Astrophysicist Mercedes Lopez-Morales Is Grooming the Next Generation of Planet Hunters

“The Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood, Jr. talks with the astrophysicist about adrenaline, fear, curiosity and attracting younger generations to science

Mercedes Lopez-Morales didn’t grow up thinking she would become an astrophysicist.

She spent her childhood living on the Canary Islands in Spain, surrounded by palm trees, coconuts, a volcano and lots of tourists. But she loved math, and she had access to a telescope. The two interests naturally set her on her path to first become a physicist and then an astronomer.

Lopez-Morales, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, sat down with comedian Roy Wood, Jr. at “The Long Conversation,” an event that brought together more than two dozen thinkers for an eight-hour relay of two-person dialogues at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on December 7.

The astrophysicist recognizes that she has a responsibility to attract young people, especially women, into science. Lopez-Morales is known for her work searching for exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, and studying their atmospheres.

"When we all were kids, like you were five or six or seven, they would tell you the stories about other planets, with little aliens on them, and we were all excited. Then, you know, you grow up, you figure out that you have to make money, support your family, and you are like, ‘oh, that’s just stories.’ You sort of lose that little bit of excitement," Lopez-Morales told Wood. "So as scientists, serious scientists, we can bring that excitement back—and it’s not only to kids, but to adults."

As a field, exoplanets, she explains, is very attractive to the public. Hearing young children say that they want to be astronomers, because they want to look for planets, is music to her ears, and Lopez-Morales wants to do what she can to encourage it. As a role model, she is proof that it is possible to make that dream a reality. When she is describing something cool about the universe—like how other stars have planets too and might have the conditions to host life—to young girls, she can see it click in their mind: “That woman looks like me.”

Poking fun at her petite stature, but boasting proudly, she notes, “All of the short, female graduate students want to work with me! And that’s awesome.”

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