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Mission Scientist
March 12, 2012

Natalie Batalha

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Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha, mission scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission, always thought she would follow in her parent's footsteps. She attended University of California Berkeley studying business. However, as her interest in science grew, Batalha hoped to merge the two career paths of business and science.

"I remember the exact moment that I decided to enroll in physics. There are certain moments in your life that you never forget. That was one of those moments," Batalha recalled. Batalha believes that college is a place for self-discovery, where a young person finds their true passions. College is the place where Batalha began to understand her love of science and so she took the road less traveled, deviating from studying business.

"I took freshman physics and that just changed everything," Batalha said. "You could explain so many things with math. What impressed me was how ordered the universe is. You can write down a mathematical expression, not only to explain behavior of something but also to predict future behavior. When you internalize that fact, you begin to fully realize the beauty of it. The secrets of the universe are there for us to discover and the key to their discovery is math and geometry. That was amazing to me," Batalha said.

While at Berkeley, Batalha planned to apply for a summer internship at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO). The flyer for the application had been on her desk for months. Batalha procrastinated on applying, nervous that she would not be accepted. However, she was accepted and that internship led to a career in astronomy.

"That was my first experience of doing research," said Batalha. "Up to this point, I didn't understand what it meant to do research; the professor I worked for gave me a challenging problem to solve, and the process of figuring out a solution to the problem was fun. I surprised myself by actually coming up with a creative solution. It made me re-think what I perceived to be my strengths and weaknesses."

Batalha's advisor at WIRO suggested she contact Gibor Basri, a professor at UC Berkeley, when she returned to school. Basri hired her on the spot to work as an undergraduate student researcher. "It was with Gibor that I really experienced the thrill of discovery and began to understand the excitement of the scientific method," said Batalha.

Basri didn't realize he was playing cupid when he moved his new student researcher and his new post-doc, Celso Batalha, into the same office. The couple married within two years, ended up sharing an office for 13 years, and have since published numerous papers together.

Batalha was visiting Basri in 1997 and he was doing work at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Batalha was interested in working in astronomy at Ames and near the end of her first post-doc, she emailed William Borucki, the science principal investigator for the Kepler mission. He interviewed her and added her to the science team.

When the section of the Milky Way was chosen as the area to be studied for the Kepler mission, Batalha was one of the few people who realized that it might not be the optimal place to point the telescope. Her experience working on the Vulcan project, a robotic ground-based telescope at Lick Observatory in San José, Calif. that served as an early testbed for Kepler, gave her the expertise to recognize the benefit of moving slightly above the plane of the Milky Way.

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