Mother–daughter duo work together to find new worlds
This week, Nature is highlighting a package of five papers analysing the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST’s) observations of WASP-39b, a hot exoplanet with a Saturn-like mass, that Natalie Batalha and her daughter Natasha contributed to as part of the JWST Early Release Science programme.
They both study exoplanets — planets outside our Solar System — using NASA’s JWST, the largest optical telescope in space, which launched in 2021. Natalie, an astronomer at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, specializes in observations of faraway light to discover these new worlds. Natasha, an astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, then uses such observations to simulate exoplanet atmospheres to understand the climate and chemical composition. The papers describe the exoplanet’s atmosphere, including its ratio of carbon to oxygen, which offers information about the planet’s formation and potential to host life. Natalie and Natasha talk about what it’s like to work together, and how to make the more than 300 team members feel that their individual contributions matter.
What paths did you take in science?
Natalie: I was a first-generation college student. I entered UC Berkeley as a business major, not knowing what to do. My perspective changed dramatically when the astronaut Rhea Seddon came to my sorority; she was an alumna of the society. With her as a role model, I asked myself what I’d do if I could do anything. I wanted to work for the space programme. I enrolled in a physics course, and I loved it. Then I learnt the scientific method during a summer internship. The process was addictive, but I needed support and guidance. The path wasn’t obvious. Even writing my PhD dissertation, I didn’t think I was going to be a scientist. I was just doing what I loved, not knowing where it would take me.
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Natasha: I started thinking about what a scientist is at a much younger age. When we were young, my mom asked all her kids to draw a picture of an astronaut. (Natasha has three siblings.) I drew this horribly stereotypical picture of a white man. She was horrified that I, the daughter of a female scientist and my dad, a Latinx scientist, fell victim to this stereotype. She made sure I had other role models, such as Sally Ride (the first US woman to fly in space).
What’s it like to work together?
Natasha: My mom led the science team for NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which orbited the Sun from 2009 to 2018 to look for exoplanets. Using Kepler, she observed thousands of exoplanets and studied the variations among them. But to have this holistic view, you also need to understand the atmosphere of an individual planet. That’s my expertise. We meet in the middle to use atmospheres to understand exoplanet diversity.
Natalie: We also complement one another in our approach to science. She’s good at identifying bite-size pieces of a problem. To use a jigsaw-puzzle analogy, whereas I could spend hours categorizing colours without ever connecting two pieces, Natasha would complete a whole corner of the puzzle. This happened recently when we were developing a research proposal. I started to dive into the problem’s complexities. But we needed to stay focused to meet our deadline. She was like, “OK, Mom, let’s keep it simple”, which was her way of pulling me back from the edge of the abyss. Likewise, sometimes I need to push her to look at the big picture.
Natasha, how did you end up in the same field as your mother?
Natasha: My undergraduate interest was astrobiology, the study of the origins of life in the Universe. But I got an internship studying the atmosphere of Gliese 1214b, an exoplanet orbiting a star 48 light years (14.7 parsecs) from Earth. I started my graduate career studying Mars, but found myself skewing towards exoplanets. The fields of astrobiology and exoplanets were also merging, after Kepler found the first Earth-sized, habitable-zone exoplanet in 2014, meaning that it was at a distance from its star such that liquid water could exist on the surface. It was an exciting niche to work in.
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Natalie: I always say it’s in spite of me that she studies exoplanets. It’s a testament to the allure of this field. It’s an exciting moment in history that we’re learning of these other worlds. My theory is that the first seed was planted in her mind when she was five years old, and I was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. It was 1996 and comet Hyakutake was in the sky.
Natasha [laughing]: I don’t remember the comet.
Natalie: I drove the kids to see it. On the drive, Natasha pointed out of the window at the comet and asked, “What’s that?” She got to discover it for herself, before we showed it to her. I perceived her wonder. Years later, I read biographies of the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. He attributed his own interest in science to a comet that his mother took him to see as a child. I love that connection. If you want your kid to be a scientist, you just have to arrange for a comet.
Natasha: As an adult, one privilege of having a parent in the field is that I feel comfortable speaking out about injustices. We give each other extra support.
What kinds of injustices do you talk about?
Natalie: I want to support early-career researchers, because they’re the ones who will use the astronomy facilities in the future. So we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, and work–life balance, because these are issues that are on their minds. Natasha’s insights as an early-career scientist help me to be a better leader.
Natalie, how has the culture in your field changed since you started?
Natalie: Both Kepler and JWST represent new pieces of technology that break open a bottleneck in our knowledge. Because of that, people feel pressure to be first to publish or even contribute. That creates a lot of tension that can be unhealthy for the field. I looked to create a culture for JWST that catalyses new science while minimizing this type of fear. That’s a fine edge to navigate. For JWST, we established a structure for collaboration that let go of the need to be first. I didn’t perceive any clashes in these initial JWST projects. I’m proud of that, probably more than the science itself.
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How did you remove that pressure to be first to publish?
Natalie: For the first of the papers, I decided to publish under the name of the consortium, so there’s no first author. That set a tone. We also created authorship guidelines that break down the contributions one might make to a study — conceiving an idea, analysing data, writing code. When everybody realizes all the ways to contribute, the feeling of scarcity diminishes. Meanwhile, Natasha was following these ideas in parallel.
Natasha: Last year, I was developing a curriculum on open science through a NASA programme, and I’d been learning about the US National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) guidelines for assigning authorship in large collaborations. We had conversations about how to make an open collaboration work, to be inclusive and give people credit for their contributions. We had at least ten teams working on different models describing distinct properties of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. So, many people were comparing their codes back and forth until all of the models were in agreement, indicating that our scientific interpretation was robust. It’s difficult to create an authorship list when 300 people have contributed to a single result. My mom used NIH’s authorship guidelines as a basis for JWST’s. That was a beautiful marriage of sorts in our work.