MacArthur Fellows Program

MacArthur Fellows / Meet the Class of 2013

Sara Seager

Astrophysicist

Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, MA

Age: 42

Published September 25, 2013

Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist exploring the possibility of life throughout the galaxy. Adapting the principles of existing planetary science to the study of exoplanets (planets outside the solar system), she is quickly advancing a subfield initially viewed with skepticism by the scientific community. A mere hypothesis until the mid-1990s, nearly 900 exoplanets in more than 600 planetary systems have since been identified, with thousands of more planet candidates known.

Early in her career, Seager determined that the nature of an exoplanet’s atmosphere could be observed during an eclipse, when the planet’s atmospheric light spectrum is especially distinct from its much brighter host star. She then envisioned and formalized a comprehensive framework for guiding and interpreting observations of planets in this manner, including parameters for calculating planet density and remotely detecting biosignature gases (spectroscopic signatures of chemical compounds that are indicative of life) in their atmospheric spectra. Her early predictions led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope.

While continuing to create and refine theoretical models of exoplanet atmospheres and interiors, she is also spearheading advanced hardware design and space mission projects, including ExoplanetSat, a university collaboration to build low-cost “nano-satellites” to observe planetary transits. ExoplanetSat is a new concept for space science: a fleet of dozens of cheap copies of an ultra-small space telescope that will open up a new avenue for wide-ranging space exploration. A visionary scientist contributing importantly in every aspect of her field, Seager is finding new celestial frontiers and fueling curiosity about life in worlds beyond our reach.

Sara Seager received a B.Sc. (1994) from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. (1999) from Harvard University. She was affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study (1999–2002) and the Carnegie Institution of Washington (2002–2006) before joining the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is Class of 1941 Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Physics. She is the author of Exoplanet Atmospheres and Exoplanets (both 2010).

Photos

Hi-res photos for download. Photos licensed under a Creative Commons license. Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Right-click on the links below to save the file to your computer.

Sara Seager In the Media

"Are We Alone: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrials" thumbnail

"Are We Alone: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrials"

The McGill Daily
Sara Seager, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
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"An Astrophysicist in Search of E.T." thumbnail

"An Astrophysicist in Search of E.T."

The Wall Street Journal
Sara Seager, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
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"House Panel Ponders Extraterrestrial Life" thumbnail

"House Panel Ponders Extraterrestrial Life"

The Washington Post
Sara Seager, 2013 MacArthur Fellow
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Searching for Earth 2.0 thumbnail

Searching for Earth 2.0

NPR
Sara Seager 2013 MacArthur Fellow
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"The Feministing Five: Sara Seager" thumbnail

"The Feministing Five: Sara Seager"

Feministing
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About the Fellows Program

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Learn More

Khaled Mattawa, Translator and Poet

Class of 2014

24 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All:  Meet the 2013 MacArthur Fellows thumbnail

24 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All: Meet the 2013 MacArthur Fellows

“This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity.” -- Cecilia Conrad, Vice President, MacArthur Fellows program Read More