Catherine Espaillat

Peering at the First Stages of Planet Formation: Getting a Clearer View of Grain Growth, Settling, and Clearing in Dusty Disks
Contact information:
60 Garden Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Fellowship status:
Starting year: 2009
AAPF alumnus
Fellowship institution: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Current (or last known) position: Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Boston University
Research Interests:

I am conducting a systematic study to measure the amount of grain growth, settling, and clearing observed in protoplanetary disks located within the ~1–2 Myr old Taurus, Chamaeleon, and Ophiuchus clouds. Theoretical works predict that grain growth and dust settling, the first steps in forming planets, are fast processes which lead to very settled disks on short timescales and yet Spitzer observations in these three regions reveal substantial disks.  Additionally, once a planet is formed it is expected to clear out a gap in the disk and while clearings in disks have been seen, the small gaps expected during the initial stages of planet formation have eluded detection. There is a need for a quantitative link between theory and observations in order to make advances on these issues of dust evolution. In this study I am targeting ~150 disks, several of which show signs of incipient gap clearing. I will use irradiated accretion disk models to do a self-consistent analysis of SEDs and spatial  brightness distributions utilizing multi-wavelength data spanning optical to millimeter wavelengths. This study will determine the degree of grain growth, the radial and vertical distribution of dust, and the gap sizes of these disks, which will serve as constraints for theoretical models.

Education and Outreach Interests:

I am the program coordinator of the Harvard College Science Mentors Program ( The program pairs female graduate students and undergraduates in mentoring relationships. My responsibilities include matching mentors and mentees and helping to plan activities throughout the academic year as well as beginning new initiatives such as a mentor training program.