Fresh Faculty: Katherine Follette
Issue   |   Wed, 02/15/2017 - 00:14

Katherine Follette is an assistant professor of astronomy. She earned a B.A. in physics and Japanese at Middlebury College, and an M.S. and Ph.D., both in astronomy, at the University of Arizona.

Q: Where are you from?
A: It’s a complicated question. I’m originally from Minnesota. I grew up there ... I went to college at Middlebury in Vermont. And then I lived in Japan for a few years, moved back to Minnesota to take classes to fulfill pre-med requirements, because I thought I was going to go to med school … then moved to San Diego and taught high school for a while, then did graduate school in Arizona for six years, and then moved to San Francisco. So, most recently from San Francisco, but I’ve kind of lived all over. But originally from Minnesota, and now here.

Q: How’d you choose to study astronomy?
A: It’s a funny story ... I chose Middlebury and went there because I wanted to study languages and go into the Foreign Service. I took a general education astronomy course in my first semester in college in order to fulfill a distribution requirement and because I thought it was interesting — I mean, we all kind of maintain this interest in astronomy from when we were kids. I just completely fell in love with it ... and ended up deciding that that was what I wanted to do for my career. But it wasn’t a straight path. I didn’t know when I left college that I wanted to become a full-time astronomer. I think I mentioned I thought I wanted go to med school, and then I thought I wanted to be … a high school teacher. In the course of teaching high school physics, I realized that all of the examples I was using were astronomy examples, and I taught an elective in astronomy and just loved it. I realized that if I wanted to teach astronomy and not physics I would have to go to the college level, get a graduate degree and go back to school.

Q: What did you do right before you came to Amherst?
A: I was doing a post[doctorate] at Stanford. I worked for a group at Stanford that is called the Gemini Planet Imager Team ... Gemini is a big telescope in Chile, and it has ... a dedicated instrument that is designed to try and find planets. There are a bunch of ways that we find planets these days, but ... [Gemini] directly detect[s] the planets rather than infer[s] their existence based on observations of the star, which is kind of the other way that we find planets. So it’s a neat technological challenge ... it’s very new and it hasn’t been as successful as some of the other methods yet, but the technology is moving forward. Particularly with the next generation of space-based telescope missions, I think we’ll be making big strides in this area. It was a really exciting group and an exciting time to be there. We [had] about 100 nights of telescope time over the course of the last three years and [we] just systematically [looked] at all the young stars that are near the sun and … planets around them. We’ve had a couple of exciting discoveries in the course of doing this.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Amherst?
A: Well, it’s kind of my dream job. The students are very bright [and] they come from very diverse backgrounds. There’s an emphasis on teaching, but at the same time it’s an institution that values research, and I wanted a blend. I didn’t want to just teach or just do research. I wanted to work with undergrads on my research ... although I’m the only astronomer here on campus, there’s this Five College Consortium of astronomers, [which] makes it less isolating. And so it was a really exciting opportunity.

Q: What classes are you teaching right now?
A: I’m teaching one class. It’s called practical astronomy … It’s essentially a class about how … to think like a scientist. So it’s how to look at data, how to do … some quantitative skills that you don’t generally learn in a formal mathematics education, like how to make an estimate from incomplete data … The other big piece of the course is learning how to program in Python. So the students are doing labs where they’re using real data and designing visualizations in Python … it’s [a] class that’s meant to get everyone up to speed before the first big astrophysics course in the sequence.

Q: What research are you doing now?
A: As a postdoc, I focused a little more on detecting the planets around young stars, so usually after the disk has mostly dispersed ... What I’ve always been interested in are the particular systems, the handful of systems that have both disks and planets. There’s a class of disk that we call a transitional disk. The disk of gas and dust has a big hole in the middle, and actually most of what I spent my graduate work doing was trying to prove that … the existence of those holes is most compatible with the idea that there are planets actively forming in the inner part of that solar system and they’re clearing out the material closest to the star … What I’m doing now, moving forward, is studying these disks and … [asking] can you see the planet and the disk at the same time? And in particular, can you see the planet interacting with the disk, like material from the disk falling onto the planet, or the planet causing structures in the disk? … There are lots of exciting prospects there with current generation instruments. I’m involved in some efforts to design next-generation instruments … by sending these same kind of technologies to space, we’re able to image even fainter things next to bright things ... The goal, 20 years down the line, is to have some kind of instrument that’s capable of directly detecting not just giant planets — the ones we’re detecting now are several times the mass of Jupiter — but earth-like planets around nearby stars … The reason this method of detecting planets is interesting is that if I can detect the light from the planet directly, I can break it into its component colors, and then I can start to understand things about its atmosphere, even potentially — I wouldn’t say 20 years down the line, but 30 or 40 years down the line — being able to spread out its light finely enough that I could detect things like biosignatures in the atmospheres, like certain gas species that aren’t in equilibrium that indicate the presence of life, which would obviously be very cool.

Q: What kind of things do you do outside of classes and research?
A: I have a 3-year-old that takes a lot of my time these days, but back in the day when I had hobbies, and to some extent still, I like to ski, read, run [and] play with my dog — those are the big ones.