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Rising stars join UTSC’s astrophysics group

Assistant Professor Diana Valencia and Associate Professor Kristen Menou bring a wealth of experience and expertise on the search for exoplanets. (Photo by Ken Jones).

Assistant Professor Diana Valencia and Associate Professor Kristen Menou may have come together from different points in space and time. But as a couple, newly recruited, respectively, from a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a tenured position at Columbia University, to UTSC’s Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, they are living out their own particular version of the physicist’s space-time continuum.

Both Menou and Valencia began teaching on campus this fall. They are also linked in their research interests and their enthusiasm for the growing strength of theoretical astrophysics at UTSC. The scientists are planetary physicists in what professor of physics Charles Dyer calls a “young and very active discipline, a real paradigm shift in theoretical astrophysics--exoplanets.”

Exoplanets are those outside our own solar system—systems of stars with other planets orbiting around them. Literally thousands of these confirmed and candidate planets, of varying sizes and composition, have been identified since the mid 1990s.

They have the potential to yield a great deal of fascinating information about the diversity of other worlds and the uniqueness of our own, including how it became habitable.

“The existence of other planets connects to who WE are,” says Menou. “This leads to such philosophical questions as ‘are we alone in the galaxy,’ ‘are we humans really different or special’?”

Menou, who holds a Ph.D. from Paris XI University and has held postdoctoral posts in the U.S., develops mathematical/computer simulations of exotic climates to understand their capacity to support life. Colombian-born Valencia holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and completed her undergrad and MSc at U of T when her family emigrated. Her focus is on the interior of planets, its composition and how it evolves including ways in which it might enable the emergence of life.

“We don’t think of such planets with thick envelopes as being habitable,” she says. Guided by knowledge of life on Earth, Valencia says a first step is to look for a planet that has a surface, with the right temperature to allow for liquid water on it. So far the majority of the exoplanets discovered are either very hot or their surface is beneath a massive atmosphere, like Jupiter. However, Valencia thinks it is only a matter of time before we find a habitable planet.

“Within the billions of galaxies in the universe and the thousands of exoplanets, the likelihood that we on earth are the only life is slight,” adds Dyer, summing up the importance of this field of study and teaching.

As to life as we—or, in fact, Menou and Valencia—know it, they are also the proud parents of one-year-old Liam, thereby bringing their family and their careers together in Toronto and at UTSC.

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