On August 15, Berkeley High School (BHS) alumna Elisabeth R. Newton led a Dartmouth research team to the confirmation of the discovery of a new planet. The planet, between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn, is called DS Tuc Ab. Not too long ago, Newton walked the halls of BHS and Longfellow Middle School. She graduated from BHS in 2005, and is now an assistant professor of Astronomy and Physics at Dartmouth College, where she discovered DS Tuc Ab.
Newton hopes that her discovery will lead to more scientificinvestigation into the nature of the planet. “Given how few young planets there are, every discovery tells us something about how planets form and evolve,” said Newton. “Because the star [that DS Tuc Ab orbits] is so bright, we can learn a lot more about the planet than just that it exists.” The hope is that the star is similar to our sun, and that DS Tuc Ab is in a system similar to our own. “I’d really like for someone to measure the mass of the planet and for someone to detect its atmosphere so that we can learn about the composition of the planet and its atmosphere,” she explained. “That will tell us whether it’s really different than older planets.” According to Newton, a measurement of DS Tuc Ab’s atmosphere could reveal whether or not the planet is similar to Earth. If it is, then Tuc Ab could be helpful in determining what Earth was like when it was young.
Newton described her path from BHS to discovering the planet at Dartmouth as very clear. “After BHS, I knew I wanted to study physics … I decided to go to the College of Creative Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where I could focus on physics and knew I would have the opportunity to do research.”
She continued to pursue her research into graduate school and the professional field.“In my junior year [at UCSB] I started doing research on galaxies … That experience propelled me to graduate school at Harvard. There I did research, was the TA (teacher’s assistant) for undergrad classes, and did a lot of outreach,” Newton said.
Astronomy students typically do a post-doctorate, and Newton focused hers around community outreach. “My postdoc was a National Science Foundation fellowship so I spent part of my time teaching an introductory astronomy class in a medium security prison.” Newton believes that both her research and teaching background helped her get a job at Dartmouth where she continued her research.
Though Newton’s path into the field followed a relatively clear-cut path, she stressed that this does not have to be the case. “I have friends who have had other careers entirely before returning to school, who went to school after raising kids, or changed their degree to astronomy from something completely different at the last minute.”
While at BHS, Newton was an active student who was very engaged with many aspects of the school community. She was a member of the tech team for theater productions and managed the choir during her senior year. Stephen Salser, her Physics teacher, recalls that she also participated constantly in the classroom. “What I remember the most about her is that she was more willing to question assumptions than any other student I’d had before,” Salser said.
Newton stood out because she was always willing to ask questions in class. “When you’re building knowledge and you have doubts about anything and you don’t speak up, you’re building your knowledge on a shaky base,” said Salser.
Salser, who wrote one of Newton’s college recommendation letters that helped set her on her path, saw Newton’s potential from the start. “I think the strongest predictor of success is perseverance and interest, and she was willing to persevere through anything to get to study what she wanted … She knew exactly what she wanted to do, and nothing could stop her,” said Salser.
Newton also has many fond memories of her science teachers and classes at BHS. “Mr. Salser taught my AP Physics class — also very hard! I remember being wowed by how the speed of light falls out by looking at light as an electromagnetic wave,” she said.
On the feeling of confirming such a major discovery, Newton said, “It was so much fun, I’ve never worked on such a collaborative project before, and it was great seeing how everyone’s contributions came together. My favorite part is how excited folks back in my hometown are.”