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Imagine the Universe!

Profile: Dr. Aki Roberge

Have you ever thought it would be fun to look for new planets around distant stars? Dr. Aki Roberge is lucky enough to do just that.

Of course, the harder you look, the "luckier" you get.


Her father was an American studying pottery in Japan when he met her mother, and Aki was born in beautiful Kyoto. But she was just three months old when her family moved to the US. She grew up in the small village of East Topsham, Vermont, which consisted of a few farms and about 30 homes.

Growing up in this rural area had its pluses and minuses. Aki was free to wander around the area by herself in a safe, healthy and beautiful environment. But she wandered alone most of the time. She is an only child, and there weren't many other kids her age nearby.

Throughout her childhood, Aki knew she wanted to be a scientist, with no particular specialty in mind. But in high school, she began to consider several real possibilities. "When I took biology, I decided that's what I wanted to study. Then the next year I took chemistry, and decided that's what I really wanted to do. Then I took physics, and that sealed the deal."

Aki went on to receive a bachelor's degree in Physics from MIT in 1996 and a PhD in Astrophysics from Johns Hopkins University in 2002. She believes that her love of science fiction is what led her into astronomy - and later, not surprisingly, into the study of extrasolar planets.

Right after college, Aki was "lucky" enough to earn a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The Search Begins

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that astronomers first discovered both planets and newly-forming planetary systems around nearby stars. Aki was very interested in contributing to this exciting new field, so when her PhD thesis adviser at Hopkins offered her the chance, she jumped at it. Her thesis presented her studies of the gas content of planet-forming disks around neighboring young stars.

Aki is wonderfully enthusiastic about her work and especially enjoys working on a class of objects that science is only beginning to study.

Current Work

brown dwarf
This artist's concept shows a brown dwarf surrounded by a swirling disk of planet-building dust.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A distant solar system
This artist's concept depicts a distant hypothetical solar system, similar in age to our own. Looking inward from the system's outer fringes, a ring of dusty debris can be seen, and within it, planets circling a star the size of our Sun. This debris is all that remains of the planet-forming disk from which the planets evolved.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

After the Carnegie Institution fellowship, Goddard Space Flight Center beckoned her with the opportunity to become part of the NASA postdoctoral program. It offered almost complete freedom to work on whatever interested her. She chose to extend her previous research by searching for new disks and studying the dust in them. (In case you were wondering, gas consists of atoms and molecules, while dust is made of grains and aggregates of molecules.)

The study of newly-forming planetary systems fascinates Aki for at least two reasons:

  • It provides a window into processes that formed our own Solar System, something we currently know little about. Observations of these processes in other systems - while they are occurring - have already yielded insights. This method is clearly more useful than trying to reason backward from the current state of our Solar System.
  • It also helps us gain understanding of planet formation as a general process, including how easily, and under what conditions, planetary systems form. It will also assist us with developing explanations for the variety in stellar systems ("solar systems" around other stars) that we have already seen. Ultimately, we hope to answer long-standing questions like "Is our Solar System common or rare?", "Is the Earth unusual or typical?" and "What kinds of planets exist?"

Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that can detect small amounts of dust around nearby stars, Aki is currently (in 2007) finishing up a search for new planet-forming disks.

You can read about her recent work on the discovery of abundant amounts of carbon gas in a dusty disk on her Featured Image page.

Typical Day

Like most scientists, Aki spends a lot of time in front of her computer. It may look like she's not going anywhere, but in reality she is traveling around the scientific universe. Sitting at her desk, Aki may be analyzing data from a space-based telescope, and then working from data collected by a telescope in the Andes. Later she might search the web and read papers written by scientists from all over the world. Aki is genuinely energized by the variety and intellectual challenge of her activities.

The Best Part of Being a Scientist

There are several reasons why Aki likes being a scientist. One major advantage is that it allows her to direct her own efforts. She also likes the day-to-day problem solving. But perhaps the best reason is the opportunity to contribute to the extraordinary long-term goals of her profession: investigating the Universe and increasing the sum of our knowledge. In general, while being an astronomer is hard work, Aki enjoys it so much that it rarely feels that way.

Other Interests

Aki's primary creative outlet is cooking, and gardening is another favorite pastime. She enjoys doing both even more when she is with her husband.

Questions and Answers

You mention that you love science fiction. Do you have a favorite book or movie?

I suppose my single favorite book(s) is the Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, although that technically counts as fantasy, not sci-fi. I've read the Lord of the Rings approximately once per year since I was about 8 or 9, and my Dad read it to me before that. My favorite straight sci-fi book(s) is probably The Hyperion Series by Dan Simmons.

My favorite sci-fi movie is probably Serenity, mostly because I simply loved the TV series that it's based on (Firefly). It's the best sci-fi TV show ever; too bad they only made one season.

Did you have a telescope as a child?

Actually, I didn't, despite the fact that night sky in Vermont is quite dark. There are some real disadvantages to star gazing where I grew up. One, the family house is in a steep river valley, and the surrounding hills block a lot of the sky. Two, it's really cold outside for much of year (even in summer, it's cool at night in our valley).

Like many professional astronomers, I don't actually know the night sky very well. People are always asking me about constellations, but I can only recognize a couple. As I usually say, the stars have always looked better inside my head (i.e. in my imagination).

If time travel were possible, when and where would you visit, and why?

Minoan Vase

I would visit the palace of Knossos on Crete during its heyday, sometime between 2000 BCE and 1600 BCE. The palace of Knossos was built by the Minoans, who had a very advanced and interesting civilization, long before the classical Greece of Socrates and Aristotle. The remains of their settlements on Crete suggest that they had a surprisingly peaceful society, not nearly as warlike as the later classical Greeks. Their art is wonderfully naturalistic and exuberant. And women seem to have played a prominent role in their society, at least in their religion. I would like to go there to see if our suppositions are true. (Left: Aki's photo of a Minoan octopus vase taken on her honeymoon in Crete in 2006.)

As a scientist, you must be in contact with people from all over the world. What is the most unusual question or comment you have ever gotten?

Well, one of my favorites was a cab driver who had a theory about why the sky is blue. His theory was that oxygen is actually slightly blue, which is a reasonable theory - but it's not true. I've seen tubes containing pure oxygen, and it's completely clear to the eye. The sky is blue because the atmosphere scatters blue sunlight more than it scatters red sunlight. But I couldn't really prove it to him while riding in the back of his cab.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Maybe an archaeologist. I've been interested in the history and literature of ancient Greece and Rome since I was little. But archeology is basically a science too, so I guess that doesn't count. Really, I've never wanted to be anything but a scientist all my life.

If you could invite three people from throughout history to your house for dinner, who would you invite and why?

Abraham Lincoln

I would invite Abraham Lincoln (right). I admire him tremendously; he was a great humanist and also a savvy political thinker. I would like to see what he would think of the changes in American society since the Civil War.

Ulysses S. Grant

To keep him company, I would invite Ulysses S. Grant (left). I like him a lot; his memoir is one of the best military memoirs ever written. And he had a kind of dry humor and practicality that I love. It reminds me of the old Vermonters who were still around when I was growing up.

Robert E. Lee

And since I'm going that way, I would make it a whole Civil War-themed dinner, and invite Robert E. Lee (right) for balance. Now, what food to serve?

All images from (Library of Congress)

Do you have a family?

I was married in June 2006 to a civil servant scientist here at Goddard. His specialty is Observational Cosmology. He is working primarily on the design and development of future space telescopes, and in support of some current ones (i.e. the Hubble Space Telescope). It's great being married to another astronomer; we love it.

What is the one big dream you have?

Well, I would really like to be part of the first Mars colony, along with my husband. But I have a feeling this isn't going to happen. We might send humans to Mars in my lifetime. But by the time we have a colony - as I think we will, eventually - I'll probably be too old (or too dead).

Publication Date: August, 2007