The Torres Postdoctoral Fellowships are supported by a generous donation from Juan Carlos Torres ’79, and are awarded through a competitive process for the study of Astrophysics, with a preference for candidates studying exoplanets.

Michelle Kunimoto
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2023-2024
Ph.D., University of British Columbia, 2020
B.Sc., University of British Columbia, 2016

Michelle specializes in exoplanet detection, characterization, and demographics. She is particularly interested in improving automated vetting pipelines for distinguishing planets from false positives, as well as developing new statistical frameworks to estimate exoplanet occurrence rates and constrain planet formation and evolution theory. For her PhD, she developed an independent pipeline to search archival Kepler data for new exoplanets, and estimated occurrence rates including the abundance of potentially habitable planets around Sun-like stars. She came to MIT as a postdoctoral associate working on the TESS mission, where she led MIT’s Quick-Look Pipeline team and discovered thousands of new planet candidates. She also established the TESS Faint Star Search, which has independently found thousands more planet candidates including many of the only giant planets orbiting M dwarfs confirmed so far. Beyond planet detection, her TESS postdoctoral work involved the confirmation and characterization of multiple planetary systems including TOI-4010 and TOI-4599, predictions for the future TESS exoplanet yield, and improved estimates of hot Jupiter occurrence rates around diverse stellar populations.​ Starting in 2024, Michelle will be an Assistant Professor in the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of British Columbia.

Maximilian Guenther
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2018-2021
Ph.D., University of Cambridge, UK
M.S., University of Austin, Texas

At Cambridge, Max worked with Nobel-Laureate Professor Didier Queloz, where his research focused on distinguishing between real exoplanets and things that look like exoplanets, but are not (false positives). As part of the NGTS team, Max helped install telescopes, developed novel algorithms and hunted for Jupiter- and Neptune-sized exoplanets. During his Master’s, Max worked on a research project in the biophysics lab of Professor George Shubeita where he developed a mathematical model to understand Drosophila models of genetic diseases like Alzheimer’s and Fragile X. As a Juan Carlos Torres Fellow at MIT he continued his quest to find Earth-sized exoplanets around small stars and the big question of how stellar flares impact their habitability, working with leading international missions, such as TESS, SPECULOOS, ASTEP and NGTS. In September 2021, Max joined European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) as a European Space Agency (ESA) Research Fellow in the Netherlands. He is now the ESA Exoplanet Project Scientist of the CHEOPS mission.

Xu (Chelsea) Huang
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2017-2021
Ph.D., Princeton University, 2015
B.S.. Peking University, 2010

Before coming to MIT as a Torres Fellow Xu specialized in wide-field photometry and planet detection with ground and space-based data, focusing on studying the population statistics of the planets she discovered, to understand the formation and coevolution of planetary systems with a diverse composition. Chelsea was also the Dunlap/CPS fellow at the University of Toronto in 2016. She has a broad range of research interests, and has developed many tools to achieve state-of-the-art photometry precision and detection of transiting planets from ground- (HATNet) and space- (Kepler/K2) based transit survey data. Chelsea has developed software to characterize gravity-darkening and oblateness signals in the Kepler light curves, and was a key contributor to revise the age of Hyades using stellar Isochron taken into account rotational effect. She is particularly interested in the relation between giant planets and small planets. She identified Warm Jupiter as a unique population of giant planets that coexist with super Earth companions. Leading the Full Frame Image data analysis of TESS at MIT, Chelsea was a core member of the Science Office team contributing to the TESS mission’s full frame image photometry, planet detection and data validation pipeline, where she discovered more than 2,000 planetary candidates.  She was also a Dunlap and CPS fellow at the University of Toronto in 2016. Xu is now an ARC DECRA fellow and a Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland.

Jennifer Burt
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2016-2019

Ph.D., University of California Santa Cruz, 2016
M.S., University of California Santa Cruz, 2013
B.A., Cornell University, 2010

Jennifer works on the detection and characterization of low mass exoplanets using ground-based precision radial velocity (PRV) facilities. During her PhD at UC Santa Cruz she helped commission and automate the Automated Planet Finder (APF) telescope – a 2.4m PRV facility located in the hills above San Jose. Once the telescope was operational, she led some of the APF’s first science results — including the detection of a new planet orbiting the nearby M dwarf GJ 687. She came to MIT on a postdoctoral assignment as a PRV follow-up specialist for the small planets discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Using the Planet Finder Spectrograph on the Magellan Clay telescope in Chile, Jennifer confirmed the existence of planets such as TOI-824 b and TOI-1231 b and measured their masses and bulk densities. As a JPL postdoc she helped lead the Extreme Precision RV working group, and expanded her PRV work to include additional, redder, RV spectrographs such as the Palomar RV Instrument (PARVI). And now as a JPL scientist at CalTech she’s working with the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office to support the development of Extreme Precision RV science capabilities in the 2020s as we work towards detecting Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars.

Sarah Ballard
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2015-2019
Ph.D., Harvard University, 2012
B.Sc., UC Berkeley, 2007

After graduating from Harvard, Sarah moved to the University of Washington as a NASA Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow. Sarah was also a L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellow in 2015. Her research interests include the detection and study of extrasolar planets with near-infrared and optical photometry, formation of planets, characterization of exoplanetary host stars, and photometric techniques. While at MIT, Sarah was a collaborator with TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), an MIT-led NASA mission, and continues as a TSO vetter for MIT TESS. Sarah is currently assistant professor of Astronomy at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Zachory Berta-Thompson
Torres Postdoctoral Fellow for Exoplanet Research 2013-2016
Ph.D., Harvard University, 2008-2013
A.B., Princeton University, 2003-2007

Zach observes exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. He focuses on exoplanets intermediate in size between the Earth and Neptune to understand the composition, evolution, and origins of these strange planets that do not exist in our own solar system. Zach uses small telescopes to discover transiting exoplanets and large telescopes to study their atmospheres. His work makes practical advances toward the long-term goal of searching for life around other stars. While at MIT, Zach was a collaborator with TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), an MIT-led NASA mission and a core member of the MIT TESS science team. Zach is currently a professor of physics in the Department of Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.