Presents lecture on planets May 2 in Poughkeepsie

A bright, young star of planet hunting who grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley is returning to her origins.

Dr. Jennifer Yee
Dr. Jennifer Yee

Former New Paltz resident and 2003 Oakwood Friends School graduate Dr. Jennifer Yee, 29, will return to the Oakwood Friends School to present its annual Herzog Lecture, at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, May 2. The free illustrated lecture is entitled “Extra-ordinary Extra-solar Planets,’’ and is open to the public.

Yee, who has helped discover 15 planets, was one of five young astronomers in 2013 to be awarded a Carl Sagan Exoplanet Postdoctoral Fellowship by NASA. The prize fellowship, named for the late astronomer, was created to inspire the next generation of explorers seeking to learn more about planets, and possibly life, around stars other than the Sun.

For her Sagan Fellowship, Yee is based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

The Sagan fellowship is among the three most prestigious national fellowships in astronomy. Only five to seven scientists with recent Ph.D. degrees are awarded the fellowship in any given year.

Yee began at Oakwood Friends in seventh grade. “I was pretty awkward and had no friends at the time,” she recounted. “It’s such a small, welcoming place that I quickly found it easy to fit in … I was not ostracized because I was a good student and something of a nerd.”

Yee went on to Swarthmore College where she received an undergraduate degree in astrophysics with a minor in linguistics, proof of her broad interests. She earned her Ph.D. in astronomy last August from The Ohio State University.

Dr. Yee uses a technique called gravitational microlensing to discover new planets.

She explains: “When one star, the lens, passes in front of a background star, the lens star acts like a magnifying glass. If you think about the lens star as fixed, and the background star passing behind it, the magnification of the background star will depend on its position relative to the lens star.”

A planet orbiting the lens star creates a distortion to the magnification, like a chip in a magnifying lens — one never actually sees the planet, as it is too far away.

The value of microlensing “comes from its ability to find small planets far from their host stars that cannot be discovered any other way,” she says. “It is also very exciting because there is usually only one opportunity to find each planet.”

Working with several teams, including amateur astronomers, Yee has helped to discover 15 new planets in this way.

The lecture, which will take place in the Meeting Room of Main Building, is free and open to the public. Oakwood Friends School is located at 22 Spackenkill Road in the Town of Poughkeepsie. Call 845-462-4200, ext. 224.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Articles attributed to "staff" are written by the editor or a senior editor. This is typically because they are brief items based on a single source, such as a press release, or there are multiple contributors, such as a collection of photos.