Astronomy PhD student named a 2019 Vanier Scholar for research on exoplanets

Emily Deibert studies exoplanet atmospheres, while writing as a science journalist
Part of Deibert’s thesis will focus on developing 
ways to best use telescopes grounded on Earth. COURTESY OF EMILY DEIBERT
Part of Deibert’s thesis will focus on developing ways to best use telescopes grounded on Earth. COURTESY OF EMILY DEIBERT

Emily Deibert, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, supervised by Dr. Suresh Sivanandam and Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, was named a 2019 Vanier Scholar.

The highly prestigious distinction, granted by the Government of Canada, awards $50,000 per year over three years to doctoral students, who exemplify leadership and excellence in scholarly achievement, to support their research.

Deibert’s research on planets in the far-flung reaches of the universe

Deibert studies the atmosphere of exoplanets — planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. Some of her research has focused on the atmospheric sodium of exoplanets smaller than Saturn, as well as enigmatic rocky planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission.

Astronomers have extensively studied the atmosphere of planets closer to home, but there are many unknowns about those of exoplanets. Such exoplanets include those that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, as well as those the size of Jupiter, which are very close to their stars.

The lack of planets with similar parameters in our solar system presents a gap in our knowledge of the atmosphere of extraterrestrial planets, which Deibert is working to bridge with her research.

Telescopes grounded on Earth, which Deibert uses to study the exoplanets’ atmospheres, are more powerful than those in space. However, a disadvantage of their placement is that it causes them to capture information from the Earth’s atmosphere as well as those of exoplanets.

The interference is caused by data from small particles in Earth’s atmosphere that are captured in measurements, noted Deibert. A focus of her thesis will be on developing ways to sift through this noise from the Earth-based particles to find the desired information from exoplanets.

Deibert’s research will enable us to understand the universe at large. It might also have important applications for Earth. A better understanding of how atmospheres work in distant planets, she noted, could inform our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere as well.

Deibert’s work in science communication

Apart from her work in research, Deibert also focuses on science journalism and science communication.

Having studied English during her undergraduate degree at U of T, Deibert aimed to continue writing while completing her doctorate. As an undergraduate, she has contributed to The Strand, Victoria College’s student newspaper, and several creative fiction journals.

As a writer with The Varsity, she has also covered events such as ComSciConCAN conference, Canada’s first science communication conference for graduate students. She said that her Varsity experience helped her gain confidence when reporting on scientific issues and developments.

Currently, Deibert works for Research2Reality, a publication focused on research and innovation, as well as other media outlets.

Science journalism is important to Deibert: “A lot of our day to day lives revolve around science and technology,” she said, “[but] people aren’t always necessarily informed about that, or don’t know how science and technology impacts their lives.”

Through another lens, Deibert said, “It’s important that people are interested and care about what we’re doing because a lot of it relies on public funding.”

Science communication could also help inspire the next generation of women scientists.

“I definitely think that with science journalism and science communication, we have the power to highlight women in science,” said Deibert. “I think that’s really important not only for people in the field now, but then for younger people wanting to get into the fields.”

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