Eliza Kempton Receives Prestigious Grant for Research and Teaching

January 24, 2017

Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, recently received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Kempton is the first Grinnell College faculty member to win this prestigious grant. The grant, which is expected to provide more than $680,000 over five years, is the largest grant ever awarded to Grinnell College in support of a single faculty member's work.  

The CAREER grant is one of the NSF's most prestigious and most competitive awards, supporting junior faculty who are exemplary scholars and teachers. Recipients integrate their scholarship with their organization's educational mission.

Kempton's project, titled "Radiative Transfer Modeling of Super-Earth Atmospheres — Looking Toward the James Webb Space Telescope and Beyond" comprises both research and educational aims.

Starting in September 2017, Kempton will create computer programs to model the atmospheric structure and composition of those planets near to Earth in size, or "super-Earths." These programs will be used to study the characteristics of atmospheres of many different types of "super-Earths." She will make these programs broadly available to other scientists to use for their research.

“This work is especially timely," Kempton says, "because it prepares us to understand the observations of super-Earths that will be obtained with the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2018. This project serves the national interest as it helps our scientific understanding of the properties of planets around other stars and prepares us to study planets that are similar to the Earth, and which could harbor life."

To increase success rates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes at Grinnell, Kempton will develop a spatial reasoning course for students with low preparation for STEM fields, and a peer mentoring program for STEM students from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Kempton’s research on exoplanets also is supported by the Research Corporation, the American Association of University Women, the Space Telescope Science Institute and Grinnell’s Harris Faculty Fellowship.

In addition, Kempton is working with Emily Rauscher, principal investigator and assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, on a three-year research project funded by NASA.

This research will extend models of planetary climate and weather developed for a type of exoplanets known as "hot Jupiters," which are gas giants, to a wider array of exoplanet types, including the "super-Earths" that Kempton deals with in her other research projects. Kempton is expected to receive approximately $36,500 from NASA to support student researchers and to fund her travel to Michigan to work with her collaborator, among other expenses.

Kempton has authored and co-authored more than 30 articles related to exoplanets in scientific publications such as Nature and the Astrophysical Journal.