Lisa Kaltenegger's search for life in space began in Salzburg

The Salzburg native astrophysicist Lisa Kaltenegger is at the forefront when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life.

She is a researcher for NASA, heads a special institute at Cornell University, and is on a first-name basis with Nobel Laureates. An asteroid bears her name. It all started at a young age in her homeland, which she now likes to recommend as a venue for conferences.

It is no exaggeration to describe her as a super brain, and Salzburg’s most notable scientific export. Dr Lisa Kaltenegger has made it to the forefront of space research in record time. At Cornell University near New York, she is leading her own team to be the first to prove there is life in space. “I believe this will still happen within my career span. We are closer to the evidence than ever before,” says the director of the Carl Sagan Institute and scientific advisor to the current NASA satellite mission TESS. “We have been using it since summer this year to search the entire sky for Earth-like planets with traces of life. We want to publish the first data in January 2019,” says the exceptional researcher, who has an asteroid named after her and has long been active in circles with Nobel laureates.

 

A knack for coincidence

The astrophysicist was born in 1977 in Kuchl, a town of 7,000 inhabitants just south of the city of Salzburg, and attracted attention from a young age due to her wide range of talents. Whether arithmetic, languages, drawing or sports – she was among the best all round. “I am lucky to be able to learn things easily. So I also find the time to do a lot,” explains the woman with the proverbially limitless curiosity. In her youth, in addition to her secondary school studies, she managed to fit in courses in Japanese, dancing, figure drawing and a university level course on the chaos theory. Today, besides all her scientific activities, she runs an entire household with her husband and their young daughter.

One of her talents brought her to the right place again and again during her years of education – namely, a knack for coincidence. So, just as the second daughter of a civil engineer and a secretary was moving to the secondary school in Hallein, the school started a pilot project teaching Spanish instead of Latin, as well as offering scholarships for highly-gifted students. These extra courses gave the 15-year-old star pupil the chance to study the chaos theory once a week at the University of Salzburg’s Faculty of Natural Sciences. And since she was interested in more than English and Spanish, she took a course in Japanese. Her local teacher was also to become a role model for her cosmopolitan outlook; by the second year, the teacher was taking the class with her on a tour of Japan. The 17-year-olds were staying with families who did not speak a foreign language. “I really commend the Austrian school system and the realgymnasium [secondary school with focus on mathematics and science] that I attended in Hallein for the opportunities to come into contact with research and languages at such an early age. That was exciting and very stimulating. Who knows what else I would have done?” Lisa Kaltenegger asks herself.

Two memories from her school days in Salzburg are unmistakably Austrian; namely formal dances and coffee houses. As a dance student, she savoured both aspects of the culture. She managed to become a formation dancer opening many balls in Salzburg, which she could attend free of charge; around the dance classes one met in Salzburg's coffee houses. The Café Bazar and Fingerlos patisserie have stayed some of her favourite places. Visiting them are a must on every trip back home. “I definitely miss that when I am in the USA,” says Kaltenegger.

 

One in six wins her the jackpot

After graduating with flying colours, the 1.83 m tall native of Kuchl attended university in Graz, where she began half a dozen subjects at once: business administration, Japanese, Spanish interpreting, film and media studies, astronomy and technical physics. New coincidences fuelled her interest in science more than anything else, so that is what she focussed on, seeing her studies in astronomy and biophysics through to the end. In the meantime, she used her Japanese skills to earn some money from translation jobs.

She submitted a diploma thesis in technical physics on the topic of optical tweezers in medicine, such as in cancer treatment. But astronomy would become her true passion. This is where she quickly achieved her international breakthrough. So she hit the jackpot with one out of the five. Both her diploma thesis and doctoral thesis were on the search for extrasolar planets. Just like her secondary school leaving certificates, she also earned top marks for her doctorate, graduating “sub auspiciis praesidentis”, the rare honour awarded by the Federal President. She found the Spanish she learned at school useful for her thesis on astronomy; supported by an EU scholarship, she wrote this in Tenerife.

 

Prestigious addresses

The excellent young academic chose her career path well. Her first port of call at the age of 23 was the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands. Four years later, she was given the opportunity to undertake research and teach at Harvard. “That's when I was first introduced to the world of Nobel laureates,” Kaltenegger recalls. Since then, she has also been a member of the US space agency NASA’s scientific team for astrobiology and extrasolar planets. Important US media outlets are becoming aware of the young Austrian; at the age of 30, “Smithsonian Magazine” ranked her among America's top young innovators. In 2010 came the next prestigious professional address: The Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, where she headed her first team. The eight-strong group was involved in the discovery of the planets Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, which are able to sustain life. Asteroid 7734, which she also discovered, was named after her. In 2012, she was awarded a top scientific accolade, the German Research Foundation’s Heinz Maier Leibnitz Prize, which brought with it an endowment of € 16,000.

Since July 2014, the astrophysicist from Salzburg has been setting up the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, which currently hosts 27 professors from 14 different fields of study, from astronomy to music. Carl Sagan is Kaltenegger's greatest idol. His 1994 bestseller “Pale Blue Dot” became the manifesto of the science of life in the vastness of the universe. The institute’s annual budget of half a million dollars is modest, but the motivation to see the first definite traces of life on screen is high. “That would be the greatest thing for me – awe inspiring,” emphasises the institute's director. She’d be sure to win a Nobel Prize.

Talking with Lisa Kaltenegger is a pleasure. Salzburg, where she was awarded the Christian Doppler Prize in 2014, could not wish for a better scientific figurehead. “Kaltenegger is very tall and casual, almost always laughing, and can marvel and enthuse about many things”, Die Zeit wrote about her in 2017. At the gala dinner of a big futures congress in Santiago de Chile, where she was allowed to interview the Indian winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Kailash Satyarthi, on stage, she was invited to the President’s table. She was supposed to be there to raise the mood. “The honoured gentlemen were rather bland,” says the naturally cheerful lady from Salzburg. In 2016, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences invited her to give a lecture on the state of her research, following a talk by Stephen Hawking. “I will never forget the opportunity I was given to have lively discussions over coffee with many Nobel Prize winners”, Kaltenegger reflects.

 

Love of Salzburg starts in the stomach

Twice a year she brings her family to visit her parents in Kuchl. The mother, who aptly named her daughter Lara Sky, could also imagine attending conferences in Salzburg. The city was also the home of Christian Doppler (1803 – 53), a pioneer of astrophysics. “Maybe I’ll organise a conference here myself one day. The venue could be in the city or up on a mountain. That would be a very tough decision,” she says. As a centre of tourism, Salzburg knows how to deal with top-class guests. The strongest argument is its cuisine. Kaltenegger’s love of Salzburg starts in the stomach. The food here can hardly be beaten – especially the desserts. “The more time you spend away, the more you notice it,” says the top researcher. The new Vega observatory and Red Bull’s Hangar 7 are also strong attractions. Everyone knows Red Bull, but not many associate the international brand with Salzburg. The festival city also has excellent transport connections.

One of her favourite places in Salzburg which she wants to show off is Hellbrunn Palace, with its unique “water games”. There, she celebrated her wedding to the Portuguese space engineer Felipe Pereira in 2012. With waltzes under the starry sky and into the wee hours, naturally.

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