The Heising-Simons Foundation 51 Pegasi b Fellowship in Planetary Astronomy was formed in 2017 to create a community fostering the exchange of ideas and gaining access to senior members of the field, this fellowship provides up to $375,000 of support for independent research over three years, mentorship by an established faculty member, and annual summits to develop networks, support new ideas, and collaborate. Anyone with an interest in planetary astronomy (and who is eligible) is encouraged to apply.

Please note that the Heising-Simons Foundation is very supportive of DEI-related efforts and is thus also particularly interested in supporting and recruiting women and under-represented minority candidates to these prestigious positions.

Current 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellows

Juliana Garcia-Mejia, 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow 2023-2026
Dr. Juliana García-Mejía (hOO – lee – AH – nuh, Gahr – see – ah, meh – HEE – ah) is a combined 51 Pegasi b and MIT Pappalardo postdoctoral fellow. She is broadly interested in developing novel astronomical instrumentation to enable the study of exoplanets, their atmospheres, and their low mass stellar hosts. Juliana is the PI of The Tierras Observatory, a new 1.3-m ultra-precise fully automated photometer located atop Mt. Hopkins, Arizona. Having spent her entire Ph.D. building Tierras, she is currently focused on using the facility to uncover temperate terrestrial planets, search for moons around exoplanets, and study their low mass stellar hosts. Juliana is also pursuing the design of a high throughput, extremely high resolution pathfinder spectrograph to enable narrow-wavelength atmospheric structure and velocity dynamic studies of exoplanets, and to expand cosmochronological and magnetic field studies of stars of varied spectral types. In the future, this instrument could enable the detection of molecular oxygen in a terrestrial exoplanet atmosphere.

Benjamin Rackham, 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow 2019-
Benjamin received his PhD from the University of Arizona in 2018. He was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona before being awarded the 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellowship in Planetary Astronomy. Benjamin brought his fellowship to MIT in the fall of 2019 where he works with Professor Julien de Wit in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and as an MKI-affiliated postdoctoral fellow. He works on the detection and characterization of transiting exoplanets. He is interested primarily in small exoplanets around nearby small stars that afford the best opportunities for detailed atmospheric characterization, including searches for biosignatures with near-future telescopes. Starspots can mimic or mask atmospheric features in transmission spectra, and so Ben’s current work focuses on developing new approaches for constraining stellar photospheric heterogeneity and disentangling stellar and planetary signals in transmission spectra.

Past 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellows

Malena Rice, 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow 2022-2023
Malena Rice is a 51 Pegasi b Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her research focuses on planetary system dynamics. Originally from Simi Valley, California, she earned her Bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from UC Berkeley in 2017 and her M.S. (2020), M.Phil. (2020), and PhD (2022) in Astronomy at Yale University. Outside of her degree work, Malena has also conducted research at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and at the University College London. Malena is passionate about STEM education and accessibility, and she regularly leads both public outreach events and graduate-level teaching workshops. In her free time, she enjoys playing the flute and piano, visiting art galleries, reading, traveling, and spending time outdoors. Malena will be starting as an Assistant Professor in the Yale Astronomy Department in Summer 2023.

 Jason Dittmann, 51 Pegasi b Fellow in Planetary Astronomy 2017-
Jason obtained a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Harvard University in 2016. In 2017 Jason was selected to join the inaugural class of the 51 Pegasi b Fellowship Program in Planetary Astronomy.  Jason brought his fellowship to MIT to work with Professor Sara Seager in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and as an MKI-affiliated postdoctoral fellow. Jason believes that forming a deep understanding of new worlds requires that we first understand their host stars. Through his work, Jason overcomes barriers to understanding nearby stars to better characterize their physical attributes and detect the new worlds orbiting them. His research focuses on small and cool stars, which are the most abundant type in the Milky Way Galaxy and often the best targets when searching for habitable exoplanets. Jason makes use of parallax techniques—applying multiple viewpoints to measure the distances to 1600 nearby stars, and then using these measurements to accurately determine the physical attributes of these stars and of the planets that may orbit them. He found that these small stars are similar in composition to our Sun, lending an important clue to what makes a star likely to have a planetary companion.

Clara Sousa Silva, 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow 2019-2020
Clara came to MIT in 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher to work with Professor Seager in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). She was named a 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow in 2019.  Clara is a quantum astrochemist whose research focuses on exoplanet spectroscopy and its applications to astrobiology. She did her undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of Edinburgh. In 2011 she moved to London and joined the ExoMol project (University College London) as a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Jonathan Tennyson. Clara’s interests lie in the molecular characterization of extra-solar planets and making science a more inclusive world, particularly for girls. Clara’s ultimate goal is to find a habitable planet outside the Solar System by working with a large, inclusive and diverse team of scientists. For her part, Clara wants to understand alien atmospheres by developing a sophisticated understanding of the impact different molecules have on an atmosphere’s spectra. Clara left MIT in October 2020 and is currently a 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard.