SETI Institute to Recognize 4 Undergraduate Students at Drake Awards Event

Press Release From: SETI Institute
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The SETI Institute named three undergraduate students as recipients of its SETI Forward Award: Yiwei Chai, Raffy Traas and Zoe Weiss. Mary Clare Greenlees will receive the REU Award of Excellence for her outstanding undergraduate research internship at the SETI Institute.

The SETI Forward Award recognizes outstanding undergraduates studying astrobiology and SETI research. SETI Forward provides scholarship funds to support the next generation of scientists and connects promising students with working researchers.

The REU Award for Excellence honors an outstanding SETI Institute intern. All four recipients will receive their awards at the 2022 Drake Awards ceremony on May 12, 2022.

“We think it’s crucial to encourage and enable the next generation of SETI scientists,” said Fritz Demopoulos, SETI Institute Trustee. “Without a doubt, our next great breakthroughs will emanate from science and engineering. Let’s lean forward and cheer from the sidelines.”

This year’s recipients pursued a range of research projects:

  • Investigating the evolutionary transition from RNA enzymes which function in prebiotic conditions to more modern enzymes
  • Developing a GNU Radio SETI search pipeline for the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array
  • Using Cassini VIMS (visible and infrared mapping spectrometer) data to determine whether there is organic material (aromatic or aliphatic) present on Saturn’s satellite, Rhea
  • Improving the Breakthrough Listen data processing pipeline by enabling it to leverage the computational power of Google Cloud Platform

The SETI Forward Award is supported by 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.

“SETI Forward promotes the generational search for life outside Earth and encourages young people to join the search,” said Levy.

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

“SETI research is taking ever greater strides towards answering one of the most profound and exciting questions in science,” said Simon Steel, Deputy Director, Carl Sagan Center. “We have the technology and, thanks to SETI Forward, the people to drive SETI into a new era of discovery. Congratulations to the SETI Forward recipients!”

SETI Forward Recipients

Yiwei Chai
Yiwei Chai

Yiwei Chai is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in physics. She received the opportunity to undertake a research internship at the Berkeley SETI Research Center in the summer after her junior year. She worked with Dr. Wael Farah to develop a GNU Radio SETI search pipeline for the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The internship helped her develop a greater appreciation for data-driven SETI approaches and the observation-to-analysis pipeline. She particularly enjoyed the week she spent on-site at the ATA in Hat Creek, CA, during which she also learned how to drive a buggy! This fall, Yiwei will be headed to Johns Hopkins University to begin a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics, where she hopes to pursue questions about exoplanet populations and planetary habitability.

“My experience at the Berkeley SETI Research Center was wonderful,” said Chai. “I had the opportunity to learn a lot about how questions are asked and investigated in this field while also being exposed to various hard skills that are important to doing astronomy research in general. The internship also had a great balance of interesting work and interesting experiences—it’s not every summer that you get to visit two different observatories and see the instrumentation and the backend where all the professional observing and research happen! I came out of the summer with a better idea of what life as an astronomer might look like and can say that I am very excited to pursue that path.”

Raffy Traas
Raffy Traas

Raffy Traas is a 4th-year undergraduate studying astrophysics and applied math at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He was adopted from the Philippines at the age of 2. He seeks to use these experiences to someday help advance the visions, missions, and goals of the recently founded Philippine Space Agency as a researcher and science communicator. As an intern at Breakthrough Listen under the mentorship of Steve Croft, Raffy improved its data processing pipeline by enabling it to leverage the computational power of Google Cloud Platform. Using this new processing infrastructure, he analyzed Breakthrough Listen’s initial observations of stars identified as potential Earth-like exoplanet hosts. The analysis culminated in a first-author publication in the Astronomical Journal. He plans to pursue graduate school to study cosmology but hopes to continue being involved with SETI and stay connected to the community.

Zoe Weiss
Zoe Weiss

Zoe Weiss is a junior at Harvard University concentrating in Chemical and Physical Biology with a secondary in Mathematics. She is an undergraduate researcher in the Szostak Lab. Her research investigates the evolutionary transition from RNA enzymes functioning in prebiotic conditions to more modern enzymes. Her joint computational and experimental analyses collectively reveal how RNA functions are interconnected in sequence space and illuminate viable paths toward the evolutionary diversification of RNA enzymes. Originally from Atlanta, she has always been passionate about interdisciplinary research. After college, she hopes to pursue an MD/Ph.D. to become a quantitative physician-scientist.

“The SETI Forward award has inspired me to continue research at the intersection of chemistry and astrobiology.” Said Weiss. “In my future studies, I hope to continue answering the “how” questions of the various paths evolution has taken, from the astronomy of raw materials to the mechanism of their development, to such complex, diverse, and mysterious forms of life.”

REU Award of Excellence recipient:

Mary Clare Greenlees
Mary Clare Greenlees

Mary Clare Greenlees is a senior at Barnard College and will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Astrophysics in May 2022. Mary Clare participated in the 2021 SETI REU program, where she worked with Dr. Cristina Dalle Ore and Dr. Rachel Mastrapa. The project uses Cassini VIMS data to determine whether organic material (aromatic or aliphatic) is present on Saturn’s satellite, Rhea. This research is part of a survey of the icy satellites of Saturn with past targets such as Iapetus, Hyperion, and Phoebe. The broader implications of this work are to understand the presence of organic materials in the Saturn system and understand interactions between icy satellites.

“My summer at the SETI Institute cemented my desire to pursue a career in planetary science,” said Greenlees. “It was an invaluable experience where I met amazing scientists and fellow undergrads while furthering my skills as a researcher. I’m forever grateful to the SETI Institute for allowing me to become part of their community.”

The 2022 Drake Awards presentation will take place on May 12, 2022, at a public event held at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. This year’s recipient is Dr. Shelley Wright, who is being for her innovative development and use of new instruments for optical SETI. The award presentation will also be live-streamed via Zoom for those unable to attend in person. Science Advisory Board member Timiebi Aganaba will host. Additional honorees will include recipients of the SETI Forward Award, which encourages future scientists to pursue careers in the search for life in the universe and the Carl Sagan Center Director's Award, which honors outstanding achievement in astrobiology technology and exploration of life in the universe.

For more information about the 2022 Drake Awards, 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 lead humanity's quest to understand the origins and prevalence of life and intelligence in the universe and share that knowledge with the world. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages 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 the National Science Foundation.

Contact information
Rebecca McDonald
Director of Communications
SETI Institute

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