Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2016

Eliza Kempton

Assistant Professor of Physics, Grinnell College

Atmospheric Structure and Emission Spectrum Calculations for Extrasolar Super-Earths: Looking Toward JWST and Beyond

At last count astronomers had discovered more than a thousand exoplanets orbiting 440 stars, and one of the best ways to learn more about these worlds is by making challenging observations of their atmospheres.

Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics at Grinnell College, is working to develop advanced computer programs to model how exoplanet atmospheric temperatures vary as a function of altitudes, as well as details about the chemical composition of these atmospheres.

She intends to apply these computational tools to speed the investigation of a diverse set of so-called “super-Earths” that have not previously been studied in detail. A super-Earth is an exoplanet with a higher mass than Earth’s, but still smaller than a chilly gas giant like Uranus or Neptune. Some of these exoplanets have been found within their stars’ “habitable zones,” that is, in orbits which are thought to be possibly conducive to life.

Kempton hopes to develop her computer tools in time to use them on the wealth of data expected from the James Webb Space telescope, which will launch in 2018, as well as several ground-based, extremely large telescopes currently in planning or under construction. By developing these tools, she hopes to greatly accelerate our understanding of other worlds.

For the education component of the Cottrell Scholar Award, Kempton will develop two programs aimed at improving diversity among STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors at Grinnell College.

“The first is a spatial reasoning course for students with a low level of STEM preparation,” she said, “and the second is a peer mentoring program for STEM students from traditionally underrepresented groups. Kempton is hoping this two-pronged approach will address key issues of preparedness and community building for first-year science students.

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