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Pomona Student Wins Chambliss Prize for Research on Exoplanets

Apr 11, 2024

Pomona College student Kendra Nguyen won a Chambliss Prize for their research “Determining the Composition of Earth-sized Planets in the TOI-406 System”, presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January.

Kendra Nguyen used LCO data in their work

Kendra Nguyen is a senior at Pomona College majoring in astronomy, who presented a poster on exoplanet research at the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society. That work, “Determining the Composition of Earth-sized Planets in the TOI-406 System”, employed data from LCO and won a Chambliss Award for student achievement in astronomy. Pomona College featured Nguyen’s work in this press release in February.

Kendra first became interested in planetary and exoplanet research when they took an introductory astronomy class at community college during high school. While touring Pomona College, they knew that it would be a good fit because the Physics and Astronomy Department is a close-knit community. In particular, Professor Janice Hudgings supported Kendra in every step of their astronomy journey and encouraged them to pursue their passion in research.

To follow an interest in conducting research, Professor Philip Choi introduced Kendra to research at Caltech, and they became interested in the WAVE summer research program. As the program is meant to provide a space for underrepresented students in STEM, they applied to the program to build a community with other underrepresented students. Following acceptance into WAVE, Kendra submitted a project proposal, with the full support of their mentors.

Looking at the exoplanet research being done at Caltech, Professor Heather Knutson’s work aligned with Kendra’s interests. Their previous work at the Carnegie Observatories with Dr. Johanna Teske and SETI Institute with Dr. Douglas Caldwell involved characterizing planets and identifying TESS Community Targets of Interests. Professor Knutson’s group’s work with exoplanets was a good fit for that experience. After meeting with Professor Knutson and learning more about the summer projects in her group, Kendra was excited to work on the validation and determination of the composition of the TOI-406 system with Caltech graduate student Michael Greklek-McKeon.

Mr. Greklek-McKeon was using the LCO network in collaboration with Dr. David Ciardi of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute for observations during the 2022b semester and Kendra assisted him with planning observations for the 2023b semester. Michael also introduced them to using public archival data from the LCO Archive and worked with the TESS Key Project to obtain additional LCO observations. LCO observations played a key role in Kendra’s research because of the precision required to detect transit timing variations (TTVs). TTVs are the discrepancies between when planets are expected to transit the star in a circular orbit compared to the observed transit time as a result of gravitational interactions between the planets. Using TTVs, they obtained the planets’ masses and then placed constraints on the exoplanet bulk densities and bulk compositions.

Kendra will be graduating from Pomona this spring and is excited to be continuing their research journey in the Astronomy department at Yale University, where they will be starting the PhD program this fall.

Las Cumbres Observatory congratulates Kendra on their many accomplishments and is looking forward to following their stellar career.