When Howard Chen was a teen, he discovered Carl Sagan’s classic book Pale Blue Dot (Random House, 1994), a rumination on humanity and its lonely, fragile planetary home.
“I loved spending time at the library and, out of chance, I found this book that changed my perspective of our place in the universe,” says Chen.
Now 29, Chen was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and spent his early years in Burnaby, British Columbia, before moving to the U.S. for high school. He studied creative writing during his first year at Boston University, but switched to physics the next year after taking an astronomy class. In the new program, Chen got to experience the best of both worlds: being creative and learning about science.
“I thrived in an environment where I could ask big, bold questions to try and figure out answers using the tools and methods of science,” he says.
Chen went on to complete his Ph.D. at Northwestern University, specializing in planetary science. He is currently a postdoctoral program fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he focuses his research on the atmospheres of exoplanets.
“I really enjoy pushing our limits to understand the atmospheres of smaller, rocky exoplanets that are within the habitable zone,” he says. These worlds, where liquid water could exist on the surface, are the obvious places to hunt for signs of life-friendly conditions or even life itself.
Chen uses computer simulations to predict the evolution and composition of such exoplanetary atmospheres. His work focuses on incorporating chemical reactions that occur between a host star’s light and a planet’s atmosphere into climate models, something that hasn’t traditionally been done. These reactions play an important role in determining which gases, and how much of each, are present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. “Each gas can give us some clue of the climate evolution and the current state of the planet,” says Chen.
He anticipates that this, in turn, will help him answer big questions, such as whether water could be present on the surface of Earth-like planets, and if there are potential biosignatures that indicate the presence of life.
“I’m hoping my work will allow us to be able to consistently predict the atmospheric composition of terrestrial exoplanets and to compare this to what we might be able to eventually observe using telescopes,” says Chen.
Daniel Horton, a climate scientist and Earth system modeler at Northwestern University who was Chen’s thesis advisor, says, “Howard’s drive, independence, and creativity suggest he will be a pioneer in the planetary habitability research community for years to come.”
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