by Lori Ann White
In the occasional series, "Where are they now?" we check in with KIPAC alumni: where they are now, how they've fared since their days exploring particle astrophysics and cosmology at the Institute, and how their KIPAC experiences have shaped their journeys.
Next up is Kate Follette, an alumna of Professor Bruce Macintosh's exoplanet group, in which she searched with others for young exoplanets and protoplanetary disks (aka planet nurseries), in large part using data from the Gemini Planetary Imager (GPI). She's now an assistant professor of astronomy at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she teaches astronomy. She also teaches about those exoplanets she's still searching for.
Follow along as Follette talks about discovering the joy (and uses) of math, astronomy vs. the Foreign Service, and "de-twinkling" stars.
LW: Tell us a little bit about your background. Were you always destined for astrophysics, or did you follow a more circuitous path?
KF: I had the usual childhood fantasy of being an astronaut, but honestly it was pretty short-lived relative to many other cool professions (ballerina, paleontologist, veterinarian, marine biologist, president). When I finished high school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a language and political science major and join the Foreign Service after college. In fact, I told my dad that I’d “never take another math or science class” after high school (I was trying to get out of taking the AP Calculus exam at the time, but still). Then I took an Intro Astro course as a freshman just to get a distribution requirement out of the way, and fell in love with the subject.
My love of languages and living abroad never went away, and I ended up double-majoring in physics and Japanese studies during my time as an undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont and lived in Japan for a year after graduation. I’ve never regretted my choice to pursue a career in science though.
LW: How did you decide on KIPAC? Did you have a fellowship of any kind?
KF: I really wanted to do both exoplanet imaging and circumstellar disk imaging and to work on the Gemini Planet Imager specifically. Bruce’s group was the perfect fit for me, so I was thrilled to get the offer to work with him. I was lucky enough to get a Sagan Fellowship after about a year of working with Bruce.
LW: When were you here?
KF: For two years, from January 2015 to December 2016.
LW: Was your work all related to exoplanets?
KF: Yes and no. My graduate work at the Steward Observatory (University of Arizona) was in high-resolution, high-contrast imaging of a particular type of young star called a transitional disk that still has remnant material from the star formation process (a circumstellar disk) and also hosts young planets. High-resolution imaging of the disks often reveals structures that hint at the existence of planets. I kept studying the same type of system at KIPAC, but was able to move a little more into the work of disentangling circumstellar disk signals from potential planetary signals.
I also continued to pursue some educational research on the side. I’ve been interested in numeracy for a long time, particularly the use of general education science courses to help students develop and improve real-world numerical problem solving skills like proportional reasoning and estimation. I developed the Quantitative Reasoning for College Science (QuaRCS) assessment while in graduate school, collected lots of data with it while at KIPAC, and have been continuing expansion of the study and interpretation of the results at Amherst. I still haven’t found the "magic bullet" instructional strategy that will allow us to teach cool science and make our students better consumers, voters, and citizens, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to inform curricular methodologies in Phase 2 of the project.
LW: Can you tell us about your big project while you were here? How much did you work with GPI data?
KF: First, I learned a ton from Bruce Macintosh and it was a real pleasure to work closely with him. I also got to work with various experts on the GPI team and to analyze GPI data in various ways. I did a lot of GPI observing, both on site at Gemini South in Chile and in the Stanford Remote Observing Room. I also got to help with software development, instrument performance analyses, and various science results.
So it's kind of funny that my biggest science result while I was at KIPAC was H-alpha emission from LkCa 15 b, which confirmed its nature as an accreting protoplanet (which Kate wrote about in a KIPAC blog post on the discovery, in April 2016).
The data came from the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and the Magellan II Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The planet itself was originally discovered using the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea.
So no GPI there! But I've worked with plenty of GPI data for other systems, including a paper on a very complex and interesting planet-forming system called HD100546 that used a combination of GPI and Magellan data and was published right after I left KIPAC.
Both GPI and the Magellan II have adaptive optics systems, which improve viewing by compensating for atmospheric disturbances, so I tell people I get my data by "de-twinkling" stars.
LW: What did you learn here that helped you further your career as a scientist?
KF: So much! I learned a whole new field and had my first experiences mentoring undergraduates, refereeing papers, serving on review panels, etc. There were also so many wonderful professional development experiences available at Stanford and in the Bay Area more broadly. I learned a ton about time and stress management, the nature of academia, strategies for equity and inclusion, negotiation techniques, management basics, and probably lots of other things I’m forgetting!
LW: Any closing thoughts about KIPAC? Good memories? Standout experiences?
KF: Well, a few things that come immediately to mind that I miss are: KIPAC tea, swimming at the Stanford pool, sitting outside on the KIPAC patio at lunchtime, and playing board games with Bruce’s group. I also loved the KIPAC Open House, and KIPAC’s commitment to outreach and public engagement.