Bernard M. Oliver Chair, SETI InstituteJill Tarter


Coffee shop drink of choice? Non-fat, decaf, latte–sigh, I’m older.

What is the most interesting or unusual experience of your career? Building the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) for SETI and radio astronomy in a completely new way, and convincing colleagues around the world to build the next international telescope by adopting some of these innovations. And, since we perform SETI observations every day on the ATA, always remembering that we could succeed tomorrow!

What are the most difficult challenges of your work? Finding stable funding sources for SETI. We’ve ridden a political roller coaster with federal funding, and are now seeing how the ups and downs of our national economy can impact private philanthropy. There are many daunting and exciting technical challenges to our work–we are asking bright young scientists and engineers to take a chance with us–it would be much easier if I could tell them that they’d be able to provide for their families without uncertainty.

The other difficult area is seeing the exploratory science of SETI confused with the pseudo-science of alien abductions and UFOs in the entertainment arena. The real science is so much more interesting than the pseudo-science. We need to help people acquire better critical thinking skills.

What has surprised you about your career? Is it like you imagined it would be? I had never been a member of a team (I did my classwork and research and PDP8/S programming solo) until I had to lead a team to test SETI signal-processing equipment on a telescope–it was a rude awakening.

I had no formal training in fundraising (as opposed to the traditional scientific proposal grant writing) and yet I’ve spent a very large part of my career doing just that.

What are some of your recent personal goals? Making more time for family and personal life–being part of my two granddaughters’ lives–now that I’m “retired.” It all comes under the heading of learning to say “No.”

Who are YOUR role models? Admiral Grace Hopper, Margaret Burbidge, Richard Feynman.

Read more about her career! AstronomerResearcher

Bio: Jill received her undergraduate training from Cornell University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics. She then went on to receive a master’s and a doctorate degree in astronomy from University of California, Berkeley, where she wrote her thesis “The Interaction of Gas and Galaxies Within Galaxy Clusters.” She first got started in her career when, in her last year of graduate school, Professor Stuart Bowyer of University of California, Berkeley, invited her to join his fledgling SETI group on observations with the 85-foot antenna at Hat Creek, because during her first year in graduate school, she had learned how to program a PDP8/S computer, which had been given as surplus to Professor Bowyer and which nobody knew how to run. When she became a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Ames, she volunteered with Dr. John Billingham, who then became her mentor. Together, they helped start NASA’s SETI program.

A typical day in Jill’s job may involve answering massive email correspondences, collaborative discussions on search strategies and setting priorities to remain within budget constraints, overseeing ongoing improvements to hardware and software, checking the results of the previous day’s observations, and soliciting funding from private donors. She also spends time presenting public and keynote lectures on SETI, working with summer REU interns to introduce them to radio astronomy and SETI on the ATA and extremophiles in nearby Mt. Lassen Volcanic Park, and writing and reviewing grant proposals, as well as scientific and popular articles. To do all that, enthusiasm, patience, good communication skills, the ability to work with all sorts of people, and a willingness to learn are all important qualities to have. Also necessary are math skills, computer skills, engineering skills, problem-solving skills, and an astrophysical understanding of the galaxy and the universe beyond! Jill’s favorite parts of her job include learning and building new things, planning even better things for the future, meeting amazing people (like the TED Prize community!), occasionally finding answers to questions, and getting comfortable with thinking about the earth and Earthlings from a cosmic perspective and maybe changing the world!

Outside of work, Jill likes to dance Samba with her husband, Jack, fly their airplane, make her husband’s paisley dress shirts, and read! Fun fact: she used to twirl batons and play the drums! One day, she hopes to reacquire those skills.