Dr. Jacqueline Faherty: Astrophysicist, Educator & Activist – Brilliant! Young! Vibrant! Hispanic!

Dr. Jackie Faherty

SUZE BIENAIMEE: Jackie and I met at the Rose Center of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she is a Senior Scientist in the Department of Astrophysics. Jackie is not only an avid researcher, but also a passionate educator, mentor and creator of opportunities for underrepresented minorities to enter the “STEM” fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. She also works with the public to identify planets known as brown dwarfs and exoplanets that potentially support life as we know it.

Jackie was one of the fifteen top science and tech leaders recently asked for her opinion on what the year will bring in astronomy. She has a myriad of accomplishments including a three-year Hubble Fellowship. She is a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History that puts her at the forefront of her specialty.

I was fascinated to learn about Jackie’s inspiration and “stellar” career.

Dr. Jackie Faherty, welcome to StudioSeeds! Thank you for sharing your story. Your scientific research, activism and ability to inspire others are fascinating to me and I know they will be for our readers!

Jackie, what inspires you?


I do it because I want to feel inspired every day; I also inspire others — it comes through me; I pass it on to others.

When I was young, I had always been philosophical; I was a dreamer who loved to think about big lofty topics. When I started to think about a career that unlocks the secrets of the universe, literally exploring the big questions at all of our cores: why are we here; where are we going; what is the purpose of all of this; I knew it was for me.

When you do astronomy you’re a part of answering big questions.
– Dr. Jackie Faherty

I study brown dwarfs — which may not give you the answer to the problems of the universe, but it’s one piece in the million-piece jigsaw puzzle we’re all trying to solve.

I have small collection of brown dwarfs I consider my babies; they are the ones I study in depth.

BROWN DWARFS REVEAL EXOPLANETS’ SECRETS: Video Still of Brown Dwarf and Exoplanets by Jackie Faherty

NOTE: Jackie’s article on “Brown Dwarfs Reveal Exoplanets” at link below in LINKS / RESOURCES.

I enjoy travelling to study brown dwarfs and I go most often to the Walter Baade observatory in Chile, which contains a 6.5-meter telescope [over 21 feet in diameter] which can be pointed at whatever we want to see.

The telescopes are very inspirational on their own.
— Dr. Jackie Faherty

At first, I lived in South America continuously for two years, then returned every two months. I haven’t been this year, but I’ve sent students.

Image of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, taken by Stefan Seip, one of the ESO Photo Ambassadors.

To get time on telescopes, you must win it by writing compelling proposals. A specific, small number of astronomers on a Time Allocation Committee evaluate your proposal against other proposals to determine what will be done with the telescope during a six-month semester. If you win, you get to go.

I can observe remotely as well, and I use the museum’s telescope on the same mountain in Chile. The sky there doesn’t have a lot of water vapor and the atmosphere is very calm. It’s over eight thousand feet high and perfect for observing brown dwarfs.

Jackie Faherty at Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile

When I’m at the telescope, I use a computer it’s attached to; this allows me to take the data I’ve collected with me on a hard drive.

I take different kinds of data and a lot of it is imaging — I take an image of the sky with points of light. I just see stars. Other times I take spectra — the light of an object like my brown dwarfs and I pass the light through a prism. The prism spreads the light, so I can see the minute features. 

I know I’m looking at a brown dwarf because there are a couple of telltale signs. They don’t give a lot of light out in the visible range, in what your eye would see. They give off a majority of their light in the infrared – light you can’t see. I look for them in the infrared and get an idea of how hot they might be from the images I’ve taken. I  look at the colors of the objects in the different bands – using different filters.

When you do astronomy you’re a part of answering big questions.
– Dr. Jackie Faherty

I often take an image within the red part of the infrared spectrum and then the blue part and then look at the difference. How much is coming out on one end? Is it more red or more blue? That gives me an indication of how hot the object is.

Brown dwarfs are relatively cold. So, I would want an indication that an object is less than 3000°K (kelvin) which I can figure out first from images. Then I pass the light of that object through a prism and I see what its composition.

When you take white light and you pass it through a prism you get a rainbow — light broken up into its components. White light is actually composed of all the colors of the rainbow — red, orange, yellow, indigo, blue, violet. It’s also, dependent upon what is passing through, like fluorescent light. There I’m taking a tube of gas and heating it so electrons are excited. If you were to take that light and pass it through a prism you would see a signature of whatever the element is that’s heated to create the light. It could be hydrogen. It could be helium. It could be neon, nitrogen, oxygen. There are loads of different gases that you can heat up.

When I take the light from my brown dwarfs, I can see a lot of molecular lines — titanium oxide, vanadium oxide. I’ll see alkaline lines like potassium and sodium. I see iron hydride. Much of that is from the atmosphere of these objects and they are surrounded by clouds — thick clouds of different kinds which seem to be exotic material like iron and sometimes sulfate salt or silicate. I’ll get clouds with the right impurities like corundum stuff which is like a carbon-based silicate cloud, but if you get the right impurities on earth, if you had corundum you would call it ruby or sapphire — they are the rare gems. Usually the things I study may be covered with this kind of mineral.

Dr. Jackie Faherty. Left: at Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History. Right top: at MDM Observatory on Kitt Peak Arizona. Right middle: Waiting for the sun to set at Cerro Tololo Observatory, Chile. Right bottom: at VTL (Very Large Telescope), Cerro Paranal Observatory in Northern Chile.

Brown dwarfs can be the radius of Jupiter, but much larger mass; they are denser. Even our sun is considered a dwarf star — a yellow dwarf.

Dwarf is used for where these objects live, a specific diagram. Brown dwarfs is an extrapolation. The word brown came because when they were predicted it was unclear what they were going to look like and the woman, Jill Tartar (actually the woman the character in the movie Contact was based on). She said, well let’s just call it brown dwarfs because brown is not really a color, it doesn’t really have anything to it — it’s a colorless color. It was not known what their futures were going to be, so they decided on brown dwarfs and it stuck.

Physics gives us an indication of how big they can be and that’s all driven by Rules of Formation — how stars are formed. They form when you have a giant molecular cloud and it collapses in on itself.

The idea of a brown dwarf is that it’s an object which is the smallest fragment of that big cloud. You can get stars like our sun to form out of the collapse of the molecular cloud and then you can get really teeny tiny things.

In the 1950s there was an astronomer who did a physics extrapolation experiment where he was trying to decide what was the lowest mass fragment that can form by asking is there a point where you can’t shrink it? If you try to compress electrons together and they pushback they’re called fermions. Fermions have a property where when you have two electrons that really don’t want to be forced to be next to each other, it’s like being on the subway car that’s empty and the next person that gets on isn’t going to jam right next to you in the seat — that would be a boson. Bosons like to do that.

Fermions are going to spread themselves out someplace nice and far. With electrons, it’s like you get to the subway car and it’s jammed to capacity and they’re just not going to let you get on. You can’t get on. Even if you could shove and make a little more room there is what’s called a “bounce back” and we call it “electron degeneracy pressure”. That’s when the electrons push back and say we’re not getting pushed any closer together and at that point it’s about a Jupiter radius. Once that occurs and the pushback happens, no matter how much mass is pushed on, you’ll never get the temperature at the core of this object to be hot enough to get nuclear fusion. The only reason our sun is able to burn the way it does — to glow — is because the core is so hot that we can get hydrogen to fuse into helium. And because of that it’s a nuclear engine, but if the sun were cooler at the core, it would not be the object it is. Physics drives all of this.

For me there was an ultimate groundbreaking moment. I was good at math and science, but I didn’t have a female role model in science — because there weren’t any. None, I would say and that was very sad. I decided I wanted to make a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and this seemed like a good aspiration.

I would say I was a very strong-willed female — dare I say a feminist without really knowing what that word meant at the time. Yet I didn’t realize I was repressing myself from following a career path that was male-dominated. I didn’t think about doing it probably because I couldn’t see myself doing it. I didn’t see my mirror image. Also, I didn’t see women in my family with higher degrees. There were actually no women with even bachelor’s degrees for me to look to.

So now I have my Ph.D., but when I was growing up a Ph.D. was something I would never have thought of. My father had his J.D. and I’m always asked who in my family influenced me, but if it’s the opposite gender that ends up impacting you, you don’t see yourself. I never thought, I could always do what my dad does; it wasn’t like that, and he would’ve never even considered a scientific career — it wasn’t his thing.

Yet between my freshman and sophomore year in college a movie came out. It was the film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book Contact. This is noted by many women my age as being why they are in astronomy today. It is true for me too.

Part of why it was such a big deal for many of us is not only is it a beautiful story, exciting science fiction and our first contact with potentially intelligent life from a different civilization in a different solar system, it was also inspiring. What was most important for me and a lot of women in science, was that the lead character was a woman. She leads the charge. It’s her project that discovers the signal. It’s her team that solves a lot of the mysteries.

It was the moment after I left the film, I had a life-changing feeling. It was a huge shift — there was a 180° turn in my body. I was in between freshman and sophomore year in college; I was 18 years old, and I just knew I had made a turn.

I hadn’t ever considered a career in science because I was a woman and I didn’t have a role model — a fictional character in the film cut it open for me and said, “you could do this and here’s what you get to do”.

At the start of the next semester, I went to the Dean’s office and said, “switch my major”. I was a liberal arts major — general studies. I really like literature and reading; I was going to do economics later and go to the London School of Economics. I had a whole Plan A career, but it evaporated right then. I never looked back, never regretted it and never felt science was a bad decision. I’ve always felt the same since that moment — this is what I should do. I want to do this. This is what I want to dedicate myself to every day.

Twilight — waiting for the night. Jackie at Cerro Tololo in northern Chile

Now I’m a big advocate for women in science, in part because of what I saw when I was younger — there was just a dearth of women, and it is not just that, I want more women of color. I want more minorities, women from Hispanic backgrounds. I’m half Hispanic. My mother was Puerto Rican, so for me that’s also a major part of this.

I tell students all the time, if you even have a hint you want to do this, take physics classes early, take them in high school.
— Dr. Jackie Faherty

Not only did I have no role models for science, I had none that acted like I did or looked like I did. There’s also something to that. The traditional scientists look very generic, very tucked in, very introverted. It doesn’t have to be like that either.

It can be the fun, hip, exciting young woman that’s a brilliant scientist. That can be the picture of the scientist. This didn’t exist when I was young and now it does. There are far more of us around that try to push this out there for women.

Jackie Faherty, behind the scene.

What’s also interesting, is I watched Contact again recently — because it was such an inspirational movie I decided I would re-watch it. I usually stay away from this sort of thing. Fifteen years had gone by; I didn’t want to ruin my initial memory. They say every time you access memory you change it. So, when you access your memories, whatever the emotion is then, it imprints — you’re constantly manipulating your own history.

I didn’t want to touch the memory, but I just stumbled upon the movie again and watched. It was so interesting because I had thought she had been such a strong, vibrant female and that’s how I remembered her as the bad ass, but she’s not. She gets pushed around; she gets stomped on by the men. She fights in a very meek way. She lets the guy, the male lead, bulldoze her because he wants the credit for her work. He gets it, but she is so brilliant, she finds her way out of it, but it is in a way, the same today, however, I wouldn’t stand for it. I wouldn’t stand for somebody bulldozing me today.

When I first started, I was told again and again,
“you’re not good enough at this, get out”.

I quietly took it, went back; I studied harder
and worked more.
— Dr. Jackie Faherty

Earlier in my career, I let people bulldoze me as well, so I built up thicker skin. I wasn’t the person I am today. When I first started, I was told again and again, “you’re not good enough at this, get out”. Rather than scream back and say, “screw you, you don’t know what you’re talking about”, I quietly took it and went back and studied harder and worked more.

Jackie, teaching at Easter Island.

I should also add, when I made the decision to switch my major to physics, I had never taken a physics class before. When I had the shift of “I’m doing this”, all I had taken were math and science classes, but I had not taken physics, so I walked into an honors level physics majors’ class in college. This was the only level I could go in to. I was a year behind the other students because it was my sophomore year, not my freshman year when everyone else had taken freshman classes. I was way behind. The classes immediately started at honors level, so I was not good at first. I struggled; my grades suffered. It was either be a physics major or not. People don’t usually toy with that major — you are usually all in early or you’re not.

Science is something that takes work,
it takes effort and you need the background.
– Dr. Jackie Faherty

I tell students all the time, if you even have a hint you want to do this, take physics classes early — take them in high school. Study this material so you don’t go to college without it. In almost every university, if you want a science degree you don’t get that first year to play around with your major to take whatever classes you want and decide later.

It’s always going to be a struggle and one shouldn’t
give up just because it’s hard.
— Dr. Jackie Faherty

I co-run a dynamic research group at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) entitled Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC) along with leading scientists Dr. Kelle Cruz of CUNY Hunter College and Dr. Emily Rice of CUNY College of Staten Island.

I am also active, proud, and passionate about Backyard Worlds. There is a website with loads of outreach related things, for example, we have citizens help us find objects near the sun that might be brown dwarfs or Planet 9s. We have over one-hundred thousand volunteers with almost a million classifications and we’ve had our first paper come out. There is a blog that covers what we have been doing.

I co-run a dynamic research group at AMNH entitled Brown Dwarfs in New York City (BDNYC) along with leading scientists Dr. Kelle Cruz of CUNY Hunter College and Dr. Emily Rice of CUNY College of Staten Island.

I am also active, proud, and  passionate about Backyard Worlds. There is a website with loads of outreach related things, for example, we are have citizens help us find objects near the sun that might be brown dwarfs or Planet 9s. We have over 100K volunteers with almost a million classifications (site needs updating) and we’ve had our first paper come out and there is a blog that covers what we have been doing.

SUZE BIENAIMEE: Wow! Jackie, it’s an honor to have you share your story with StudioSeeds. You are a courageous, brilliant, hip scientist! I know you will inspire many by the path you are blazing. I hope they become involved in your outreach programs at the links below.



Citizen science project searching the realm beyond Neptune for brown dwarfs and Planet Nine. Sign up!



The world’s largest and most successful citizen science organization. Projects include Galaxy Zoo, Old Weather, Planet Hunters, Snapshot Serengeti & more.
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BROWN DWARFS REVEAL EXOPLANETS’ SECRETS: Article and Video Still of Brown Dwarf and Exoplanets by Jackie Faherty

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AMNH.org, American Museum of Natural History On the home page click on these tabs:

Learn & Teach https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/adults/bridgeup-stem

Research https://www.amnh.org/our-research

BDNYC.org  Dr. Flaherty’s research group entitled Brown dwarfs in New York City (BDNYChttp://www.bdnyc.org Brown Dwarf Research at AMNH, Hunter College-CUNY and College of Staten Island-CUNY
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Social Media
@JFaherty, Twitter
@StudioSeeds, Twitter
@StudioSeeds_Inspire, Instagram

Dr. Jacqueline Faherty: Astrophysicist, Educator & Activist – Brilliant! Young! Vibrant! Hispanic! StudioSeeds Inspire By Suze Bienaimee