Astronomer Natalie Batalha to receive Alumni Achievement Award

After serving as science lead for NASA’s Kepler Mission from 2011 to 2017, Batalha is returning to UC Santa Cruz as a professor of astronomy and astrophysics

Natalie Batalha
Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha, a NASA scientist who earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, has been selected as the recipient of the 2018 UC Santa Cruz Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor bestowed on a graduate of the campus.

The award will be presented at the Founders Celebration on Saturday, October 20. Batalha will also be joining the faculty of UCSC’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics this fall.

“I worked and lived here as a student and raised my children in UCSC’s Family Student Housing. I’m very excited to be coming back in this new role with two decades of experience under my belt, ready to give back to the academic community,” Batalha said. “It feels a lot like coming home.”

Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics, said Batalha is among the top planetary astronomers of her generation. “There is no question that Natalie is an outstanding scientist, but she is also a rare phenomenon, the kind of leader who comes along once in a generation. We need her vision, her energy, and her charisma here at UC Santa Cruz,” he said. “She will be a game changer for our campus.”

From 2011 to 2017, Batalha served as the science lead for NASA’s highly successful Kepler Mission, which discovered more than 2,500 exoplanets. In 2017, she was named to Time magazine’s list of the “100 most influential people in the world.”

Batalha earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at UC Berkeley and received her doctoral degree from UC Santa Cruz in 1997. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Brazil, she returned to California, taking a position at San Jose State University as a professor of astronomy and astrophysics and joining the exoplanet discovery team at NASA Ames Research Center led by space scientist William Borucki.

Borucki was working on transit photometry, then an emerging technology for finding exoplanets. He led the planning for and became principal investigator of the Kepler Mission, launched in 2009 to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars. Batalha was involved with the Kepler Mission from the proposal stage and contributed to many different aspects of the science, from studying the stars themselves to detecting and understanding the planets they harbor. As her leadership role in the mission grew, so did her responsibilities. After ten years at San Jose State University, she moved to the Astrophysics Branch of the Space Sciences Division of NASA Ames Research Center to fully dedicate her time to the Kepler Mission.

Batalha led Kepler’s first efforts to generate high-reliability catalogs of planet detections. She also led the analysis that yielded the discovery in 2011 of Kepler-10b, the mission’s first confirmation of a rocky planet outside our solar system. 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. She has also received the Lecar Prize from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for the Physical Sciences.

In 2015, Batalha joined the leadership team of a new NASA initiative dedicated to the search for evidence of life beyond the solar system. NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) brings teams from multiple disciplines together to understand the diversity of worlds. Kepler has demonstrated that Earth-size planets abound in the galaxy. NExSS contributes to NASA's efforts to understand which are most likely to harbor life.

At UC Santa Cruz, Batalha will explore the diversity of planets in the galaxy using space-based telescopes like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), as well as UC’s ground-based telescopes like those at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the future Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). She will also bring multiple disciplines of study together to explore the broader question of planetary habitability.

Batalha noted that UC Santa Cruz has a world-class astronomy department that includes renowned theoreticians modeling the formation, evolution, and atmospheres of planets. “UCSC also has key expertise in Earth, planetary, and biological sciences critical for understanding the limits of planetary habitability and the propensity for life in the galaxy,” she said, adding that she hopes to see all of these perspectives gathered around the same table.

“Kepler catalyzed the search for evidence of life beyond the solar system. UCSC can play a significant role in making that vision a reality,” Batalha said.