Penn State's Jason Wright named recipient of SETI Institute's 2019 Drake Award

Rebecca McDonald and Seth Palmer
March 26, 2019

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Jason Wright, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of the University's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Drake Award by the SETI Institute. Drake Award recipients are nominated by the SETI Institute’s Science Advisory Board and confirmed by the institute's board of trustees.

Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and member of the University's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.

Jason Wright is associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of the University's Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.

IMAGE: Jody Barshinger

“Professor Wright has demonstrated and discussed the important science that is at the root of the Drake Equation, approaching the scientific opportunities involved in a rational and productive manner,” said John Rummel of the SETI Institute’s Science Advisory Board. “He is the scientific leader of a truly outstanding team who, themselves, make significant contributions to science and public communications.”

Wright is particularly passionate about training the next generation of SETI researchers. SETI refers to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. At present, SETI research is not significantly funded by the government, so very few people are being trained in the field. In 2018, Wright launched Penn State’s first graduate-level course in SETI — one of only two in the United States — and he also is working to establish the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a global hub for SETI research and education, at University Park.

“There are many potential technosignatures to search for, and this makes SETI a broad field that makes use of most of astronomy,” said Wright. “At Penn State we see SETI as an academic discipline — a part of astrobiology — and our students can learn about all of the past work in the field and train in its methods.”  

The SETI Institute’s Drake Award is named for Frank Drake, founder of modern SETI research; creator of the Drake Equation, which guides much technosignature research; and the first president of the SETI Institute’s board of trustees. Previous recipients of the Drake Award include Frank Drake; Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes; and William Barucki, principal investigator for NASA’s Kepler mission. Last year’s recipient was astrobiologist Victoria S. Meadows, whose work focuses on the scientific estimation of environments on extrasolar planets and on the search for signs of habitability and life.

“The discovery of exoplanets and the Kepler mission’s revelation that planets are ubiquitous in our galaxy have forever changed our perspective on our place in the universe,” said Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute. “Advances in astrobiology and extremophiles research are teaching us that life can exist in extreme conditions that mere decades ago were thought to be impossible. We are on the cusp of the most exciting period in human history for space exploration, and the search for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth has never been more compelling. We are delighted to honor Jason as one of the young pioneers and leaders in SETI research and further recognize how he leverages his exciting research for educational purposes.”

In addition to his SETI work, Wright studies stars, their atmospheres, their magnetic activity and their planets. He is a project scientist for NEID, a NASA project to provide the U.S. community with a premier planet-finding instrument at Kitt Peak National Observatory; a principal investigator of NExSS (NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science); and a member of the Habitable Zone Planet Finder team at Penn State, which searches the very nearest stars for planets that could host liquid water.

"Jason's efforts to advance astrobiology and SETI, including fostering conscientious public dialogue about the importance of such science, have been truly exemplary," said Douglas Cavener, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science at Penn State. "Receiving the Drake Award is a testament to his work and establishing this university as a global leader in SETI research."

The 2019 Drake Award will be officially presented on May 8 at a public event to be held at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. In addition to the award presentation, Wright will make some remarks about his work and his hopes for the future of SETI research. Registration for the Drake Award presentation event will open on March 25.

About the SETI Institute

Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a nonprofit, multidisciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to explore, understand and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence. The institute's research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages expertise in data analytics, machine learning, and advanced signal detection technologies. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia and government agencies, including NASA and NSF.

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Last Updated March 26, 2019