NASA Sagan Fellowship for DPhil student

Thursday 30 March

Balliol student Ben PopeBen Pope, reading for a DPhil in Astrophysics, has been awarded a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

The Sagan Fellowship ’supports scientists whose research is aligned with NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration program’, which aims ’to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around other stars’. As a Sagan Fellow, Ben will go to New York University to undertake a three-year research project called ‘Finding Planets around Naked-Eye Stars’.

‘The first goal of my research’, Ben explains, ’will be to use NASA’s Kepler and TESS space telescopes to find planets transiting naked-eye stars, which are the best planets to study if you want to understand their atmospheric composition. Only three planets transiting such bright stars are known so far, and discovering even one more would be an important finding. Kepler and TESS were built to study faint stars, and my research has been about digging deeper into the data with statistical algorithms, so that we can push them beyond the limits they were originally designed for. In the long term, I want to take this data-science approach with other missions, finding further planets, studying dark matter, and searching for life.’ You can read more about Ben, his ‘lifelong interest in space’ and his project here.

As Ben finishes his DPhil, he reflects: ‘Balliol has been a wonderfully supportive environment, introducing me to some of my best friends and fondest memories of Oxford. I’m hugely excited to be moving to New York University to live the dream, looking for planets with some of the best astronomers and data scientists in the field.’

The Sagan is one of three main NASA prize fellowships, the other two being the Hubble and the Einstein. Two Balliol people have won Einstein Fellowships: Kevin Schawinski (Henry Skynner Fellow in Astrophysics 2008) and Brooke Simmons (Henry Skynner Junior Research Fellow in Astrophysics 2014-2016).