There’s Something in the Air (Out There)

HD 187123 b is Cam Buzard’s favorite planet. About 160 light years away in the constellation Cygnus, it circles a star about as massive as our sun—only so close that a year flies by in three days. It weighs more than 150 Earths and sizzles at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a doctoral student in Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Buzard studies this alien world and others like it. With the encouragement of faculty and support from the Beckman-Gray Graduate Student Fellowship Fund, he enjoys the freedom to forge his own scientific path—somewhere between chemistry and astronomy—while being a devoted teacher and tutor.

In his discipline-crossing research, Buzard turns the tools of chemistry way outward. He seeks insight about the air on rare “hot Jupiters” like HD 187123 b. These gas giants are similar in size to Jupiter but orbit much closer to their host suns than any planet in our solar system.

“In the early days of exoplanet astronomy, people assumed that ours is a typical solar system,” Buzard says. “Among stars that have planets, about half have super-Earths on close orbits, unlike anything we see in our solar system. We also don’t have anything like the hot Jupiters I study. We’re learning that maybe our solar system isn’t very normal after all, and that’s really cool.”

Using data from the W. M. Keck Observatory, he zeroes in on the spectrum of light given off by a hot Jupiter. Because different molecules absorb different wavelengths of light, the energy that filters through the planet’s atmosphere reveals details about the gases within.

Buzard is looking for signatures of methane and water vapor—necessary for life on Earth—as well as carbon monoxide. Additionally, taking a big step further, he aims to pinpoint the ratio of the elemental mix of a hot Jupiter’s atmosphere. His results could create new knowledge about how planets form and evolve.

Tools for Tomorrow

With an eye to the future, Buzard also seeks to refine computational methods for breaking down the spectra of exoplanets. This project will contribute to humankind’s future understanding of distant Earth-like worlds.

Scientists first detected an exosolar planet in 1989, so the field of study is young. It is also due for a major boost, with one advanced NASA space-based telescope launched in 2018 and another nearing completion. Meanwhile, the Keck Observatory will gain new capabilities thanks to forthcoming upgrades to spectrometers and other instrumentation.

Soon, researchers will collect far more, and far more detailed, data about distant worlds. Buzard wants to make sure that the ability to interrogate the data keeps pace.

“There’s an order of 100,000 difference in brightness between what we can see and what we want to be able to see,” Buzard says. “If we want to look at habitable planets, and look for water in their atmospheres, we need to improve both our instrumentation and our observational pipelines.”

Choose Your Own Adventure

Buzard tackles his mission with the mentorship of adviser Geoff Blake, professor of cosmochemistry and planetary sciences and of chemistry at Caltech. Buzard appreciates the freedom Blake has provided.

“He’s open and welcoming, and he wants students to have the graduate experience that they want,” Buzard says. “It keeps us fulfilled. And, in the longer term, this freedom creates better scientists. In research careers, we’re not going to have somebody there telling us which road to take.”

Just as Buzard feels empowered to choose his own scientific path, Blake also encourages him to engage with passions beyond research. Sometimes that means baking bread. Often, it means helping other students learn.

Buzard particularly prizes his time tutoring underrepresented high schoolers in mathematics. He also co-leads a Caltech undergraduate course exploring the overlap between chemistry and astronomy.

“I love connecting with students and helping them understand things in a way that diminishes stress, so they can learn just for the enjoyment of learning.”
- Cam Buzard

Parallel to the independence extended by his adviser, Buzard emphasizes the importance of the Beckman-Gray Fellowship for his work. A Break Through campaign gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, augmented by the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, established this resource.

Some other types of graduate funding come with requirements about the direction of a student’s research. For Buzard, the no-strings-attached fellowship adds another measure of freedom.

“It supports a level of creativity,” Buzard says. “And creativity in research leads to the really interesting, big discoveries.”

Giving Priorities