Postdoc Spotlight: Astronomer Jonathan Gagné

Jonathan Gagne

What started as a fascination with understanding how things work has evolved into a career of discovery for DTM Sagan Fellow Jonathan Gagné. At DTM, he is on the hunt for new planetary-mass objects within our Galactic neighborhood that are not in orbit around a star. These gaseous bodies, similar to Jupiter, were either formed like stars or were later ejected from their orbit. To do this type of research, he writes computer codes that analyze large sets of data from NASA, searching for which sources of light in the sky could actually be planetary-like. After a lifetime of curiosity, Gagné is now turning his sights toward the skies to figure out exactly how our own Solar neighborhood works. 

We talked to Gagné about what research projects he's currently working on at DTM and what he hopes to do in the future in our latest Postdoc Spotlight.

Jonathan Gagné, Sagan Fellow at DTM. Photo by Amelie Philibert. 

DTM: When did you first become interested in your field of research? Why?

Jonathan Gagné: I've always been fascinated with understanding how things work since as far as I can remember. For this reason, I had been very curious about mathematics and physics in high school, which gradually led me to the field of astrophysics. When I was completing my B.Sc. in Montreal, I heard a lot about the new and exciting discoveries in the field of exoplanets. When I actually tried working in astrophysics for a summer project, I realized that I loved it even more that I suspected, as I found the day-to-day tasks such as programming, thinking about data, and observing at the telescope really enjoyable.

DTM: How did you first hear about DTM? What brought you here?

Gagné: I first heard about DTM when I started collaborating with Jackie Faherty, a former DTM postdoc, back when I was still working on my Ph. D. She told me that this was a great environment for research, and I was fortunate enough for her to send me some Magellan data. Seeing how some of the instruments at Magellan were extremely well-suited to the kind science that I do, this made me even more interested in coming to DTM as a postdoc.

On the right is the Baade telescope at the Magellan Telescopes in Chile. Photo by Jonathan Gagné, DTM.

DTM: What excites you about your work?

Gagné: There are several answers here! The possibility of discovering new astrophysical objects is certainly one, the traveling to amazing landscapes for telescope observing is another, but also the fact that I can express creativity by writing codes, articles, and designing projects are also all very exciting. The non-repetitive and constructive aspect of this work is incredibly satisfying.

DTM: What research projects are you working on now at DTM?

Gagné: My main project is aimed at finding new planetary-mass objects in our Galactic neighborhood (or within ~100 light-years), that are not in orbit around a star. These are gaseous bodies similar to Jupiter, which either formed like stars or formed around stars that were later ejected. To do this, I write computer codes that analyze large and public data sets from NASA and identify which sources of light in the sky could be planetary-like. I then use the Baade telescope at Magellan to investigate them more deeply, by measuring their velocity in three dimensions and looking at the composition of their atmospheres with spectroscopy.

I also have a few side projects that I work on in collaboration with other teams around the world. For example, I work with Marc Kuchner (at Goddard) and Jackie Faherty (at AMNH in New-York) on the Backyard Worlds project, which uses citizen scientists to identify brown dwarfs or even new bodies in our solar system (such as the elusive Planet 9!). I work with Peter Plavchan (at Missouri State) on developing software to analyze data taken with a new camera called iShell, which we will use to look for planets around cold stars in our Galactic neighborhood. I also work in collaboration with Bjorn Benneke, who just moved from Caltech to the University of Montreal, to model the atmospheres of the new planetary-mass objects uncovered in my main project I mentioned before.

An artist impression of the isolated planet SIMP0136. Illustration by NASA/JPL/Jonathan Gagne, DTM.

DTM: What research do you hope to pursue at your next job?

Gagné: I am open to many possibilities! I would love to work in an exoplanet-related field, especially if it involves big data, programming and the use of advanced statistics. There are several subjects that I find very interesting, from detailed modeling of exoplanet atmospheres, to the analysis of the population of exoplanets that will be discovered by the future TESS mission (which is kind of the next Kepler mission), to detailed spectroscopic studies of exciting objects with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

DTM: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Gagné: That's a very hard question! I rarely make plans for where I would like or expect to be in more than a few years, as I instead tend to go with the opportunities that arise. I would very much like to still be doing research that I love, hopefully as part of a dynamic team. This depends a lot on the job market in academia, but in any case, I am pretty sure that in 20 years I will be doing a lot of programming and data analysis, as those are both things I love for which I believe the demand won't go down anytime soon!

Gagné in front of the Keck telescopes at Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, during a run at the NASA IRTF telescope (not in the picture). Photo by P. Plavchan.

DTM: If you could meet one of your science icons, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Gagné: I think I would choose Isaac Newton. He made some of the most important contributions to physics and he was known to have a very weird personality. He has been described as very secretive, deeply neurotic, proud and a-social. His writings have been said to be unsorted and chaotic; he would sometimes redevelop the same theorems over and over on different pieces of paper lost in his disordered writings (maybe because he couldn't find the original somewhere in between pieces on alchemy or theology?). Newton also often wrote his mathematical demonstrations in an obscure way that is almost impossible to follow, to the dismay of scientists or historians who tried to understand how he thought or how he came to these conclusions. Sometimes the results literally seemed like they came out of nowhere. I find it really interesting that his mind seemed so chaotic and out of control, yet he uncovered some of the greatest insights on how the world works. To me, that illustrates how the creative processes in science can be done in an almost more artistic way than a rigorously structured logical way. That would definitely be an encounter I would remember!

The sun setting next to the Magellan Telescopes in Chile before Gagné's observing run. Photo by Jonathan Gagné, DTM.

DTM: Any other interesting anecdotes about your life or career you want to share?

Gagné: Something I love to do in my free time is experiment with all possible ways one can brew coffee. I'm a big fan of coffee tasting. There are some brew methods, like siphon brewing, that are done with almost lab-like equipment, which is awesome and very fun. I always bring with me some compact brewing equipment with my own coffee when I travel for conferences or telescope observing. That makes for interesting encounters at airport security, as they often wonder what is that metallic cylinder I use to grind coffee.

Jonathan Gagné
Personal Website

June 26, 2017

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