Postdoc Spotlight: Astronomer Erika Nesvold

Erika Nesvold

Born to one of the original "Trekkies" (her mother) DTM Postdoctoral Fellow Erika Nesvold grew up a self-proclaimed science fiction nerd, a hobby that soon evolved into her passion for astronomy. Today she ventures into the stars her fellow Star Trek fans dreamed of one-day exploring for themselves by studying the effects exoplanets have on their debris disks, which are like huge asteroid belts around other stars. By applying computer models to telescope images of debris disks, Nesvold can predict where an exoplanet might be hidden. When she’s not searching the galaxy for new exoplanets, Nesvold can be found working on something a little closer to home, a project through NASA’s Frontier Development Lab to study the deflection of asteroids that might one day threaten the Earth and its ability to “live long and prosper.”

DTM Postdoctoral Fellow Erika Nesvold at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in 2013 in Denver. Photo by Henry Throop, courtesy of Erika Nesvold.

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

Erika Nesvold: I was a science fiction nerd from childhood (my mother was one of the original Trekkies), which inspired a love of astronomy. So when I was trying to figure out what to do with my math degree after college, I realized that I could apply my math skills to doing something that really excited me: study astrophysics. I was lucky to start my graduate career right as the field of exoplanet studies was starting to explode. My specific field of study is computational dynamics, which involves building computer models of the way stars, planets, and asteroids move under the influence of gravity. My experience with math and computer programming really comes in handy in this field.

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

Nesvold: I worked with a lot of former DTM postdocs during my graduate work at Goddard, and met more DTM astronomers at the 2014 National Capital Area Disks meeting, which was hosted by Carnegie. I later gave an Astro Seminar talk at DTM and had a long chat with John Chambers, a dynamicist who’s had a huge influence on the field. After talking with John, I decided to apply for the Carnegie DTM Fellowship as I was finishing my thesis.

 This figure from one of Nesvold's recent papers shows a model of a debris disk being shaped by a distant planet on a highly-inclined orbit. The disk gets puffier and puffier with time, so we know that if we see a puffed-up debris disk like this, we should be on the look out for a distant planet. Nesvold et al. (2016)

DTM: What excites you about your work? 

Nesvold: I love using math and computer models to study what’s happening in distant star systems. Developing astronomical models is like building myself a playground full of stars and planets that I get to play around in all day. It’s even more exciting when I get to see my colleagues using my work to improve their observations in their search for other planets.

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

Nesvold: Most of my work involves studying the effects that exoplanets have on their debris disks (which are like huge asteroid belts). I apply my models to telescope images of debris disks, to predict where an exoplanet might be hidden. I’ve also recently started working on something a little closer to home, a project through NASA’s Frontier Development Lab to study the deflection of asteroids that might one day threaten the Earth.

Nesvold presenting her hand-drawn poster at Carnegie's annual poster session in 2016, which she helped organize this year. Photo by Robin Dienel, DTM.

DTM: What research do you hope to do in the future?

Nesvold: I’m interested in developing models that can not only predict the presence of exoplanets but also study their habitability. Finding planets that are capable of harboring life is the next major step towards finding life outside the Earth, which is a passion I share with many of my colleagues. 

DTM: What do you hope to be doing at your next job? 

Nesvold: Building bigger and better models to help my colleagues understand the exoplanets they see through their telescopes! I love building tools that other scientists can use to study the universe. I’m also really interested in using computer code to help non-astronomers learn more about the subject. 

Nesvold presenting a talk about her thesis work at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in 2013 in Denver. Photo by Henry Throop, courtesy of Erika Nesvold.

DTM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20? 

Nesvold: The great thing about having a physics Ph.D. is that there are so many options, so it’s hard to predict! I might be working as a professor at a university, continuing my research in exoplanets and disks, and training the next generation of astronomers. Or maybe I’ll be developing computer models in an industry position to help develop new technologies. I have a bunch of books I’d like to write (both fiction and non-fiction), so maybe in 20 years, I’ll be enjoying the lifestyle of a best-selling author!

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

Nesvold: I have this non-so-secret alternate life on the weekends when I volunteer as a firefighter and EMT in Maryland. I’ve been doing it since I was 16. I find these days that it really keeps me grounded after spending the week with my head in the stars. 

Erika Nesvold
Personal Website

Interview by Robin Dienel
January 23, 2017

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