UC Berkeley professor Courtney Dressing wins Packard Fellowship

Courtney Dressing/Courtesy

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Courtney Dressing, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy, received a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering for her research focused on the composition of small planets and the search for other habitable planets.

Announced Tuesday, the recipients of the Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering are awarded grants to pursue science and engineering research with few restrictions on funding and limited oversight. Each year, the Packard Foundation invites the presidents of 50 academic institutions to choose two early-career professors from their institution. Out of the selected professors, an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers selects 18 professors to each receive a grant of $875,000 distributed over five years.

“I’m really curious about what makes a planet habitable by figuring out what planets are suitable for life,” Dressing said. “I think this topic is well discussed in popular culture, which means there’s a lot of interest.”

In her research, Dressing searches for potentially habitable exoplanets and nearby orbiting stars, characterizes planet host stars to improve stellar and planetary parameters and explores the compositional diversity of small planets.

To further investigate the possibility of life on other planets, Dressing uses a combination of ground-based and space-based telescopes. She and her team then measure planetary masses, constrain the bulk compositions of planets as well as estimate the size, temperature and mass of stars in other planetary systems.

Dressing’s research also seeks to investigate the frequency of planetary systems outside of Earth’s solar system.

“I want to think of planets (as) systems as opposed to individual objects,” Dressing said.

Now, having received a Packard Fellowship, Dressing wants to turn her research toward understanding the composition of planetary atmospheres.

Through this research, Dressing’s group looks to advance the search for life on other planets.

“We don’t know if they have (Earth’s) composition or are suitable for life,” Dressing said. “But, it is encouraging because it means there are lots of places we could look for life.”

According to Berkeley News, by studying the radiation of stars and planets, scientists can better understand what it takes for a planet to support life. Additionally, Dressing said studying the climates of other planets can increase understanding of how to improve life on Earth.

So far, Dressing and her team have found that 25% of the small stars researched have planets that are similar to Earth in size and temperature.

Her colleagues have celebrated her accomplishment, according to Dressing.

“I wouldn’t have been able to win this award without the help and support of the amazing Berkeley staff and members of my research group,” Dressing said. “I still feel stunned. It’s a really amazing opportunity.”

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.