Grad student Huazhi Ge wins postdoctoral fellowship for planetary science research

Huazhi Ge
Huazhi Ge

Huazhi Ge, a doctoral candidate in planetary science at UC Santa Cruz, has won a prestigious 51 Pegasi b Fellowship from the Heising-Simons Foundation to support his postdoctoral research to be conducted at the California Institute of Technology.

Ge’s research focuses on resolving the cloud dynamics of giant planets to inform future space missions and observations. At UCSC, he has been working with Xi Zhang, associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences, to study climate and atmospheric dynamics on solar system planets, exoplanets, and brown dwarfs.

“More than 5,000 diverse planets have been discovered in thousands of systems. Understanding the significant role of giant planets in our solar system can help us better characterize worlds beyond,” Ge said.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship provides postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy, providing up to $415,000 support for independent research over three years. Ge will receive his Ph.D. in planetary science from UCSC in spring 2023.

As a voracious young reader, Ge scoured encyclopedias to learn as much as he could about the planets in our solar system, especially the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. At UCSC, he took part in the development of a breakthrough 3-dimensional cloud-resolving circulation model that simulates how storms function on giant planets and their impact on these massive substellar objects. These simulations helped explain unexpected observations about Jupiter’s interior and atmosphere from ground-based telescopes and NASA space missions, including Juno and Galileo.

“We have studied the climate on Earth through cloud resolving models for a few decades,” Ge said. “Studying Jupiter in this way is a new start. It’s also a very big challenge, and I like challenges.”

During his postdoctoral fellowship, Ge will apply his cloud-resolving model to answer further questions about the atmosphere of Jupiter prompted by Juno observations, providing clues to that planet’s interior structure and evolution. He will also study the cloudy atmosphere of Uranus to inform observations for a future NASA flagship mission to that unexplored planet.

Because the scientific literature suggests similar discrepancies between assumed characteristics of brown dwarfs and those observed from the James Webb Space Telescope, Ge is eager to apply his circulation model to these exoplanets as well, exploring giant-planet dynamics that have sizeable implications for solar systems across the galaxy.

“I’m really excited for the flagship mission to Uranus,” he said. “While there has been a flyby mission there before, we can capture much more detailed data by orbiting this planet. While it will be a long time until we receive the scientific data, that allows me to do more research into what we can observe and discover through this mission.”

Established in 2017, the Heising-Simons Foundation’s 51 Pegasi b Fellowship is named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a sun-like star. The growing field of planetary astronomy studies celestial objects both within and beyond our solar system, bridging planetary science and astronomy. From accelerating our understanding of planetary system formation and evolution in our solar system and beyond, to advancing new technologies for detecting Earth-like worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make unique contributions to the field.