“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”
This is Captain Kirk’s introductory speech at the top of nearly every episode of the original Star Trek series, but it could just as well describe Michelle Kunimoto’s research. Kunimoto, 26, an astronomer and hardcore Trekkie, has discovered dozens of planets while an undergraduate and Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
She uses publicly available data collected by NASA’s Kepler Mission. The Kepler telescope observed space from 2009 to 2018, looking for exoplanets, which are planets outside our Solar System. By looking at the data in a new, more sensitive way, Kunimoto found signals of planets that Kepler had missed, including at least two that may support liquid water.
Kunimoto successfully defended her Ph.D. at UBC and has just started a postdoctoral research position at MIT. There, she is working on the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Mission, an MIT-led NASA mission to discover exoplanets.
Last month, Inverse spoke to Kunimoto about her innovation, and sci-fi nerdom. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
COULD YOU STATE YOUR NAME, AGE, AND TITLE YOU’D LIKE TO GO BY?
My name is Michelle Kunimoto, I’m 26 years old, and my title as of just a few weeks ago is Dr. Kunimoto.
DID YOU DO YOUR DEFENSE REMOTELY?
Defenses are typically meant to be public, so anybody can join and sit in. But the problem is because it's virtual, the only people who are allowed were the supervisor, the examiners, and myself. So we had to cut out a whole portion of questions from the audience, and the examiners had to think up more questions. The audience questions are usually a bit easier to answer, and instead, they got replaced by more technical questions from the experts.
My dissertation was about searching for new exoplanets in Kepler data, and based on how many I found, I can make an estimate of how common planets are in the galaxy, specifically potentially habitable Earth-like exoplanets.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH SCIENCE?
When I was in grade nine, my great uncle passed away, and he had a telescope that he actually just used for bird watching. We went over to his place to clean out all his stuff, and I found it and I said, "Hey, can I take this?" I was currently taking an astronomy unit in high school with a really great teacher. And so I took the telescope home and I started using it to look at things like planets in our solar system. As I got better at using it, I started to find things like nebulae and looked at star clusters. There was not really any guide, it was just me just looking around to see what I could find.
It came with the original receipt, and I think it was bought in the late '60s. I took it to the telescope store and they said, "Oh my goodness, I haven't seen a Questar in years." They said it's the holy grail of telescopes. This is one of my most prized possessions now. Every now and then it'll be a nice clear night and I can go outside, you can see Saturn's rings and stripes on Jupiter.
I think that the combination of that and watching Star Trek for the first time really kind of set me on the path toward astronomy. My dad introduced my brother and me to the original series, which he watched as a kid. It instilled a sense of curiosity in me. It was really ahead of its time, and it was all about searching for new civilizations, new life, boldly going where no one has gone before. I think I was just like, "Uh-huh. Okay. Looking for signs of life. That's a really fascinating fundamental question."
WHO WAS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER ON THE SHOW?
Spock. I always thought he was such a fascinating character because of being half-human, with that very emotional human side, and half-Vulcan, which is supposed to be devoid of emotion. So he had that duality, that conflict in him. As a kid growing up, I was very, very introverted. I was quite serious, and everyone used to tell me that I was just like Spock. Watching his character grow over the series was really good for me.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BREAKTHROUGH IN SCIENCE?
I took a class at UBC, my university, on exoplanets and astrobiology. I had no research experience at that time, I didn't know much about finding exoplanets. And at the end of that course, I just went up to the professor and said, "Hey, I'm interested in this. I'm wondering if there's an opportunity to do a summer internship with you." And I eventually got that job. And it was just, "Hey, let's try to find if Kepler missed any planets, and you can use code to look through it."
I was starting to look through this data to try to find new planets and starting to see things that could be planets. I'd look them up in the database and Kepler hadn't found them yet. So did I find something, or is it just a fluke and it's not actually a planet? My breakthrough would be the first time that I found something that I really thought, "Okay, this looks promising, and Kepler hasn't found it yet." There's a level of caution, because you want to make sure that what you found is real, but definitely a level of excitement, too.
That two-month internship then turned into my honors undergrad thesis, and then my dissertation, so it obviously was a very important two months.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST FAILURE IN SCIENCE?
In undergrad, I was part of a science Co-op program that gave access to a database where you can submit your resume and apply for certain positions that are geared for students looking for work. The people who encouraged students to do it all say, "You'll get these great jobs. It's highly unlikely that you won't find a job by the end." And then to be one of those highly unlikely cases where I didn't get a job after four years of trying, it was disappointing and a bit demoralizing. I felt like I felt like I had a lot to offer, but people didn't see that.
Asking my exoplanet professor for an internship position was out of character for me, because I’m very, very shy. If I had gotten Co-op jobs, I probably wouldn't have done that. Some of the Co-op jobs were things like working at the front desk of a planetarium, handing out pamphlets and leading tours. That would have brought me to a totally different place.
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT YOUR INNOVATION?
When I'm looking for planets, I have to decide at what point do I consider it a planet candidate, or at what point it's not a strong enough signal to look further into. Kepler had a very strict threshold at which they would discard a signal and not investigate it further.
It’s kind of like if you're in a crowded room, and you're listening, and there's a lot of people talking around you. Kepler would listen for someone that was speaking very loudly against the noise level of the room, and I was willing to spend more time to listen to the people who are speaking really quietly. In other words, the threshold that I used was lower than what Kepler did. So I had the potential to find a lot weaker signals that Kepler would have ignored completely. Two of the four planet candidates that I found as an undergrad were in that really weak signal regime that Kepler would have passed over.
“LISTEN[ING] TO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SPEAKING QUIETLY” IS A REALLY GOOD ANALOGY, AND IT SEEMS LIKE IT PARALLELS WHO YOU ARE AS AN INTROVERT. DID YOU COME UP WITH IT?
I didn't actually come up with the analogy, it was my dad that did. It was right before I gave my very first talk about my research, to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vancouver chapter. The audience was made up of amateur astronomers and members of the general public interested in astronomy, so I needed to make sure that I could communicate what I was researching. I asked him for ideas for analogies, and that’s what he gave me.
I hate public speaking, and I always felt very uncomfortable with it. I was always trying to find ways to challenge myself so I could be more comfortable with it. And that was a great opportunity: I can talk about something I really enjoy, talk to people who I know are going to be interested because they're there to hear about astronomy.
"Stay curious, always ask questions, and to never lose the student inside of you."
WHY ARE YOU DRAWN TO STUDYING EXOPLANETS?
I think it ties back into my whole interest in Star Trek. Finding life out there is such a fundamental question. “Are we alone?” It's a question everybody's asked themselves at some point in their life, and looking for planets, to me, feels like we can start to answer that question.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FERMI PARADOX?
It's very possible that there's a really intelligent life form out there, but to them, we're just ants. We don't care about the ants walking around on the sidewalk, right? Why would we care about their lives? We could be so far behind technologically and in intelligence that they don't care about us. That's a bit of a pessimistic view of how we're seen in the galaxy.
I think that we can think about our own footprint on the galaxy, like what nearby system we could potentially be able to communicate with. The galaxy is so large that we're only taking up a very, very small section of it. So there could be a lot of other civilizations just like us and just because they're so far away, we won't find signals coming from them for the next potentially hundreds of thousands of years. Stars looked at by Kepler, for instance, are thousands of light-years away. If there are any civilizations living on these planets, that would have been 3,000 years in the past, and who knows what would have happened to them since then.
YOU’VE GONE VIRAL BEFORE FOR YOUR DISCOVERIES. WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST MEANINGFUL FANMAIL YOU’VE RECEIVED?
Other young scientists see that I did all this without prior research experience and I was just an undergraduate student. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to contribute to exoplanet discoveries; I think that really resonates with people. And as a result, I get a lot of messages from high school students about how they can get involved with finding planets. I've written up guides for people to look for planets, to use the same code that I used so that they could do exactly what I did. Even if they don't find any planets, just to be able to learn about that in such a hands-on and interactive way is really valuable.
I think a lot of what we need to do in astronomy is encourage more people in the general public to care about astronomy, because a lot of the missions that we depend on to get this amazing data requires funding. A really good way to do that is to show how they can get involved themselves. One community called Planet Hunters has found over 100 planets in Kepler data because of members of the general public.
WHAT’S A PROBLEM YOU’D LIKE TO SOLVE IN YOUR CAREER?
There's such a lack of consensus with how common potentially habitable planets are. I really want to try to figure out why. Now, I can understand that everyone is using their own data and methods. But how sensitive is that number to different methods? Hopefully, we can start to understand what the true number is, so that we can design future exoplanet finding missions most efficiently.
WHAT’S THE MOST USEFUL PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED, AND WHO GAVE IT TO YOU?
I know it sounds cliche, but "follow your dreams." My parents have always instilled that in me. My dad, [a doctor], is someone who is in a career that he absolutely loves. So he really understands the value of doing something that you love and being able to love what you do. When you love going to work, it's not work anymore, it's having fun.
WHAT’S ONE THING MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU?
I think something people would be surprised about is I have yet to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whenever people are like, "Oh, what's your favorite sci-fi movie?" I'm like, "Okay, how do I get around this without letting it slip that I haven't seen it?" I usually tell them Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
DOES IT ANNOY YOU WHEN SCI-FI FRANCHISES GET THE SCIENCE WRONG WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT SPACE AND ASTRONOMY?
It depends. Some of them are just so blatantly wrong and like to throw out words just because it sounds cool, and that does annoy me. But if it looks like they're trying, I can suspend my disbelief. An example would be [the television series] The Flash. They like to throw around the words "dark matter" a lot. If we knew that dark matter existed, that would be an enormous scientific discovery.
HOW DO YOU UNWIND?
I played Dungeons and Dragons with a group, not right now because of COVID. We tended to meet up pretty regularly. What I really like is optimizing: it's called min-maxing, like making the best build that you can that deals the most damage.
I like to play as whatever class does the most damage in the edition that we're playing. So in fourth edition that was a Ranger, and in fifth edition that's a Fighter. This kind of perspective on gaming in D&D is not very popular. A lot of people are like "No, it's a role-playing game first and foremost," and I'm like, "No, it's all about winning."
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NEXT?
I’m supposed to start a postdoc at MIT on July 1. And I’ll be working on the TESS Mission, the current exoplanet-finding mission. I'll be developing the pipeline that looks for planets, and I'll also be helping vet the planets: looking at different signals, trying to determine which ones are the best planet candidates that could deserve follow-up imaging.
Eventually, I want to become a professor at UBC. I was the only exponent person at UBC; as a result, it did feel a little isolating. It would be cool if I could come to UBC and start up my own group, so that I can work on exoplanets at the university I really love.
WHAT WOULD THE KUNIMOTO LAB WEBSITE LOOK LIKE?
Part of my website would probably be talking about my outreach with members of the general public. I would have some links so that you can understand the basics of exoplanets. Just anything to try to make it really accessible so that people would be interested to find out more.
WHAT’S A PREDICTION YOU HAVE FOR 2030?
I'd like to think that by then we'll have sent a probe to Europa: that's one of Jupiter's moons. It's got an icy surface, but underneath the ice is what we believe is a whole ocean of liquid water. I know there's planned missions to Europa because they want to make sure that there is water there, and if so, does it have signs of life in it?
WHO WOULD YOU WANT TO PLAY YOU IN THE MOVIE OF YOUR INNOVATION?
It would be nice if it was someone who was half-Asian like I am. Or Tatiana Maslany. She’s in the show Orphan Black, which is a Canadian science-fiction show. Over the course of this series, she plays like 10 different people who are all clones of each other. If I were to go to a Comic-Con I might cosplay as one of her characters, Cosima, because she was a geneticist.
WHO’S A SCIENTIST YOU WANT TO SHOUT OUT?
Jill Tarter. She is a big name at the SETI Institute, which is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I'm not sure if you've seen the movie Contact, but the main character is based on her. I was able to meet her very briefly when I went down to Mountain View as an undergrad, and it was a really huge honor to be able to chat with her even for a few minutes.
There's so much we can learn about the world, and I think curiosity is something that has really bound a lot of us together. Even amid the Space Race, which was primarily about trying to assert dominance about who could get to the Moon first — when people landed on the Moon, everybody around the world was watching, and I think it's because we're just so amazed at what we can learn and what we can achieve. I'd like to encourage people, whatever field you're in, to stay curious, always ask questions, and to never lose the student inside of you.
The Inverse Young Innovators series has stories you won’t get anywhere else about the STEM leaders of tomorrow who are making an impact today.