Jessie Christiansen has always been a starry-eyed dreamer. At St Mary’s College in Ipswich, she helped start the high school’s first astronomy club, the Zubenelgenubis.
That early passion for astrophysics has burned bright ever since, propelling her studies and research into a stellar career that has landed her a prize role in her field.
As a Staff Scientist at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Jessie works on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, which is how NASA keeps track of how many exoplanets (planets around other stars) have been found, as well as her own research into how common planets are around other stars.
Looking to the heavens on a daily basis for the world’s largest space agency is a world away from Jessie’s early physics and maths studies at Griffith University, but she says it was the ideal grounding for future work in the astrophysics field.
“I spoke to people in the field and decided that a dual physics and maths major would be the strongest foundation on which I could build an astronomy career,” Jessie says.
“Doing the Advanced Studies extension of the Bachelor of Science at Griffith was such an amazing opportunity to do research in a variety of labs and disciplines.
“Working with a different faculty member each semester allowed me to explore many subjects and types of research – I moved atoms around, I fired proton beams, I modelled the interiors of stars!
“I was allowed to participate in the highs and lows of experimental successes and failures, which helped me fall in love with research as a career.”
“I’m surrounded by people my age and even younger who are achieving amazing things every day.”
After completing her initial studies at Griffith in 2002, Jessie did her Honours at Australian National University then completed her PhD at the University of New South Wales, where she began her hunt for exoplanets that became the focus of her research.
A postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University saw Jessie move to Boston, after which came the call from a NASA colleague about a role that eventually prompted she and her husband to move to Los Angeles for their current roles at Caltech.
Jessie’s input towards aeronautical and space exploration goals during her research into exoplanets – which planets we are missing and why – since joining Caltech was recognised recently with NASA’s Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, a high honour awarded for a scientist’s “unusually significant engineering contributions”.
“It feels incredible and very humbling to be up beside astronauts, and people building robots for Mars, and people who pushed technology to its limits and beyond… I actually emailed them to check that there hadn’t been a mistake when I got the news!” Jessie says.
Announced as Griffith’s Outstanding Young Alumnus Award winner for 2018, Jessie is an advocate for citizen science when it comes to the stars and the planets, and was behind the coordination of the public’s response for ABC’s 2017 Stargazing Live programs, in which 10,000 volunteers made 2 million classifications in two days.
“At the professional astronomy level, everyone is so accomplished, so driven, so results-focused, that I’m surrounded by people my age and even younger who are achieving amazing things every day,” she says.
“It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re in a bubble like that. But my twins tell people that mummy hunts for planets and that they help. So I am glad and grateful that what I do is something they are excited about as well.”
For the next generation of budding astrophysicists who are starting their learning journey at Griffith, Jessie suggests kicking off with the basics.
“Get a solid grounding in physics, maths and astronomy,” she says.
“Consider going international for your PhD, so you can widen your experience and your network. Find a mentor who you communicate well with, who has achieved the things you want to achieve.”