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8 min read

Avi Mandell Focuses on Worlds Out of This World

Man fair skin, brown hair and brown and grey facial hair wears a grey shirt and blue blazer. His headshot is in front of an illustration of Saturn  in shades of red, yellow and brown.
Avi Mandell, Research Scientist, NASA Goddard

Name: Avi Mandell
Title: Acting Director of the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration
Formal Job Classification: Research Scientist
Organization: Code 693, Planetary Systems Laboratory, Sciences and Exploration Directorate

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

As acting director of the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration (SEEC), I focus on how we explore planets around other stars, known as exoplanets. What makes exoplanets fascinating to me is that you can think of a planet as a huge combination of layers: geology, atmosphere and hydrological water cycles of water flowing in and around the planet. On top of that, if you have a planet like Earth, you have life. All these layers affect the history and characteristics of how life originates and evolves.

What is your educational background?

I grew up in a small town outside of New York City. I got a dual physics and astronomy degree from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, almost triple-majoring in theater. After graduation, I worked for two years at Yale University as an astronomy research assistant. Then, I went to Penn State University for a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics, taking a year off along the way.

What prompted you to take a year off during graduate school? What did you learn?

After my second year in graduate school, I took a year off to detach and think about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I backpacked through Central and South America, taking buses and sleeping in hostels.

The main thing I learned was that I really loved and missed focusing on intellectual studies that engaged my pursuit of the big questions in life. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Is Earth unique? Are humans unique in the universe?

How did you come to Goddard?

In my fourth year at Penn State in 2005, I came down to work at Goddard on a cooperative grant. I worked with a Goddard scientist, Michael Mumma, who was part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute; we worked on studying the chemistry of planet formation. I did a postdoctorate and became a full-time employee in 2010.

What goes through your mind in looking for life on exoplanets?

When I am looking for life elsewhere, the evolution of our own planet really puts everything in context. I love to soak up as much as I can about the history of Earth, including the geological, biological and sociological factors which together have led to the emergence of the world we see today.

What was the NASA Astrobiology Institute and how has it evolved?

The NASA Astrobiology Institute was NASA’s central program for astrobiology over the last 20 years. The institute included multiple NASA centers plus various American universities. The goal was to break down the traditional stovepipe that was the basis of learning science disciplines.

When you are thinking about the origin and evolution of life, you are really thinking about a planetary-scale problem, so you need to have scientists in geology, physics and chemistry thinking broadly about how their disciplines can collectively inform us about the evolution of life.

In December 2019, the Astrobiology Institute was reorganized into a group of five different research coordination networks, one of which includes our SEEC collaboration – called the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS). The field of astrobiology has changed, and it was time for the NASA program structure to change, too. Twenty years ago, only a very small group of people were focused on this effort to break down disciplinary boundaries. Today, the field has expanded to include many more people across the country and the world. It was time to change the way NASA interacted with the astrobiology community, to make it more inclusive of the many diverse teams involved today.

What is your role with NExSS?

We are really fortunate at Goddard. We have one of the largest collections of scientists anywhere in the world, spanning many different disciplines. As the acting director of SEEC, I am trying to bring Goddard’s scientists together to focus our different skill sets on improving our understanding of planetary processes. Our goal is to understand the environments of exoplanets and to search for life – really, such a small problem!

This is an incredibly exciting time to be thinking about all this because the James Webb Space Telescope is about to launch. Webb will revolutionize our understanding of exoplanet environments. It is an amazing time to be helping our research community together!

What are some of the mission concepts you are excited about?

The Webb telescope is expected to launch in 2021, and it will reveal a million surprises about exoplanets. However, to truly find and search for Earth-like planets around other stars, we need to start thinking about the next generation of observatories designed to characterize exoplanets. I am working on several mission concepts with this in mind, including the next flagship mission beyond the Roman Space Telescope as well as smaller missions dedicated exclusively to exploring the environments of rocky planets.

How are you helping Goddard’s LGBTQ community?

I am a member of the Goddard LGBTQ Advisory Committee. I joined this committee about eight years ago. This was about a year after I became a federal employee, and I was looking for ways to work for protection and recognition of the issues relating to the LGBTQ community. At the time, our LGBTQ co-workers were being denied the same rights as every other member of the federal workforce. This was clearly unfair, and I hoped I could help make a difference.

In May 2020, we started the LGBTQ Ally Initiative with the goal of helping the broader Goddard community understand how to be a better supporter and ally for their LGBTQ colleagues. We organize training and outreach to provide material and support for the center. We also organize events with speakers such as Dr. Cris Mayo, a University of West Virginia professor in LGBTQ issues who kicked off our training series with a fantastic and really direct presentation about the issues affecting the LGBTQ community today.

What are you most proud of about your mentoring efforts?

As part of my effort with SEEC, I helped build a program for research assistants bridging undergraduate to graduate school. It becomes harder and harder each year to achieve the academic record needed to get into graduate school for astrophysics and planetary science, and these hurdles are especially challenging for students who take a winding path on the way to discovering that they love science.

Every year, Goddard brings in four to six postcollege graduate assistants to work with a SEEC scientist and get to know the exoplanet-related research and programs at Goddard. In so doing, they build experience and a network of references to better their chance of getting into a good graduate school.

What amazes me is that since the official beginning of astrobiology in the early 2000s, the interest in astrobiology and the search for life has exploded. It has become an amazing inspiration for students to go into the sciences.

Why are your Jewish heritage and tradition so important to you?

Though I didn’t grow up with much connection to my Jewish heritage and tradition, this changed over the last half-dozen years as we came to know and learn from the local Jewish community. Over the last 10 years, my wife and I have had an amazing chance to study the Jewish traditions, and we’ve adopted a number of aspects of Jewish observance – in particular, the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) is very special to us.

One fascinating connection between the Jewish traditions and my own work is the question of whether humanity is unique as a species that can contemplate its place in the cosmos. The Talmud and other Jewish texts have a number of references that suggest that God created many worlds like ours. This may be a reference to the many worlds of heaven, or to the idea of inhabited planets in our own universe.

One of the important aspects of Jewish tradition for me is that we are asked to look at our purpose in life. My study has deepened both my connection to my work and also to community outside of my work.

What is your “six-word memoir?” A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Searching for meaning, here and beyond.

Banner information: From left to right: Dr. Jonas Salk, scientist who developed the polio vaccine; Dr. Carl Sagan, astronomer and cosmologist; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Astronaut Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, Physicist and U.S. astronaut.

By Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center