Former graduate receives NSF MPS-Ascend scholarship to work at SETI Institute


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa .– Sofia Sheikh, who received her Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrobiology at Penn State in 2021, received an Ascending Postdoctoral Fellowship in Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS-Ascend) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Sheikh is a member of the inaugural cohort of MPS-Ascend Fellows, joining outstanding postdoctoral researchers in mathematics and physical sciences across the country in the next stage of their careers. The program supports postdoctoral fellows who will expand the participation of under-represented groups in MPS fields in the United States

Sheikh will work at the SETI Institute – SETI stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” – with the legendary Jill Tarter who co-founded the institute and is the basis of the main character of the film “Contact”.

“We are delighted to see Dr. Sheikh’s outstanding research here at the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) recognized by the NSF with this prestigious scholarship,” said Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and advisor Sheikh graduate. “Dr. Sheikh’s background in SETI is unique. She is a member of the Breakthrough Listen team at UC Berkeley, where she has led several SETI projects, and is also the product of the dual-degree PhD program in Astrobiology at UC Berkeley. Penn State., Which includes graduate courses in SETI. She is only the tenth person in the world to receive a doctorate in physical science for a thesis focused primarily on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. ”

The PSETI Center was established at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science in 2019. The center is dedicated to advancing the research of technosignatures – evidence of past or present alien technology – by creating a world-class SETI research program, training the next generation of SETI researchers, initiating a grant program, coordinating conferences and symposia, and helping to establish a global SETI community. Sheikh was the first student to earn a doctorate with support from the center.

“The PSETI Center provides a unique experience for exceptional students such as Dr. Sheikh,” said Randall McEntaffer, department head and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. “It is the only funded administrative research unit dedicated to SETI in a university and offers students excellent research opportunities. The PSETI Center is also supported by undergraduate and graduate education in the field, with courses being an integral part of the pathways leading to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as to the doctorate at double title. license in astrobiology.

Sheikh’s research for the scholarship will focus on rapid radio bursts (FRBs) and developing improved methods to detect technosignatures specifically by looking for higher radio frequencies and in new areas of the sky. She will also mentor under-represented physics and astronomy students, helping them build strong networks and providing them with valuable research experiences.

“The combination of Sofia’s keen scientific abilities and her daring passion for making her way is truly remarkable,” said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver President for SETI at the SETI Institute. “Sofia is a world-class scientist who demonstrates vision, tenacity and academic excellence in researching a deep and stimulating subject.”

Sheikh’s work will take advantage of the unique qualities of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), the only radio telescope built with SETI as its core business. It foresees three research activities using the ATA: Developing hardware and software to increase the coherent imaging capabilities of the ATA backend. Use these new capabilities to locate and characterize FRBs previously detected with other radio telescopes. And look for signs of intelligent alien life with radio observations of the antisolar point, defining a particular space and time in the sky from which a distant observer could see the Earth in transit around the sun.

“I am honored and extremely happy to bring my NSF MPS-Ascend Fellowship to the SETI Institute,” Sheikh said. underrepresented students in physics and astronomy. ”

Sheikh studied physics and astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley, for his undergraduate studies. She worked with the Breakthrough Listen project at the Berkeley SETI Research Center throughout her university studies, developing her interest in radio astronomy and technosignature research.

“When you’re working on a potentially multigenerational project, you really have to think seriously about training your replacements,” Tarter said. “The Sofia MPS-Ascend Award gives us the opportunity to invoke the next generation and think laterally about what / who / where we can expand opportunities for commensal observation programs. ”

Sheikh’s three-year scholarship officially begins on January 1, 2022.

“Dr. Sheikh’s research at Penn State and in collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley has significantly advanced the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” Wright said. “She has already become a respected leader and sought-after collaborator in the field, and this scholarship will give her the freedom and support to continue this leadership. We couldn’t be more proud of her.”

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