Dr. Tracy Becker Honored with 2023 Carl Sagan Medal for Science Communication

This year’s prestigious Carl Sagan Medal, also known as the “Sagan Medal” and named after the late astronomer, Dr. Carl Sagan, has been awarded to Dr. Tracy Becker, who is a planetary scientist in the Space Science Division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. The Sagan Medal recipient is chosen by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and is meant to acknowledge planetary scientists who are not only active in science communication with the general public but have taken enormous strides in helping the general public better understand, and get excited for, the field of planetary science.

Dr. Becker is being recognized as the 2023 Carl Sagan Medal recipient for her commitment to science communication towards underserved communities, specifically visually and hearing-impaired students and Spanish-speaking patrons. She previously took part in the American Geophysical Union’s maiden “Voices for Science” program in 2018, along with co-founding Astronomy on Tap in San Antonio, which she actively organizes. Additionally, Dr. Becker has contributed to the “Letter to a Pre-Scientist” pen pal program, SwRI’s Young Engineers and Scientists program, Skype a Scientist, served as a science consultant for the Encyclopedia Britannica for Kids, and co-hosted the “Walkabout the Galaxy” podcast.

“My passion for communications and outreach was solidified when, as an undergraduate, I worked with middle school girls in a program focused on the role of women in science,” Dr. Tracy Becker said in a SwRI statement. “The multiweek program ended with an exclusive meeting with astronaut Dr. Sally Ride — a transformative experience for us all.”

Dr. Becker earned a Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics with a Minor in Latin American Studies from Lehigh University in 2010 and a PhD in Physics – Planetary Sciences Track from the University of Central Florida in 2016. She immediately joined SwRI as a postdoctoral researcher upon graduation and became a full research scientist in 2018. Her research interests include observing satellite exospheres, using ultraviolet reflectance observations to examine compositions of planetary surfaces, using radar observations to estimate the physical dimensions of near-Earth asteroids, and using stellar occultation data to measure particle characteristics of Saturn’s rings.

Previous honors and awards that Dr. Becker has received include the OPAG Early Career Funding Award (2018) and the San Antonio Business Journal 40 Under 40 (2021). She has also participated in several team efforts, including as a NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium Space Grant Fellow (2013), the NASA Group Achievement Award for Cassini UVIS Science Team (2018), and a NASA PI Launchpad Workshop attendee (2019).

“Since the day I’ve met her, I’ve known Tracy to be one of the most enthusiastic communicators of science to not only the general public, for which she has won the Carl Sagan award, but also amongst her peers and colleagues and especially early career scientists,” Dr. Kurt Retherford, who is a Senior Program Manager for Research & Development at SwRI, tells Universe Today. “She works harder than anyone I know to reach out to underserved communities here in San Antonio where we live, in Puerto Rico where she is closely involved with the Arecibo observatory community, and around the world.”

First awarded in 1998, the criteria for being awarded the Sagan Medal include the level of impact the potential awardee has made with the general public pertaining to communicating science, uplifting science in the views of the audiences they have reached, and upholding ethical standards in accordance with the AAS Code of Ethics. Previous awardees include Dr. David Grinspoon (2006), Dr. Carolyn Porco (2010), and most recently, Dr. Caleb Scharf (2022).

We sincerely congratulate Dr. Becker on her amazing career and the well-deserved Carl Sagan Award and look forward to watching her continue to inspire and motivate the next generation of planetary scientists in the coming years and decades!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Laurence Tognetti

Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.

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