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Munazza Alam

College: Macaulay Honors College | Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2017

At Harvard, Researching Exoplanets 6.5 Light Years Away

Munazza Khalida Alam conducts her research of a place in the universe where the word may just be arriving that Mitt Romney is favored to beat pizza magnate Herman Cain to challenge Barack Obama's quest for a second term.

Since Alam's turf is at least 6.5 light years away, it has taken 6.5 years for that 2011 radio news to reach the nearest of the Earthlike exoplanets she studies as they orbit distant stars.

Alam, a graduate of Macaulay Honors College at Hunter in 2016, now is pursuing a doctorate in astronomy at Harvard University, where she analyzes the exoplanets' atmospheres with a 2017 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship worth $138,000.

"We don't know what the atmospheres of these planets will be like. If they are different from Earth's, what would that mean for life there?" she wonders. "We should expect surprises."

One method astronomers use to deduce the existence of exoplanets is measuring minute dips in starlight as they transit, or pass in front of, their host stars. NASA had confirmed 3,475 exoplanets and 581 multiplanet systems as of April 13, 2017; almost 4,500 other detections await confirmation.

How do astronomers learn about their weather? As planets transit their host stars, atoms and molecules in the atmosphere absorb light at different wavelengths, each characteristic of a particular element. And, by observing changes in the apparent radius of a planet at different wavelengths, Alam explains, astronomers can infer atmospheric structure, composition and even the presence of clouds.

Alam will conduct atmospheric studies of exoplanets ranging from super-Earths - larger than our planet - to hot Jupiters - similar in size and mass to our Solar System neighbor, but orbiting closer to their host stars than Earth.

"I'm working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope as part of a team from Harvard, with collaborators across the U.S., the United Kingdom and France," she explains. They study the atmospheres of about 30 exoplanets at different wavelengths: optical, infrared and ultraviolet.

As an undergraduate, Alam used her Macaulay Opportunity Fund to research "failed stars" known as brown dwarfs with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii.

Alam was born in Staten Island to a father from Pakistan and a mother from India, and she chose to study astronomy after Hunter astrophysicist Kelle Cruz invited her to join her research team at the American Museum of Natural History. There she also met Emily Rice of the College of Staten Island and Jackie Faherty, senior scientist and senior education manager at the museum. Cruz and Rice were recently promoted to associate professor.

"My first research experience was in a group led by these three strong women," says Alam, whose name joins theirs on two published papers. "I felt I had a place in science with them."