades ago, didn’t do so to create GPS for us, but their experiments led to GPS in a roundabout way. Lasers for non-invasive medical surgery is another example of physics research that decades later is something we can’t live without. There are so many other examples.
Another answer I give is: should an advanced society appreciate great art and music? Scientific exploration could be included in this category.
I also tell people that exoplanets and astronomy are accessible to all, and encourage young people to go into STEM fields. Young people who are interested in astronomy don’t all go into astronomy, and even those that do often work in other sectors. For example, space defense is a multi billion dollar industry and key for many countries. People with astronomy PhDs can go into that field.
As an astrophysicist, you study objects hundreds of light years away and are arguably one of the people most acquainted with the true scale of the universe. How has your research affected your view on everyday life?
It definitely gives perspective.
I’m sure you’ve encountered countless difficulties while doing research. What was the most difficult thing that you encountered during research, and how did you overcome it?
It’s the long haul. In high school and college you work for week-to-week deadlines, but in research, investing in something can take years or decades. I think staying the course and developing a good strategy is the most difficult thing.
Being a scientist is definitely a stressful job. What do you usually do to unwind – what are your hobbies outside of research?
Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve started hiking with my teenage boys. Last week we did a 10 mile 4200 feet elevation gain hike in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Apart from hiking, I also like reading fiction.
What do you think are the key character traits of good scientists?
Integrity is so important. So is curiosity and persistence.
What advice do you have for students interested in going into science?
Get a peer group for support. Listen to your own inner voice and not to what others say. Work hard. Find something you love doing that you are also good at!