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SETI Institute Announces Recipients of SETI Forward Award for Undergraduates

Press Release From: SETI Institute
Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2021

The SETI Institute announced today the 2020 and 2021 recipients of the SETI Forward award, recognizing outstanding undergraduate interns studying astrobiology and SETI research: Karen Isabel Perez - Columbia University, Ellie White - Marshall University and Siddhant Sharma - University of Delhi. The SETI Forward award provides scholarship funds to support the next generation of scientists pursuing SETI and astrobiology career opportunities and connects promising students with researchers. All three recipients will receive their awards at the 2021 Drake Awards ceremony taking place on May 6, 2021.

“We are delighted to recognize Karen, Ellie and Siddhant for their achievements as summer interns in astrobiology and SETI research programs,” said Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute. “Providing undergraduates with the opportunity to not only do compelling science but also explore and discover career opportunities in STEM fields is so meaningful.  It is precisely why our own internship program is so important.”

The SETI Forward Award is an endowed fund created by Lew Levy and Dane Glasgow, and other donors to support undergraduate student research activities. Each summer, dozens of undergraduates complete internships alongside SETI and astrobiology research scientists – at organizations like the SETI Institute, U.C. Berkeley SETI Research Institute, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, and many others. Too few of these students pursue science careers in SETI and astrobiology fields. SETI Forward seeks to bridge the gap between these internships and career opportunities in SETI science and astrobiology research.

The SETI Forward Award will provide a travel stipend and reimbursement of expenses of approximately $1500 per award to:

  • Assist undergraduate students with travel stipends to facilitate collaboration on SETI research at telescopes, universities, or other research facilities
  • Fund undergraduate student travel expenses associated with presenting SETI research and astrobiology at scientific meetings, conferences, or similar events
  • Provide undergraduate student scholarships to organizations engaged in SETI and astrobiology research to help obtain and nurture new talent in the field

“These students certainly have a bright, productive future ahead of themselves,” said Fritz Demopoulos. Demopoulos sits on the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees, is a donor to the SETI Forward Fund and is a sponsor of the 2021 Drake Awards.  “We at the SETI Institute want to be as close to them as possible along their journey of accomplishment in science.”

Karen Perez is a 2nd-year Astronomy grad student from Houston, TX studying pulsars at Columbia University. She previously obtained her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2019. She earned the opportunity to intern at Breakthrough Listen the following summer (summer 2019), where she worked on testing and improving a pulsar searching pipeline and producing observation catalogs and scripts for the entire Galactic Center Survey. The internship helped reinforce her passion for radio astronomy and opened her eyes to the possibilities of using radio telescopes to look for technosignatures. Since then, she has continued to work with the team as a Visiting Graduate Student, conducting observations and analyzing data (the first of a series of papers with her mentor Vishal Gajjar is out now!) She plans on being a SETI researcher for life and hopes to one day join the ranks of many of you here today. She credits her dad with sparking her interest in astronomy and SETI, but also the countless scientists who have helped make an 8th-grader's dream a reality.   Karen is the recipient of the 2020 SETI Forward award, which was postponed due to the COVID 19 shutdowns.

Ellie White is a physics major at Marshall University. She has been doing radio astronomy since the summer after her sophomore year in high school. During her first summer as an undergraduate, Ellie helped install a test instrument as part of the Cosmic Twilight Polarimeter (CTP) project at Green Bank as a student of Rich Bradley from NRAO. This past summer, she was an intern with the Breakthrough Listen REU program. She helped implement the signal processing software, GNU Radio, at the Allen Telescope Array under the mentorship of Steve Croft, Alex Pollak, and Derek Kozel. She is currently a NASA WV Space Grant Undergraduate Research Fellow and is working on several projects with the GBT and Breakthrough Listen.

Ellie sees SETI and astrobiology as a way to continue to place ourselves – Earthlings – in our broader cosmic context. She feels SETI prompts us to seek connections in our lives as much as it pushes us to find life beyond our Earth.

Siddhant Sharma or ‘Sid’ is from India. He was born in Faridabad, India and is a sophomore undergraduate working towards his degree in concentrations of biochemistry and chemistry. He is an upcoming visiting scholar with Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Seattle (BMSIS) and exposed to SETI's initiatives while attending Technoclimes Workshop in 2020. His research in astrobiology stems from his first summer research experience in 2020 as a research associate for BMSIS. There he worked with a highly collaborative team helmed by Dr. Henderson (Jim) Cleavesfrom Earth Life Science Institute in Japan, unraveling the secrets of prebiotic chemistry of life essential reactions. For the summer of 2021, Siddhant will be joining Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden through the CASSUM fellowship, working with Dr. Martin Rahm on prebiotic macromolecular synthesis using quantum chemistry. Siddhant wants to pursue graduate school and stay in academia, solving exciting problems in astrobiology and the origins of life while collaborating with SETI's efforts. He looks up to his mentor, Dr. Henderson (Jim) Cleaves and admires his passion for mentoring the next generation of young minds.

SETI Forward recipients are selected from the applicant pool by a diverse panel established by the SETI Forward Fund administration. Undergraduates at accepted institutions participating in a mentored internship are eligible to apply.

The next generation of SETI and astrobiology scientists will develop new technologies and make scientific discoveries we cannot even imagine today. The SETI Institute strives to foster future pioneers in SETI and astrobiology through educational programs and awards, such as SETI Forward.

The 2021 Drake Awards will take place on May 6, 2020 and recognize Dan Werthimer and Paul Horowitz for their substantial contributions to SETI research. In addition to the SETI Forward recipients, special guests will include Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Frank Drake and Jill Tarter. To learn more about the 2021 Drake Awards and purchase tickets, click here.

About the SETI Institute

Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages expertise in data analytics, machine learning and advanced signal detection technologies. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia and government agencies, including NASA and NSF. 

Contact information

Rebecca McDonald
Director of Communications
SETI Institute
rmcdonald@seti.org

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