Graduate alumna awarded NSF MPS-Ascend Fellowship to work at the SETI Institute

Rebecca McDonald and Sam Sholtis
September 22, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sofia Sheikh, who completed her doctorate in astronomy and astrobiology at Penn State in 2021, has been awarded a Mathematical and Physical Sciences Ascending Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MPS-Ascend) by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Sofia Sheikh

Sofia Sheikh

IMAGE: Penn State

Sheikh is member of the inaugural cohort of MPS-Ascend Fellows, joining outstanding postdoctoral scholars in math and the physical sciences across the country in the next stage of their careers. The program supports postdoctoral fellows who will broaden the participation of groups that are underrepresented in MPS fields in the U.S.

Sheikh will work at the SETI Institute — SETI stands for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" — with the legendary Jill Tarter who co-founded the institute and is the basis of the main character in the film "Contact."

"We are thrilled to see Dr. Sheikh's outstanding research here at the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center recognized by the NSF with this prestigious fellowship," said Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and Sheikh’s graduate adviser. "Dr. Sheikh's background in SETI is unique. She is a member of the Breakthrough Listen team at UC Berkeley, where she has led multiple SETI projects, and she is also the product of the Penn State astrobiology dual-title Ph.D. program, which includes graduate coursework in SETI. She is only the tenth person in the world to receive a Ph.D. in the physical sciences for a thesis primarily about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence."

The PSETI Center was established in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State in 2019. The center is dedicated to advancing the search for technosignatures — evidence of past or present extraterrestrial technology — by creating a world-class SETI research program, training the next generation of SETI researchers, initiating a grants program, coordinating conferences and symposia, and helping to establish a worldwide SETI community. Sheikh was the first student to earn a doctoral degree with the center’s support.

“The PSETI Center provides a unique experience for outstanding students such as Dr. Sheikh,” said Randall McEntaffer, department head and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. “It is the only funded, administrative research unit dedicated to SETI at a university and provides students with excellent research opportunities. The PSETI Center is also supported by undergraduate and graduate level instruction in the field with courses being an integral part of paths toward bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in astronomy and astrophysics as well as the dual-title Ph.D. degree in astrobiology.”

Sheikh’s research under the fellowship will be focused on fast radio bursts (FRBs) and developing improved methods to detect technosignatures specifically by searching higher radio frequencies and in new areas of the sky. She will also mentor underrepresented students in physics and astronomy, helping them build strong networks and providing valuable research experiences.

"The combination of Sofia's keen scientific abilities and audacious passion for carving her path is truly remarkable," said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute. "Sofia is a world-class scientist who is demonstrating vision, tenacity and academic excellence in researching a profound and challenging topic."

Sheikh's work will leverage the unique qualities of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), the only radio telescope constructed with SETI as its principal activity. She is planning three research activities using the ATA: Develop hardware and software to increase the backend coherent imaging capabilities of the ATA. Use these new capabilities to localize and characterize FRBs previously detected with other radio telescopes. And search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life with radio observations of the anti-solar point, defining a particular space and time on the sky from which a distant observer could see Earth in transit around the sun.

"I am honored and extremely excited to be taking my NSF MPS-Ascend Fellowship to the SETI Institute,” said Sheikh. “I look forward to carrying out the fellowship's mission by developing the newest frontiers of technosignature research while simultaneously furthering science through the mentorship of underrepresented students in physics and astronomy."

Sheikh studied physics and astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, for her undergraduate education. She worked with the Breakthrough Listen project at the Berkeley SETI Research Center throughout her academic studies, developing her interest in radio astronomy and the search for technosignatures.

“When you work on a potentially multi-generation project, you really need to think seriously about training your replacements,” said Tarter. “Sofia's MPS-Ascend award gives us the opportunity to invoke the next generation and think laterally about what/who/where we can expand opportunities for commensal observing programs.”

Sheikh’s three-year fellowship officially begins on Jan. 1, 2022.

"Dr. Sheikh's research at Penn State and in collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley has significantly advanced the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” said Wright. “She has already become a respected leader and sought-after collaborator in the field, and this fellowship will give her the freedom and support to continue that leadership. We couldn't be prouder of her."

Last Updated October 18, 2021