Johanna Teske Receives Third “Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence” Award

Johanna Teske in front of Magellan telescope.

Johanna Teske was awarded the third Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence (PIE) Award, which is made through nominations from the department directors and chosen by the Office of the President. She is the first Carnegie Origins Postdoctoral Fellow, the first fellowship in the history of Carnegie Science that straddles two departments, the Observatories and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. In just two years, Teske’s efforts to help find and characterize exoplanets, particularly those that might be Earth-like, has generated multiple publications in prestigious journals such as The Astrophysical Journal.

The citation for the award noted that “Johanna Teske stands out as an incredibly enthusiastic scientist who loves to learn new things, is passionate about astrophysics, and active in encouraging members of underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science.” She engages every opportunity for intellectual growth. She has undertaken a remarkable number of new projects in her two years at Terrestrial Magnetism and will move to Pasadena in August to work at the Observatories.

Teske studies the relationship between the composition of stars and their orbiting planets.  She uses a clever program to make observations of binary stars that host different types of planets, or where one of the two stars is known to host a planet. With painstaking measurements, she compares the compositions of the stars and looks for trends with the types of planets they host. She has published two papers as first author on this project, with another one soon to be accepted.  Teske also makes detailed composition measurements of stars with and without planets to decipher what elements correlate with planets of different sizes in different orbits.

Recently Teske branched out to a laboratory investigation, in which she mentored a University of Maryland undergraduate, Junellie Gonzalez Quiles, in collaboration with Geophysical Lab postdoctoral fellow Colin Jackson. They have asked an entirely new yet simple question – what happens in a planetary interior if the bulk composition of the planet-forming material is as different as some stars are from the Sun?

Teske is passionate about improving diversity within astronomy as well, aiming to reach traditionally underrepresented communities. She has been an indispensable volunteer at Carnegie’s First Light Saturday Science School. Through her efforts and personal contacts, the program established a relationship with the Physics Department at Howard University. Now, undergraduate physics students work as mentors for middle school students participating in First Light. In the spirit of improving the professional lives of scientists, Teske developed a postdoctoral mentoring workshop on the impostor syndrome.

Carnegie president Matthew Scott remarked, “The breadth of Johanna’s research, her mentoring, outreach and imaginative perspective on science is what we look for when recruiting Carnegie postdocs. She is the perfect choice for the inaugural Origins Fellowship and is setting a high bar for this new position.”

One postdoc is honored every quarter for their extraordinary accomplishments with the Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence (PIE) Award. The award recipient is given a prize of $1000, and is the guest of honor at a departmental gathering where all postdocs can enjoy some celebratory pies.