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Internship Leads to Planet-Hunting Career
Farisa Morales stands next to a Spitzer Space Telescope poster

Name: Farisa Morales
Hometown: Sylmar, Calif.
Job Title: Research Scientist
NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Hobbies/Interests: Teaching astronomy courses at community colleges, rearing two teenagers, Shotokan karate

After her undergraduate physics professor suggested she apply for an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Farisa Morales' career path took an unexpected turn. Working on the Spitzer Space Telescope project sparked an interest in astronomy, and Morales changed her major from mathematics to astrophysics. Now with her Ph.D., she's on the hunt for planets throughout the universe.

Tell us about the NASA projects that you are working on now.

I am working with the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Observatory projects to study distant stars hosting planetary debris disks. As in our solar system, planetary debris disks are home to asteroids and comets, which are remnant planetesimals from when the stars and planets formed billions of years ago. These planetesimals replenish dust around each star by evaporating and colliding with each other, likely due to gravitational interactions with neighboring planets. Thus, studying debris disks glowing in the infrared spectrum is an indirect way to probe the underlying planetary systems and their architecture.

I’m also in search of the planetary companions around nearby stars with evidence of warm dust. For this task, we use the powerful 10-meter Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the 5-meter Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain in California. These telescopes have been adapted with optics that enable us to mask the star’s intense radiation and see the faint infrared light from the orbiting planets around it. This technique is also known as high-contrast imaging. We have a few planet-candidates on hand that we hope to confirm in the next year as we wait to verify their relationship and motion around the parent stars.

And finally, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) project has recently surveyed the whole sky at infrared wavelengths (3.4, 4.6, 12 and 22 microns), identifying warm dust around planet-bearing stars. I am working on assessing the frequency of dust in the terrestrial planet zones around stars for which planets have been seen. This will enable us to further our understanding on the relationships between star-planet-dust debris.

All my efforts point towards investigating planetary systems, their origin and evolution.

What attracted you to a career in astronomy?

While I was attending L.A. Mission College, my physics professor pointed me towards a program called JPLUS (the JPL Undergraduate Scholars program for community college students) and Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, SURF. I did SURF at JPL, while transferring to UCLA as a math major. Being at JPL, where robotic exploration of space is the daily challenge, inspired me to complement my math course load with astronomy classes. Subsequently, I was hired as an academic part-timer at JPL and soon switched from the engineering work I started with to join the Spitzer Space Telescope science team lead by Dr. Michael Werner.

The Spitzer project, for which the telescope would be launching in about a year, had science team meetings where people would talk about the science objectives that Spitzer would achieve once launched, like identifying and characterizing Brown Dwarfs, peeking through gas and dust to find baby stars and planets forming, detecting some of the most distant galaxies at the edge of the observable universe, and characterizing planetary systems, among other goals.

Farisa Morales atop a dormant volcano with large telescopes in the background

Farisa Morales uses the telescopes at the Keck Observatory on top of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii to look for planets throughout the universe. Image Credit: NASA

That got me really excited because I realized that the telescope would soon unveil a universe that had not been seen before at infrared wavelengths.

So I became very motivated to understand what was being discussed and decided to change my major (already a senior!) at UCLA to astrophysics. That was the turning point. I wanted to understand more of the physical universe that would be revealed and get involved if given the opportunity. Both happened: I understood more and got the opportunity to get involved -- thus, the Ph.D. (from the University of Southern California, USC). I feel like I'm helping decipher tiny pieces of a huge cosmic puzzle.

What was the most interesting class that you took in college to prepare for your career?

The astronomy labs were what I most enjoyed. It was an opportunity to put into practice what is learned in theory in classrooms. But I always had an advantage over my peers -- I also had a part-time job at JPL where hands-on experience became invaluable and provided meaning as I made progress through my undergraduate astrophysics program at UCLA.

If you could spend an hour with a person who made a significant contribution to science or astronomy, who would that person be? Why?

Carl Sagan! He had so much knowledge and great intuition about the various branches within astronomy, i.e., galactic and extragalactic astrophysics, cosmology, exobiology, etc. He also had a beautiful personality that enabled him to project the information gracefully to all audiences. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1996, before I became aware of him; I wish I could have met him and conversed with him.

What are the challenges for the future in the field of astronomy?

One of the highest-priority scientific goals is the search for habitable planets outside our solar system. In the last two decades, over 700 extrasolar planets (exoplanets) have been revealed and confirmed, primarily from radial velocity and transit studies, plus over a thousand candidates from the Kepler mission awaiting confirmation. However, nearly all of these planets are in systems very different from our own, with Neptune-size or bigger planets, too large and too close to the host star to be habitable. Most of our immediate challenges are not a lack of ideas on how to detect the smaller, fainter habitable planets but lack of funding to develop the technology -- the next generation of instrumentation and telescopes to improve contrast and resolve the even fainter celestial objects.

What advice do you have for students?

If I can add a piece of advice, it's for young adults in college to do internships! In any field of study, any major, seek internships to get your feet wet and make sure that the field is for you!

Related Resources:
› NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Undergraduate Scholars Program   →
› Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships Program   →
› Spitzer Space Telescope
› Herschel Space Observatory
› Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer
› NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services