At 30 years old, Michelle Kunimoto already has more than 3,000 planet candidates under her belt.
Inspired by science fiction and curiosity, the University of British Columbia astronomy graduate is passionate about searching for exoplanets — bodies orbiting stars outside our own solar system.
She's currently leading a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hunting for them. In 2024, Kunimoto will return to her alma mater as an assistant professor in UBC's department of physics and astronomy.
"She is an excellent exoplanet hunter," said UBC astrophysicist Jaymie Matthews of his former student. "Twenty years from now, Michelle Kunimoto will be a big name in exoplanets.
"When she started, the only science she knew was Star Trek. Now she is the real Spock."
Kunimoto, of Abbotsford, B.C., told CBC News about her dream of discovering a habitable planet, one that could potentially host life in what's nicknamed the "Goldilocks zone" where atmospheric conditions are just right.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you find planets?
I use what's known as the transit method.
The basic idea is as a planet's orbiting around a star it might pass in front of that star and block a little bit of its light.
We have a telescope that's looking at the star, and measuring how bright it is over time. If we see a temporary decrease in the brightness of that star, that could be a planet blocking its light as it passes by.
And if this happens to repeat, let's say every year, then that's a good indication it's a planet that takes a year to orbit that star.
Where do you get your data?
I use data from NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS mission.... It's a telescope that's up in space right now, looking at tens of millions of stars every month, measuring their brightness.