Affiliated Postdocs/Research Scientists

Melinda Soares-Furtado
Melinda is a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow working jointly at MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is investigating anomalous stellar signatures that arise from the accretion/engulfment of substellar companions. Such signatures include chemical enrichment and rotational enhancement. One of her major objectives is to detect a star that has engulfed a planetary companion. Such a star could provide valuable constraints on the bulk composition of the companion, which would have far-reaching implications in the theory of planet formation. Melinda also applies image subtraction reduction techniques to photometric surveys (Kepler/K2) in an effort to search for periodic variability in open clusters. This includes the search for transiting exoplanets in these systems. When she is not glued to her terminal, you may find her hunting for vintage astronomy textbooks, making time-lapse videos of the birds in her garden, or competing in a Beat Saber battle with her children (she always loses).
Javier Viaña
Javier Viaña is currently a Postdoc Associate at MIT Kavli Institute of Astrophysics and Space Research. He obtained his Ph.D. in Explainable Artificial Intelligence applied to the Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. His doctoral research revolved around the conception of novel transparent algorithms that not only provide accurate predictions but also human-understandable justifications of the results. His current research is focused on the design of deep neural network architectures that automatically classify TESS transiting planet candidates. Previously, Javier developed tailored AI solutions for different aerospace organizations such as Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing, Satlantis Microsatellites, NASA, ESA, Genexia, and the Northern Kentucky International Airport. He graduated from his Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering at the University of the Basque Country, and Master’s in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. His main research topics and interest include transparency in AI, deep fuzzy networks, genetic fuzzy systems, bio-inspired evolutionary optimization, white dwarf spectral characterization, exoplanet detection, and black holes.
Mary Anne Limbach
Mary Anne Limbach is a research scientist in the Astronomy department at the University of Michigan. Her research is focused on exomoon detection techniques and white dwarf exoplanet discovery and characterization. Her ultimate objective is to gain insights into the prevalence, diversity, evolution, and potential habitability of these these elusive worlds. In pursuit of her research goals, she predominantly leverages space-based observatories, previously Spitzer and currently JWST. Additionally, she is actively engaged in developing new methodologies for detecting exomoons, utilizing upcoming observatories like the Roman Space Telescope and the Habitable Worlds Observatory. She also develops new instrumentation to achieve her research goals when they cannot be accomplished with existing facilities. She has served as the optical engineer and/or instrument scientist on several large facility exoplanet instruments including Subaru/CHARIS and the GPI2.0 IFS.
Juliana García-Mejía
Dr. Juliana García-Mejía (hOO - lee - AH - nuh, Gahr - see - ah, meh - HEE - ah) is a 51 Pegasi b and MIT Pappalardo postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. Juliana is broadly interested in developing novel astronomical instrumentation to enable the study of exoplanets, their atmospheres, and their low mass stellar hosts. She is the PI of The Tierras Observatory, a new 1.3-m ultra-precise fully automated photometer located atop Mt. Hopkins, Arizona. Having spent her entire Ph.D. building Tierras, she is currently focused on using the facility to uncover temperate terrestrial planets, search for moons around exoplanets, and study their low mass stellar hosts. Juliana is also pursuing the design of a high throughput, extremely high resolution pathfinder spectrograph to enable narrow-wavelength atmospheric structure and velocity dynamic studies of exoplanets, and to expand cosmochronological and magnetic field studies of stars of varied spectral types. In the future, this instrument could enable the detection of molecular oxygen in a terrestrial exoplanet atmosphere.

Graduate Students

Mariona Badenas-Agusti
I am a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Planetary Sciences at MIT, where I work with Prof. Andrew Vanderburg and Prof. Sara Seager on ancient exoplanetary systems around white dwarfs (i.e. the final evolutionary stage of intermediate-mass stars such as our Sun). In particular, I am developing new machine learning and statistical tools to characterize the properties of rocky extra-solar bodies that accrete onto the atmospheres of white dwarfs. Before joining MIT, I earned a Bachelor's degree in Astrophysics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in Astrophysics, Cosmology, and High Energy Physics from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia. Outside of academia, I am very interested in the aerospace industry and I am a member of the Space Generation Advisory Council and of Women in Aerospace Europe.
Bob Aloisi
I am returning to UW - Madison to earn an Astronomy PhD after initially earning a BS Chemical Engineering degree many years ago. I am working with Professor Vanderburg on Exoplanet research, initially searching for hot Jupiter planets orbiting white dwarf stars. I recently earned a second major in Physics at UW – Milwaukee, where my research projects included: building payloads to launch on NASA sounding rockets; finding timing solutions to constrain the properties of several pulsars; updating the Census of the Local Universe (CLU) galaxy catalog, which is referenced when gravitational waves are observed; and traveling to the University of Sydney, where I searched for radio bright supernovae using the first survey images from a new radio telescope array called the Australian SKA Pathfinder. I enjoy stargazing, campfires, fishing and other outdoor activities.
Lizhou Sha
I am a fourth-year PhD student in astronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I use advanced computational techniques to uncover unusual planetary system architectures. I graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 with an SB in physics. My first job after graduation was with NASA’s TESS space telescope, whose mission is to search most of the sky for nearby transiting exoplanets. Under the guidance of Dr. Chelsea X. Huang, I helped build, maintain, and execute one of the mission’s two planet detection pipelines.
Zoë de Beurs
Zoë is a third-year PhD student studying Planetary Science at MIT as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow. Her research interests include using machine learning for exoplanet detection, planetary atmospheres, and mitigating stellar activity in radial velocity measurements to become sensitive to the signals of earth-twins. When Zoë is not searching for exoplanets, she can be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watering her plants, or advocating for making science more accessible through outreach and equity and inclusion initiatives.
Sydney Jenkins
Sydney is a third-year NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the MIT Department of Physics. She previously earned a BA in physics and BS in computer science at the University of Chicago. During her time at UChicago, she worked on projects studying ultra-faint dwarf galaxies and developing machine learning tools for the classification of galaxy mergers and variable stars. She is currently using TRES to measure the primordial metallicity of white dwarfs in binary systems. This will place constraints on how planets are perturbed toward their host stars. Outside of astronomy, she enjoys hiking, tending to her indoor garden, and exploring Boston.

Affiliated graduate students

Yadira Gaibor
Yadira is a PhD candidate in the MIT Department of physics. She graduated from Missouri State University with a BS in Physics and a certificate in Computational Science. Yadira currently works with the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) team on binary systems, exoplanets and compact objects. Her main project focuses on studying the alignment/misalignment of inclination and obliquity of binaries with exoplanets and what it can tell us about planet formation. Outside of research, Yadira enjoys the outdoors, reading sci-fi, and taking on new crafts.
Alex Venner
Alex is a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, hailing from the United Kingdom. They are interested in the discovery and characterisation of exoplanets of all different types, but specialises in using astrometry to detect long-period giant planets. Alex also holds a special interest in white dwarfs, and is currently working with Mary Anne Limbach to detect planets around white dwarfs using JWST. Outside of astrophysics, Alex counts historical linguistics, palaeontology, and an eastern video game series among their hyperfixations.
Ben Capistrant
I'm a second-year graduate student in the UF Astronomy department. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with dual B.S. degrees in Physics and Astronomy-Physics. My work there included studies of chemical abundances within protoplanetary disks using ALMA observations with Prof. Ke Zhang, and studying variable YSOs in TESS light curves with Dr. Melinda Soares-Furtado and Prof. Vanderburg. My current research is with Prof. Jason Dittmann, looking at stellar flares in TESS light curves of planet-hosting stars, with the goal of improving our understanding of their impact on exoplanet atmospheres. My scientific interests encompasses all things exoplanets, from planet detection and characterization, to exoplanet atmospheres and star-planet interactions. Outside of work I enjoy playing the guitar, piano and the drums, as well as traveling and photography.

Undergraduate Students

Drake Lehmann
Drake is a senior at UW – Madison double majoring in Astrophysics and Physics. He is currently working with Dr. Vanderburg on ephemeris matching with Kepler and TESS space telescopes to verify the authenticity of planet candidates. Outside of school, Drake enjoys playing guitar, traveling with friends, and practicing martial arts.
Isabella Macias
Isabella Macias is a senior at the University of Florida majoring in Astrophysics with a minor in Latin American Studies. Bella is interested in exploring all fields of observational astrophysics, such as planetary science, stellar astrophysics, and exoplanets. She will be working with Dr. Vanderburg through the MIT Summer Research Program, investigating constraints on exomoons using MCMC techniques and astrometric measurements. When not working on her research, Bella enjoys STEM public outreach, working with the UnidosNow nonprofit, and binge-watching the latest sci-fi TV shows.
Naomi McWilliam
Naomi is a fourth-year undergraduate Theoretical Physics student at Imperial College London. She is interested in Astrophysics and Cosmology. She is working with Prof. Andrew Vanderburg and Zoë de Beurs on a project over the summer using machine learning to mitigate RV Jitter when detecting exoplanets. Outside of academia, she enjoys baking, fashion and playing with her five cats.
Sam Christian
Sam Christian is a junior undergraduate at MIT. Previously, he was a student at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) High School in Austin Texas. He has done research in areas of cosmology, exoplanets, and geophysics, but enjoys learning about nearly all areas of physical science. He has been studying exoplanets in wide binary systems with Dr. Vanderburg since June of 2020. Outside of the sciences, he plays the cello and piano, and enjoys reading Ursula Le Guin novels.
Mason Fang
Mason is a sophomore at MIT planning to double major in Physics and Mathematics with Computer Science. He has been interested in astronomy, mathematics, and physics since he was a child and participated in math and physics olympiads throughout high school. Mason recently began investigating applications of machine learning to exoplanet studies with Dr. Viaña and Prof. Vanderburg. Outside of academics, he enjoys speedcubing, learning about geography and other cultures, watching sports, and listening to music from around the world.
Kaylee Barrera
Kaylee is a junior at MIT double majoring in Planetary Science/Astronomy and Physics. They are interested in observational astronomy, particularly in detecting and characterizing exoplanets. Kaylee is working with Prof. Vanderburg and his collaborator Dr. Sarah Blunt at UC Santa Cruz to address overfitting issues on radial velocity mass estimates of exoplanets. They have previously worked at MIT’s Wallace Observatory collecting data on Koronis family asteroids and TESS candidates. Outside of academics, Kaylee enjoys reading fantasy novels, hanging out with their family cats, and cooking.
Alexander (Sasha) Sherstnev
Sasha Sherstnev is a junior undergraduate at MIT studying physics and computer science. He is primarily interested in applying modern computational and machine learning techniques to the natural sciences. He has recently been working with Dr. Javier Viaña and Prof. Andrew Vanderburg to extend cecilia, a neural network designed to identify atmospheric properties of polluted dwarf stars. Outside of research, he enjoys hiking and nature photography.
Gabrielle Ross:
Gabrielle Ross is a freshman at Princeton. She is an avid programmer and loves all things physics and astronomy related. She has been working with Andrew on identifying false positives in TESS data using ground-based observations from surveys like ZTF and ATLAS. Previously, Gabrielle interned at the Naval Research Laboratories in creating an algorithm to sort infrared astronomical data using custom feature extractors. For fun outside of school, Gabrielle creates apps, plays Varsity Lacrosse as the goalie, and goes backpacking.

Former group members

  • Malena Rice (Fall 2022-Summer 2023 as a 51 Pegasi b postdoctoral fellow)
  • Elyse Incha (Summer 2020-Summer 2023 as a UW-Madison undergraduate)
  • Warit Wijitworasart (Fall 2021-Summer 2023 as an MIT undergraduate student)
  • Sarah Kubiak (Winter 2021-Spring 2023 as a UW-Madison undergrad and a Colorado State grad student)
  • Panupong Phoompuang (Fall 2021-Spring 2022 as an MIT undergraduate)
  • Maura Lally (Summer 2019-Spring 2022 originally as a Northwestern University undergraduate and a Cornell graduate student)
  • Ben Havlicek (Fall 2020 as a UW-Madison undergraduate)
  • Ben Steck (Fall 2020-Summer 2021 as a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate)
  • Anne Dattilo (Fall 2017-Summer 2019 as a University of Texas undergraduate.)
  • Aditya Shah (Fall 2018-Spring 2019 as a University of Texas undergraduate).
  • Gerlinder Difo Cheri (Summer 2018 as a University of the Virgin Islands undergraduate)
  • Rayna Rampalli (Summer 2017 - Spring 2019 as a Wellesley undergraduate and a Columbia bridge student)
  • Clea Schumer (Summer 2017 as a Harvard undergraduate)
  • Andy Mayo (Spring 2014-Summer 2017 as a Harvard undergraduate.)