About Me

I am a PhD candidate at Yale University, working with Professor Greg Laughlin to research extrasolar planets and related topics. I am originally from Simi Valley, CA in the United States, and I received my Bachelor's degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from UC Berkeley. I also spent a semester abroad studying at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), and I have conducted research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University College London (UCL), and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

I am passionate about research, teaching, and outreach, and I am always looking for ways to support early-career astronomers in both my department and broader community. In my free time, I enjoy baking bread, playing the flute and piano, reading in coffee shops, and learning about modern and contemporary art. I also love to travel and find new ways to broaden my perspective.

I was recently interviewed on the Exploring New Worlds blog -- check it out here for more information about me!

Email: malena.rice@yale.edu

Graduation from UC Berkeley Physics and Astronomy
Arriving at Yale for my PhD studies
In front of the Gemini Planet Imager at the Gemini South telescope in Chile
Visiting the K-T Boundary with the 2017 International Summer School in Astrobiology
Yale Women's Leadership Initiative Conference, 2018
HIRES training at Keck Observatory, November 2019


Much of my research is primarily motivated by the goal of better understanding planetary system formation and evolution. As a result, my work involves studying and characterizing the diversity of exoplanets, including the wide range of planet properties and planetary system architectures.

I work closely with the Twinkle Space Mission, and, as part of this collaboration, I have characterized the scientific capabilities of the Twinkle Space Telescope, a small, low-cost space mission planned for launch in 2021 for photometric and spectroscopic observations of exoplanet atmospheres. Twinkle will be capable of characterizing hundreds of exoplanet atmospheres during its lifetime, with varying SNR depending on the observed planet’s properties. For more details, see Edwards et al. 2018 below.

Associated Publications

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Planet Nine

An undiscovered ninth planet of 5-10 Earth masses has been theorized to exist within the solar system as an elegant explanation for why the observed population of extreme trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) has periastra clustered preferentially in one direction in the sky. Planet Nine’s existence would help to explain many ongoing mysteries in the solar system; yet, despite ongoing searches, it has yet to be found.

One of my research interests is the search for Planet Nine and its implications for the solar system. In a recent project, I proposed a novel method to search for Planet Nine by probing its gravitational effect on minor planets within the solar system using stellar occultation measurements. Precise positional measurements of a large (N>225) sample of Jovian Trojan asteroids would be sufficient to distinguish the signatures of Planet Nine from those of the Kuiper belt and to confirm Planet Nine’s existence (or non-existence).

For a brief overview of this project, check out my research highlight here.

Associated Publications

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Interstellar Interlopers

The first identified interstellar interloper, 1I/2017 U1 ('Oumuamua), was confirmed in October 2017 during the outbound of its hyperbolic orbit. The nature of this object is still under debate; however, it serves as a proof-of-concept that interstellar objects can be detected within our solar system and accordingly provides an impetus for further predictions of upcoming discoveries by Pan-STARRS and the Large Survey Synoptic Telescope (LSST).

My research involves studying the origins of interstellar interlopers and the unique window that they provide into the properties of small bodies in extrasolar systems. I am particularly interested in the implications of ‘Oumuamua and future interstellar object detections for exoplanet occurrence rates and planet formation theory.

To learn more about my work in this field, check out my research highlight here.

Associated Publications

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Debris Disks

Debris disks are rings of rocky debris surrounding most, if not all, main sequence stars. The debris disk population provides a direct window into the composition of rocky materials in extrasolar systems, as well as the outcome of the planet formation process. Structures and asymmetries observed in debris disk systems can indicate the presence of neighboring planets, as well.

With the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) debris disk team, I develop synthetic models of debris disks to better understand their geometric and compositional properties. To accomplish this, I use radiative transfer code MCFOST combined with Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods to solve the inverse problem of characterizing directly imaged debris disk images. By studying debris disks, I hope to improve our understanding of the late stages of planet formation.

Associated Publications

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Moons provide a fascinating window into the diversity of rocky bodies and can inform our understanding of the variety of worlds in existence. Although, to date, no moons have been confirmed in extrasolar systems, there is a plethora of such worlds to study within the solar system. Moons hint at the possible range of worlds that may exist elsewhere; furthermore, they often compose interesting dynamical systems, with several examples of moons in orbital resonance throughout the solar system.

Titan, Saturn’s largest satellite, is unique as the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere. Titan’s thick hazes, active climate, and complex geological processes ensure that the moon is rich with activity and physical processes that are not yet fully understood. As a result, studies of Titan are also used to better understand the environments of extrasolar planets. The Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004-2017, observed Titan on many occasions throughout its mission lifetime. I have used data from the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) to study the water abundance in Titan’s atmosphere, and I have contributed to an observer’s guide for future users of the CIRS dataset.

Associated Publications

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Stellar Spectroscopy

Accurate measurements of stellar properties are critical to identify trends and correlations that inform our understanding of how planetary systems form. These stellar properties can be obtained with high fidelity through forward modeling with programs such as Spectroscopy Made Easy (SME), with the caveat that such programs can be computationally expensive and thus are not always tractable for use with very large datasets.

I use generative modeling code The Cannon to classify stellar spectra in order to better understand their properties and to efficiently obtain associated ''labels'' (stellar properties and abundances) using supervised learning methods. I focus on studying datasets that can help us to learn more about stars that have been part of planet search campaigns, with an ultimate goal of providing large, uniformly determined sets of stellar labels for use in future survey target selection, searches for planet frequency correlations, and stellar activity characterization.

To learn more about the results from this project, read my research highlight here.

Associated Publications

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Teaching has been an important aspect of my life for several years, and I am continually working towards improving my abilities as an instructor and mentor. As part of these efforts, I have worked as a McDougal Graduate Teaching Fellow and McDougal/Poorvu Graduate Writing Fellow at the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, served as a student instructor at Yale University and UC Berkeley, developed and run two student mentoring programs in astronomy, and taught extensively as a tutor in a wide range of topics.

McDougal Teaching Fellowship

I am a McDougal Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, where I work to develop and run Fundamentals of Teaching workshop series and Advanced Teaching Workshops for graduate and postdoctoral development in teaching. Through this position, I conduct classroom observations to provide support for Teaching Fellows at Yale, and I help to organize and run Yale's Spring Teaching Forum and the Fall and Spring Teaching at Yale Day events for first-time graduate student instructors. Together with the community of Fellows, I also discuss teaching pedagogy and related academic literature on the topic. A few of the workshops that I have led include the following:

  • Fundamentals of Teaching Science (4-part series)
  • Fundamentals of Evidence-Based Teaching (4-part series)
  • Contemporary Controversies (4-part series; upcoming in Fall 2020)
  • Teaching Quantitative Reasoning (2-part series)
  • Writing Across the Disciplines (2-part series)
  • Difficult Conversations in the Classroom - Gender
  • Teaching First-Generation and Non-Traditional Students
  • Enriching the Classroom through Multimedia
  • Assessing Participation Equitably
  • Rubrics and Grading
  • How We Learn (webinar)
  • Mentoring Undergraduates (webinar)
  • Preparing and Delivering Effective Lectures (upcoming in Fall 2020)

McDougal/Poorvu Writing Fellowship

Since January 2020, I have been a McDougal/Poorvu Writing Fellow at Yale’s Graduate Writing Lab, which supports the writing and communication endeavors of Yale graduate and professional school students. In this position, I serve as a writing consultant, working with individual students to build their communication skill sets across all forms of scientific writing, grant/fellowship proposals, and oral presentations. I also collaborate with the diverse community of Writing Fellows to organize and run multidisciplinary workshops, seminars, and panels related to academic writing. A few of the programs that I have led or co-led include the following:

  • From Paper to Publication in the Sciences
  • Writing a Prospectus in the Sciences
  • NSF GRFP Peer-Review Group (Summer 2020)

University Teaching Experience

I have also been a student instructor for several courses at both Yale and UC Berkeley. Responsibilities in these courses have included providing lectures and tutorials in supplemental course sections, running review sessions, organizing and running planetarium/telescope visits, providing one-on-one support for students, and grading coursework. The courses that I have taught are listed below.

Yale University

  • Spring 2019: Astronomy 105 - Earth in its Cosmic Context
  • Fall 2018: Astronomy 105 - Earth in its Cosmic Context
  • Spring 2018: Astronomy 130 - Origins and Search for Life in the Universe

UC Berkeley

  • Fall 2017: Astronomy 120 - Optical and Infrared Astronomy Laboratory

Astronomy Mentoring Programs

I have developed and run popular mentoring programs between graduate students/postdoctoral researchers and undergraduates in the astronomy departments at both UC Berkeley and Yale. These have aimed to provide resources, support, and advice for early-career scientists while fostering community in each department. Both programs included one-on-one meetings between mentors and mentees, as well as larger group social events with all program participants. I continue to run the Yale Astro Sibs mentoring program (founded in Fall 2018), for which I match mentoring pairs and organize regular events throughout the academic year.


I have tutored in both paid and volunteer positions in a wide range of subjects including physics, math, English, and music since 2011. A few organizations that I have taught through include the Berkeley Music Connection and the National Honor Society. I also have 600+ hours of tutoring experience through my work with the private company ScoreBeyond, through which I have worked with over 50 students in preparation for the SAT, the ACT, and the SAT Physics subject test.


I am the current head coordinator for the New Haven branch of Astronomy on Tap, for which I plan and organize events, including coordinating talks and volunteers.

I provide public research talks whenever possible to share my love of astronomy, and I was recently the invited keynote speaker for Yale's Girls' Math Day 2018, organized through the national MATHCOUNTS organization. Check out a few of my recent public talks here (Yale Open Labs) and here (Astronomy on Tap).

I am one of three voices of astro[sound]bites, the podcast spinoff of Astrobites. In this podcast, three astronomy graduate students -- Alex Gagliano, Will Saunders, and I -- discuss recent astronomy papers that have been highlighted by Astrobites. We focus on connections between papers and underlying themes across subfields, tying together these Astrobites in the broader picture of current astronomy research. Check out all of our episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Soundcloud!

I am also a regular volunteer with Yale's Girls' Science Investigations, a free program with the goal of motivating and empowering young women interested in science. This program holds approximately 4 events per year in which 200-300 middle school girls come to the Yale Physics Department for a day full of physics-themed activities. Through this program, I have guided participants through hands-on projects, presented background scientific explanations as an Activity Leader, run science demos, and served on panels to answer questions about careers in science.

I am a regular volunteer with Yale's Open Labs, as well, which organizes science demo events at local schools and Science Café events in which local middle schools students discuss science with Yale graduate students, complete with science talks, research poster presentations, and hands-on demos. I have provided on-site support and shared my love of science with hundreds of young students through this initiative.

Finally, I am a regular presenter at Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium (LFOP) in New Haven. I run weekly public planetarium shows, provide support for telescope observing afterwards, and discuss astronomy with visitors during these events. I also provide support for special events taking place at LFOP, including class and school visits, special tours of the facility, and a range of additional events.


Check out a few of my selected media appearances below.

Research Highlight #1

The Case for a Large-Scale Occultation Network

(Rice & Laughlin 2019 AJ 158, 19)
Schematic of binary Jovian Trojan asteroid 617 Patroclus-Menoetius occulting the cISP network. Two possible occultation paths are shown to scale, bounded by purple lines with cyan arrows marking the central trajectories. Each white point on the map denotes a cISP network site, where the current cISP network design includes 1913 sites.

Understanding the sizes and orbits of minor planets within the solar system is crucial to characterize the origins and evolutionary pathways of the solar system. Measurements of occultations – events during which a foreground object passes in front of a background star, briefly blocking out its light – can provide this critical information with exquisite precision limited primarily by the accuracy to which the background star’s position is known. With the recent release of high-precision stellar astrometry in Gaia DR2, occultations have suddenly become an extremely powerful probe to study solar system dynamics in unprecedented detail.

In this paper, we present a novel method to study the solar system using a national network of small (16-inch) telescopes spread across the United States to continually monitor occultation events across the solar system. A map of the proposed network is shown above, where each white dot corresponds to the location of a telescope and two possible occultation tracks are bounded in purple, with binary asteroid 617 Patroclus-Menoetius shown to scale. By employing a large (N~2000) number of small telescopes, it is possible to leverage this new precision to obtain a tremendous amount of information about the solar system for less than the price of a typical small space mission.

Minimum and maximum acceleration imparted by Planet Nine.

One of the main use cases that we present for the network is the search for Planet Nine. By measuring the tidal differential acceleration across the sun for a large (N>225) number of Jovian Trojan asteroids – asteroids trapped at Jupiter’s L4 and L5 Lagrange points – we show that it is possible to observe the perturbational signatures of undiscovered solar system bodies such as Planet Nine.

In a gravitational search for Planet Nine, it is necessary to distinguish the perturbational effects of Planet Nine from those of the Kuiper belt – which, while significantly less massive than Planet Nine, is far closer to the inner solar system and can thus induce perturbations comparable to or stronger than those of Planet Nine. In this work, we show that it is possible to disentangle perturbations from each structure due to their differing mass distributions (i.e. a ring vs. a single massive planet).

Perturbations induced by Planet Nine (in color) and the Kuiper Belt (gray), with the Sun's motion subtracted from the system. Each line originates at (0, 0) and traces out perturbations over one full Trojan orbit, while the color scale provides the starting Planet Nine–Sun–Trojan orientation.

Beyond the search for Planet Nine, the proposed network has a wide range of additional use cases. One example is direct measurements of small body diameters and size distributions, which are critical to constrain the early evolution and migration of planets in the solar system. Another is dramatically improved orbital ephemerides as shown below, where we calculate the improvement in ephemerides for a medium-sized Jovian Trojan asteroid from the current constraints (in blue) after 5 occultations evenly spaced across 5 years (in black) and 5 occultations evenly spaced across 12 years (approximately a full Jovian Trojan orbit; in purple). We show a panel on the scale of the blue, current constraints in the upper right for clarity. Such precise ephemerides are highly advantageous for accurate spacecraft navigation and detailed dynamical analyses of small body systems.

Distribution of walkers after burn-in for each orbital element after five occultations evenly spaced across 5 years (black) and across 12 years (purple). In blue are the Gaussian distributions associated with the initial orbital element uncertainties prior to any occultation measurements. The original uncertainties were all improved by over an order of magnitude; as a result, the blue distributions appear flat on this scale. The top right panel shows the inclination histogram on the scale of the blue distribution.

All in all, this network would be a powerful and timely tool in the era of Gaia and LSST, which is projected to find over a million new solar system objects. While it is still theoretical in nature, it shows the enormous potential for small telescopes to teach us about the solar system in this golden era for occultations.

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Research Highlight #2

Hidden Planets: Implications from 'Oumuamua and DSHARP

(Rice & Laughlin 2019, ApJL 844, L22)

Astrobites | Yale News | New York Times | Scientific American | CNN | PBS NOVA | Inverse | Discover Magazine | The Wire | Inside Science | space.com | phys.org

NASA Astrobiology Institute Science Nugget

The October 2017 discovery of the first interstellar interloper, 'Oumuamua, sent ripples through the field of astronomy. Where did 'Oumuamua come from? How common are these objects? Will we be seeing more of them in coming years? In this Letter, we address these questions using constraints from a neighboring subfield of exoplanetary science: protoplanetary disks.

Once they have formed in a planetary system, giant planets may eject planetesimals from their circumstellar systems via gravitational interactions. In this way, planets can push material out of their systems and into interstellar space, creating a population of free-floating planetesimals such as, perhaps, 'Oumuamua.

However, not all planets are capable of efficiently conducting these gravitational assists. In particular, the most efficient planetesimal ejectors are relatively massive, long-period planets. These types of planets are heavily disfavored by the detection biases of the transit and radial velocity exoplanet detection methods; as a result, the vast majority of the 4000+ currently confirmed exoplanets cannot efficiently eject surrounding debris in their systems.

The twenty high-resolution protoplanetary disk images in the DSHARP sample, displayed in 1.25 mm continuum emission (Andrews+ 2018).

Recently, the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP) returned 20 high-resolution images of protoplanetary disks displaying a ubiquity of substructures. Axisymmetric rings and gaps were found to be the most common type of substructure; furthermore, the types of planets thought to carve out these gaps - Neptune+ mass planets at large semimajor axis - are exactly the kind capable of producing the interstellar object population implied by 'Oumuamua.

Radial dust distributions of the three DSHARP disks simulated in this work.

We simulated the axisymmetric dust distributions of three sample DSHARP disks (left) - AS 209, HD 143006, and HD 163296 - and their best-fitting planetary companions from Zhang+ 2018 in order to characterize the mass of rocky material ejected from each system over time.

Average mm-sized mass ejected from each of the three DSHARP disks simulated in this work.

The ejected mass of mm-sized material is shown to the right, with an exponential fit extrapolating our simulation results to a later time. Combining this result with the number density of free-floating interstellar objects implied by 'Oumuamua, we determined the corresponding power law size-frequency distributions consistent with 'Oumuamua's detection.

Using these predicted interstellar object size distributions, we then determined the expected detection rates for various size regimes of interstellar objects with the Large Survey Synoptic Telescope (LSST). Our results are provided below. Ultimately, we found that, if 'Oumuamua was representative of an isotropic background population ejected from DSHARP-like protoplanetary disks, LSST should find a few 'Oumuamua-sized interstellar objects per year, as well as up to hundreds of smaller interstellar objects with r>1 m.

Detection rates by LSST for different size regimes of ISOs, with the Do+ 2018 number density denoted by a dot-dashed line. We assumed a single-frame limiting magnitude m~24.

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Research Highlight #3

Stellar Characterization of Keck HIRES Spectra with The Cannon

(Rice & Brewer 2020, ApJ 898, 119)

Github repository | Trained models

A comprehensive understanding of the properties of exoplanets is closely intertwined with our understanding of the formation environments of these planets. Precisely determined stellar properties are critical to appropriately interpret exoplanet observations and to discern the correlations between planetary properties and their host environments.

In this project, we applied the supervised learning code The Cannon to develop a model that extracts 18 stellar labels from continuum-normalized Keck HIRES spectra: Teff, logg, vsini, and 15 abundances (C, N, O, Na, Mg, Al, Si, Ca, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Ni, and Y). We also applied this technique to extract 18 labels from interpolated spectra obtained by the older version of the Keck HIRES instrument before its 2004 upgrade. By interpolating spectra from the older and newer detector onto the same wavelength range, we were able to reliably recover all 18 labels from the pre-2004 spectra using a model trained on post-2004 spectra.

Distribution of properties for the 1202 pre-labeled SPOCS stars used for our model training and testing.

We trained our model using 1202 pre-labeled stars from the Spectral Properties of Cool Stars (SPOCS) dataset described in Brewer et al. 2016. The distribution of stellar properties is shown in the figure to the right. The 18 stellar labels of interest were obtained for each of these stars using the Spectroscopy Made Easy (SME) program; however, because stellar modeling with this program is relatively computationally expensive, we developed a new model to rapidly return labels for large sets of stellar spectra.

All input spectra were reduced using the CPS data reduction pipeline and further continuum-normalized using the methods described in Valenti & Fischer 2005. Beyond this initial normalization, we also used a data-driven renormalization method to further improve the continuum removal as recommended in Ness et al. 2016. Sample continuum fits implementing two different functional forms are shown below for a single echelle order; our final model implements the polynomial fit.

Sample continuum renormalization, where "continuum pixels" are selected and fit in a data-driven manner. The new fit is divided out to renormalize the spectrum.

We also masked out pixels corresponding to telluric lines, which are imprinted on all ground-based spectra from the Earth's atmosphere. The telluric mask is displayed below for all echelle orders placed side-by-side, as well as for the single echelle order that we used for initial testing. Across all echelle orders, we masked out roughly 37% of pixels.

Visualization of the telluric mask used in our model, with all 16 echelle orders displayed side-by-side and distinguished by color. A zoom-in of our primary testing echelle order is shown on the bottom.

We first verified our model's performance by testing its ability to return labels for a test set of spectra withheld from our training dataset. Our results are shown below; overall, we found that our trained model reliably returned all 18 stellar labels, with scatter provided in the figure.

Performance of our model to recover 18 known stellar labels of 240 SPOCS test set stars from their post-2004 Keck HIRES spectra.

We also verified that features picked out by the model correspond to known physical phenomena by looking at a few of the coefficients returned by The Cannon for each pixel in the vicinity of the Mg Ib triplet. Pixels with coefficients deviating further from the baseline are weighted more heavily when determining the value of that coefficient for a given spectrum. As expected, the centers of Mg lines correspond to dips in the θMg coefficients, while the wings of the lines more directly impact the code's determined surface gravity. Stellar rotational velocity relies most heavily on intermediate-depth lines that are neither saturated nor washed out by the continuum.

Relevant coefficients in the vicinity of the Mg Ib triplet. Pixels with coefficients that deviate further from their baselines are more heavily weighted when evaluating the corresponding parameter value.

Lastly, we interpolated our post-2004 spectra onto the same wavelength scale as our archival pre-2004 spectra. We re-trained our model on spectra taken with the newer, upgraded spectrograph and tested its ability to recover the correct labels from spectra obtained with the older, pre-2004 instrument. The model again reliably recovered all 18 labels, shown below. This suggests that The Cannon can be used to extract labels from spectra taken with a different spectrograph from the training set! We applied this model to extract labels for 477 stars with archival spectra, with results provided in the paper.

Performance of our model, which is trained on interpolated spectra taken after Keck's 2004 detector upgrade, to recover 18 known stellar labels of 337 SPOCS stars from their pre-2004 Keck HIRES spectra.

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Keck HIRES Model Files

Download model files here for use with the keckspec program to extract 18 stellar parameters from input Keck HIRES spectra. The models with the ending "notrainingspec" are the same as the corresponding models without that file ending, but they do not store the spectra and inverse variances upon which the model was trained. If you are concerned about storage space, these models take up much less space (100 MB instead of 1.3 GB) and should perform identically to their counterparts without the "notrainingspec" addendum.

« Back to Research Highlight #3



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