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Interview with Kristine Lam

  • What’s your name? Where are you from?

I am Kristine Lam and I’m from the United Kingdom. Currently I’m a postdoc working at the Institute for Planetary Sciences at DLR in Berlin.

  • Where are you working?

At the moment I’m working for the Institute of Planetary Science at the German Aerospace Centre.

  • How was your career?

I began my undergraduate studies at Queen Mary University in London and I studied physics. And during the course of my physics degree, I focussed a lot of my modules in studying astronomy and touched on a lot of planetary sciences back then, and I began taking on projects and thesis work in planetary science, studying solar system planets. I also had experience doing internships in observatories, so that’s kind of how I began my interest in astronomy in general. In the end, I decided to pursue a PhD in physics as well, focussing on the study of exoplanets.

  • What is your research topic?

So, at the moment my project focuses on the discovery and characterization of exoplanets. I use a technique called the transit method where we monitor the periodic brightness of the star and we try to search for a signal where part of the starlight is blocked by the planet. And if we detect that signal in the data, we can define them as candidate planetary systems and we follow them up with the so-called radial velocity method from ground, where we measure the wobble in the star to try to confirm the signal if it’s real and if it’s of planetary origin.

  • Are you focusing on a particular type of planet?

Yes, at the moment I am focussing on a subclass of exoplanets called the ultra-short period planets. Briefly, these planets have an orbital period of less than one day. So, in Earth-terms, they have a one-day year. These planets are interesting to me because they orbit extremely close to the star, so they are exposed to a significant amount of stellar irradiation, so they are constantly blasted by heat and different radiation etc. We suspect that these planets likely have all of the atmosphere depleted from their surface. So perhaps these are lava-worlds, and these are some of the most extreme exoplanet systems that we know.

  • What do you find particularly interesting about your topic?

To add a bit more on that, these ultra-short period planets are special because we don’t have any counterpart in our Solar System. So it’s interesting that we don’t know how they come about, how do they form so close to the star? We don’t know how long they live at such a close proximity to the star. Most likely the surface compositions and interiors of these planets could be different from the Solar System as well. So it’s interesting to understand this population of planets as a whole and also to compare how it’s different and unique from what we know from our own planetary system.

  • How does your topic connect to other research fields?

In terms of studying exoplanets, to date, we have over 5000 exoplanets known, and it is interesting to do statistical studies to see what sort of planets are out there. Doing this sort of observational study, it allows us to put constraints on the theories and models of how these planets could have been formed, or how they could have evolved to such a current state. So, we have a lot of connection with the theorist side. Also, with the advance of instruments, for example the J.W.S.T. telescope has been launched, we are able to also touch on looking into what sort of atmosphere some of these exoplanets could have, so we can also integrate our studies with the atmospheric modelers out there. Bringing it back to our own solar system, we can also use what we have learned from exoplanets to put some constraints on the formation theories that we know.

  • Do you regularly work together with other projects of the SPP?

In terms of the SPP, we’ve worked with groups in Munich for example to get their expertise in the study of stellar activity. This is important because when we deal with radial velocity data, often we encounter stellar activity which could affect the data precision that we have. So it’s important for us to understand what they found in the stellar activity studies and how we can disentangle this signal in our data in order to precisely know the mass of the exoplanets that we have. We also have collaborations with another group that does interior studies, where they provide models on the interior composition of exoplanets, which we’ll need to know when we deal with the fundamental physics of the exoplanets.

  • Did you take advantage of any SPP events?

Yes, I definitely made use of some conferences within the SPP program, and I find those are very useful, for connecting me to different groups that work under this SPP-1992 program, so I know what sort of exoplanet studies have been going on; it keeps me up to date, and also a good way for me to connect to different exoplanet scientists within Germany.

  • What could you know in 10 years about your topic?

In ten years’ time, I hope with the next-generation telescopes that are coming online soon, we are able to improve our methods and techniques in detecting exoplanet systems and characterizing them. So hopefully, in ten year’s time we’ll be able to find longer period-planets and perhaps planets that have environments like our Earth.

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