Planet hunting alumna Natalie Batalha among Time's 100 most influential people

Natalie Batalha
Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha, a NASA scientist who earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, has been named to Time magazine's annual list of the "100 most influential people in the world."

Batalha leads the science investigation effort for NASA's Kepler Mission, searching for Earth-size planets beyond our solar system. Kepler aims to find out how common planets are in the "habitable zones" of other stars, where temperatures could allow liquid water to pool on the surface of the planet without freezing or evaporating. Working at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Batalha has been a leading figure of the mission since she joined the team in 1999.

"I'm so very proud of her, and very happy to see her get recognition for all the great work she's done at NASA as part of the Kepler mission. Natalie rocks!" said Steve Vogt, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics, who was Batalha's adviser when she was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1997.

Batalha is one of three planet hunters featured on Time's list. The others are Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, who has been a frequent collaborator with Vogt on recent planet discoveries; and Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium. Speaking of Batalha and Anglada-Escudé, Vogt said, "You'd be hard-pressed to find two nicer and more capable people in the field."

Batalha is the first woman at NASA to receive the Time 100 designation. UCSC alumna Kathryn Sullivan was named to the list in 2014.

"I'm honored to be part of the Time 100 and feel strongly that recognition belongs to the entire team of scientists and engineers who opened our eyes to the large number of potentially habitable worlds that populate the galaxy," Batalha said in a NASA statement. "Searching for potentially habitable worlds makes one appreciate just how precious living worlds are. I hope that the discoveries from the Kepler spacecraft inspire people to learn more about other planets, and, in turn, make us love this one all the more."

Batalha earned her bachelor's degree in physics at UC Berkeley. She was a professor of physics and astronomy at San Jose State University for ten years before joining NASA. In 2011, she was awarded a NASA Public Service Medal for her vision in communicating Kepler science to the public and for outstanding leadership in coordinating the Kepler Science Team.