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Interview with Michelle Kunimoto

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 University of British Columbia

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei

Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection. I’m Romina, your journalist for this week’s episode. We are here today with Michelle Kunimoto, a Physics & Astronomy PhD candidate who discovered 4 planets as an undergraduate student and recently discovered 17 new exoplanet candidates. Thank you for joining us today, Michelle!

Dr. Kunimoto: Thanks for having me, and (I) actually just graduated a few months ago with my PhD. So, officially, I’m now a doctor.

Interviewer: Dr. Kunimoto it is then! To start, we have three fun rapid-fire questions for you. Firstly, if you could own any object in the universe, what would you own?

Dr. Kunimoto: That’s a good question. So, I’m an enormous Star Trek fan so probably something that is very coveted by the fandom. It sounds silly, but I don’t know, some costume that was owned by one of the cast from the original series. Just add to my collection. I have kind of a random collection of memorabilia from shows that I really like, like science fiction and fantasy. I mean, I’m sure I could think of something bigger if I’m thinking on the scale of the universe, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Interviewer: Great answer, and who would you say is one of your role models in the scientific community?

Dr. Kunimoto: In the scientific community, I would say Jill Tarter. She actually works for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Contact, but she is the person that the main character was based off of. She’s done enormous work, just really advocating for the search for life, search for other civilizations in our galaxy. Especially as a female scientist, she’s a really good role model to look up to.

Interviewer: Amazing, and lastly, what has been one of your favourite scientific discoveries? It could either be your own or someone else’s.

Dr. Kunimoto: I think one of my favourite scientific discoveries is a planet that’s actually orbiting around the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, because this planet is considered in the habitable zone of its star. So, that means that it’s orbiting just far enough that it might be able to support liquid water on its surface. And just the fact that the nearest star to our sun has a potentially habitable planet, I think just really shakes my understanding of how common life might be out there in the universe. The planet itself is maybe not the most interesting, but just the fact that there is a planet that’s so close to us kinda makes me think that life could be really common.

Interviewer: And now, before we discuss your amazing contributions and discoveries, could you give us a brief summary of your educational path and what your interests were during your studies?

Dr. Kunimoto: Sure. So, when I was in high school, I actually didn’t know what I wanted to go into. I was kind of thinking physics. I had a really great physics teacher at my school. I was also thinking engineering and I was actually considering music as well. I played the viola quite seriously for a while there. I eventually went into science and went into the Physics & Astronomy stream at UBC, and it was a course that I took in my fourth year called Exoplanets & Astrobiology at UBC and it was the first time I’d learned about exoplanets and the potential for life on another planet outside of the realm of science fiction. The professor, he’s very charismatic, a really good science educator, and at that point I’d actually had no experience doing research by myself. I’d been part of the Science Co-op program at UBC, wasn’t getting any jobs even though I was looking towards my last year of my undergrad and I didn’t have any research experience yet. So, after the course was finished, just over the summer time, I applied for an Undergraduate Student Research Award, which is available for Canadians who are looking to get their first research experience, and this is what started me on my path to finding new exoplanets and working with that professor that taught the course.

Interviewer: Wow, amazing! And would you say that this is something you always imagined yourself doing?

Dr. Kunimoto: No, not at all because astronomy is such a broad field. There is way more than just planets but stars, galaxies, cosmology. It’s such a broad field that I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do within it, but as I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of science fiction and Star Trek in particular. And I think the whole concept of searching for new life and new civilizations, by looking for new planets I feel like I can start answering this question of whether we’re alone in the universe. So, I think my science fiction interests combined with the actual prospect of being able to do that (search for new life) as a job was really attractive to me.

Interviewer: Amazing, and I know you’re quite passionate about astronomy and what you’re currently doing, but if you could go back in time, is there anything that you would change about your path and your decisions? Would you do something differently?

Dr. Kunimoto: I’ve gotten more involved with some of the local astronomy programs. I know there is the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Vancouver, for instance, and they meet every month and these are amateur astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts in the city that meet up. I’ve even spoken to them in the past as an undergrad when I gave a talk for them. And I think they would have been very good for me to meet more astronomers and people who are interested in it, and they also rent out telescopes just so that you can use them in your backyard. I think I would have liked to do that more because I would have gotten a better understanding of what I can do with astronomy before choosing, for instance, what field I was going to go into for my undergrad.

Interviewer: And what would you say your plans are moving forward? What are your future hopes and pursuits?

Dr. Kunimoto: Well, I’m happy to say that starting next week, I’ll actually be starting up a position with MIT as a postdoctoral researcher and that will be working with NASA’s test team, which is the current NASA Exoplanet Finding Mission. So, I finished my PhD, as I mentioned, just a few months ago and this will be my first postdoc. Really excited about it! And that will happen over the course of two or three years. And then, after that, I’ll be doing another postdoc and I would like to be able to stay either in academia or as a research scientist just continuing to work on exoplanets, continuing to find out more about exoplanets. Not just finding them but also characterizing them, like looking at their atmospheres or getting a better understanding of what their properties are.

Interviewer: And I know you’re clearly very passionate about astronomy and science, but why do you think it’s important for the public to engage with science? Why should the public care?

Dr. Kunimoto: This is a really good question because I think astronomy is really intertwined with public opinion. For one, we need funding. We need people to be interested in astronomy to be able to convince people on why we need funding and that’s what is able to drive a lot of our research. So why people should be interested, I think astronomy really answers a lot of fundamental questions. Like, are we alone is a question that I think everybody has asked themselves at some point. So, I know sometimes astronomy can get criticized for not helping people on earth, why not use that money to improve medicine or something like that. So that is a criticism of astronomy, but I would just counter that by saying that humans are extremely curious creatures. A lot of technology that has gone into astronomy and space exploration has helped a lot of us on earth, like technology that was used for astronauts to safely get to the moon is eventually used for medical technology. I think there are a lot of things that we can learn not just about other planets but also about our own planet. For instance, it was studies of Venus that were done in the 60s and 70s that was actually one of the reasons why Carl Sagan, a very prominent astronomer, was one of the first scientists to start saying global warming is happening on the earth. So, our own earth is of course a planet so studying other planets also helps us understand our own planet. And, as I just mentioned about curiosity, I think just really kind of instilling a sense of curiosity in people trying to learn more, being curious, exploring; these are all important things that we shouldn’t neglect.

Interviewer: For sure and just as you said, there are so many potentials and so many possibilities with astronomy specifically. So, what do you think we can do to make this knowledge, this science more accessible?

Dr. Kunimoto: Well, I think the last couple of missions, so TESS and Kepler in particular, have done some really amazing work in encouraging the public to get involved with things like exoplanet hunting. By which I mean, obviously the official Kepler team have access to the data that they’re using, but after a few months or a few years, they let the public access that data and that can be in the form of someone sitting behind the computer, like me as an a student, just using their own code to look through the data. There are also things like the Planet Hunters, which is a citizen science initiative where anybody with a computer and an internet connection can go on this website and look at the data from Kepler and TESS and try to search for any planets just with their own eyes, no need for any computer programming experience. So, I think, not just for the general public, but kind of just encouraging (all) people to get involved but also a lot of the amazing things that Kepler has been able to accomplish are because people who are astronomers in other fields than exoplanets have kind of seen that there is a lot of potential that Kepler had that the people who were designing the machine had no idea that it would even be able to do that. So, being able to provide this kind of data to the public, you know you don’t need to have a PhD to access it (or) you don’t need to be an official Kepler scientist to access this data, has been really important and really good for establishing a good relationship with the community.

Interviewer: For sure! And as a final question, what advice would you give to undergraduate students listening to the show right now?

Dr. Kunimoto: I’ve kind of been mentioning curiosity. I would really encourage people to stay curious, to always ask questions, never lose the mindset of a student even after you’ve graduated. Always be talking to your colleagues, trying to find out more. So, that’s kind of generic advice I guess. Another piece of advice that I have that’s a little more personal; I’m sure many of you are going to be looking for research experiences and some of you may be considering trying the Science Co-Op program and things like that. I felt like I had quite a strong resume but I didn’t get any jobs and that was very discouraging for me and I had a lot of doubts about my research potential and my abilities because I wasn’t getting any jobs. So, I would just encourage people to not give up. It happens. You can always ask professors at the end of the day. See if they have anything you can work on. Maybe it won’t be a paid internship, but it would be a really good experience for you to get hands-on experience working, even if it’s in a field that you don’t know so much about. You can still have a much better idea of what you’re interested in, whether it works out or doesn’t. So, always do that. I’d also encourage people to not compare themselves to other people that much because what we tend to do is we look at somebody’s final product, but we don’t recognize that there were so many challenges that would have had to go into someone’s final product. So many mistakes along the way that we all make, even as someone who has just finished their PhD, tons of mistakes, tons of challenges along the way. It’s very normal. You’re okay.

Interviewer: Great advice, and thank you for sharing that with our audience because it is definitely something that as students, as undergraduates, you’re constantly just worrying about your potential, how far you’ll get, and how successful you are. So, thank you for sharing that advice with our audience. And that does bring us to the end of this interview. Michelle, thank you once again for joining us today and talking to us about your amazing journey.And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection’s podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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