MKI's Sara Seager Wins MacArthur "Genius Grant"

(Adapted from a press release issued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

September 25, 2013

MIT Kavli Institute (MKI) for Astrophysics and Space Research astrophysicist Sara Seager was among 24 recipients nationwide of 2013 MacArthur Fellowships, sometimes referred to as “genius grants.”

The fellowships, awarded annually, carry a five-year, $625,000 prize, which recipients are free to use as they see fit. Including today’s winners, 19 MIT faculty members, and three staff members at the Institute, have won MacArthur Fellowships, which were established in 1981.

Seager, who is the Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science, is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist who has explored the possibility of life elsewhere in the galaxy. Specifically, she has adapted the principles of planetary science to the study of exoplanets — planets outside our own solar system.

The MacArthur Foundation cited Seager, 42, for “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.”

Seager found out about the award a few weeks ago via a phone call, although the MacArthur Foundation had to try twice to deliver the good news.

“The first call did not get through because, as the Foundation put it, my ‘very professional and protective assistant’ screens my calls for anything unusual, as I try to avoid calls about UFOs and aliens,” Seager recalls. “This one sounded like a UFO call at first.”

The award, she says, represents the enormous support she’s received from friends and colleagues throughout her career.

“So many people in my professional life and personal life believe in me, and that I can accomplish my very most ambitious dreams,” Seager says. “I did not fully appreciate this until the MacArthur Award.”

Seager adds that she is looking forward to the freedom that the fellowship provides — both for her research and her family life.

“As a single (widowed) mother, I will use all of the grant money on the home front, so my own brain can be free to think creatively, and I can preserve quality time with my children,” Seager says.

Seager joined the MIT faculty in 2006, following appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the Carnegie Institute of Washington. She is the author of “Exoplanet Atmospheres” and “Exoplanets,” both published in 2010.

Astrophysics

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