On July 1, Associate Professor Sarah Rugheimer began her appointment as the new Allan I. Carswell Chair for the Public Understanding of Astronomy in the Faculty of Science at York University.
Rugheimer is an astrophysicist interested in understanding how to detect life on exoplanets by looking for atmospheric biosignatures (i.e., atmospheric evidence for past or present life).
Previous to her post as the new Chair, she was a Glasstone Research Fellow and a Hugh Price Fellow at the University of Oxford. She received her PhD in astrophysics from Harvard University and completed a Simons Origins of Life Research Fellowship at the University of St. Andrews.
The Allan I. Carswell Chair for the Public Understanding of Astronomy was established in 2018 through a $3-million endowment from Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell and the Carswell Family Foundation. The Chair is dedicated to science engagement and outreach and benefits students and the public through education and activities involving the telescopes at the Allan I. Carswell Observatory and other novel technologies.
“I am especially excited about the Chair position since it merges two of my passions: public outreach and exoplanet research,” said Rugheimer. “Most academic positions are focused on research or teaching, but the Allan I. Carswell Chair is unique in the world. It recognizes the importance of outreach and research together – that the two can complement each other.”
Rugheimer’s research interests are in modelling the atmosphere and climate of extrasolar planets with a particular focus on atmospheric biosignatures in Earth-like planets, as well as modelling early Earth conditions. Her interests include many topics in the field of astrobiology, such as the origin of life on Earth and the pursuit of detecting life on other planets and moons in the universe. She says she is excited to start a new exoplanet research group at York to pursue these interests and to share the joy of astronomy to new communities within Canada.
“For the first time in history, we are now finding planets that are Earth-sized and temperate,” said Rugheimer. “In the next two decades, first with the James Webb Space Telescope and later with follow-up missions like LUVOIR, the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor, and LIFE, the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets telescope concepts, we will be able to detect the atmospheres of terrestrial extrasolar planets in the habitable zone. These questions of our origins and the distribution of life in the universe are the main driving inspiration for my day-to-day work.”
She has also been actively involved with public outreach. She is the author of Searching for Extraterrestrial Life, an astrobiology course for the public on Amazon Audible Originals. Her TED talk The Search for Microscopic Aliens has more than 1.6 million views on TED.com. She received the Barrie Jones Award and the BSA Rosalind Franklin Lectureship in 2019, as well as the Caroline Herschel Lectureship Prize in 2018. She has also appeared on NPR and BBC discussing her work on modelling the atmosphere and climate of extrasolar planets.
Additionally, Rugheimer is an advocate for women in science, hosting the podcast Self-care with Drs. Sarah with Professor Sarah Ballard (University of Florida). The podcast features wide-ranging conversations around navigating science culture and the importance of self-care for women scientists. Her other passions include dance and high-altitude mountaineering.
The inaugural holder of the Carswell Chair for a three-year term (2018-21) was University Professor Emeritus Paul Delaney.