Physicist Chosen as Scialog Fellow

Liming Li Will Attend “Signatures of Life in the Universe” Conference in March

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement named University of Houston physics associate professor Liming Li as a Scialog, or science dialog, Fellow for his work in the exploration of astronomical bodies.

Liming Li

Li, a physicist in UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is one of 50 early career scientists chosen to attend the corporation’s “Signatures of Life in the Universe.” The conference is co-sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation and will be held in Tucson, Arizona, in March. It is one of three different science conferences the corporation will hold this year.

According to the research corporation, the Scialog initiative’s goal is to identify bottlenecks, find avenues for breakthroughs and build new scientific teams. Fellows will form small groups and launch collaborative projects.

Six groups this year will be chosen to receive a $50,000 grant per fellow, funded by the corporation and its foundation partners. Fellows can continue to apply for the grants for two years if they are not selected in the first year.

Li said he is excited to have been chosen, and if granted the money, he would “continue the study of life beyond Earth.”

The physicist’s research focuses on the exploration of astronomical bodies by combining observations, theories and numerical models. Most recently, his research group worked on radiant energy budgets of planets and their internal heat, which can be an indicator of life.

“How do you check the temperature of a planet?” asked Li. “You have to check the radiation budget.”

That is how much energy is absorbed by the planet and how much energy is emitted from the planet.

“Then you can estimate the temperature,” he said. “After estimating the temperature, you can determine if liquid water, an important ingredient for life, can exist on the planet.”

Li is part of NASA’s Juno mission, the first polar-orbiting spacecraft to Jupiter. Currently, he is also leading a team to develop an instrument for a possible mission to the two ice planets – Uranus and Neptune – to better measure their radiant energy budgets.

“There are so many mysteries on Uranus and Neptune,” Li said.

This work is precisely why Amr Elnashai, UH’s vice president for research and technology transfer, nominated Li to be a Scialog Fellow.

“We are very pleased that Professor Li was selected as a Scialog Fellow,” Elnashai said. “His research focuses on the radiant energy budget of astronomical bodies, which essentially determines the temperature on such bodies. This is central to figuring out whether life is possible on exoplanets, which is the focus of the ‘Signatures of Life in the Universe’ theme. He brings a unique perspective to this group of fellows with his understanding of atmospheric conditions on exoplanets, and we expect that his expertise will be in demand on the projects the fellows develop.”

While Li is busy with his research, he has an idea of the future for his team.

“I think I would like to expand my lab,” he said. “To develop a bigger group for planetary exploration.”

The Scialog “Signatures of Life in the Universe” conference takes place March 26-29.

- Rebeca Trejo, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics