Berkeley Astronomer Awarded 2022 51 Pegasi b Fellowship

March 31, 2022

Today, postdoc J.J. Zanazzi was announced as a 2022 51 Pegasi b Fellow by the Heising-Simons Foundation. J.J. will complete his fellowship at UC Berkeley in the group of Eugene Chiang. The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy. J.J. will be the third 51 Peg Fellow (all hosted by Chiang) to take up residence at Berkeley since the fellowship’s inception in 2017.

J.J. experienced his first foray into planetary science as a high school student, pairing up with an astronomer to search for exoplanets with a remote-controlled telescope. Today, J.J. proposes theories on the astrophysical processes that shape planet-forming environments. In particular, he is intrigued by distortions in protoplanetary disks—the birthplaces of planets. J.J. calculates and ponders the long-term consequences of tilting, warping, and unusual orbits for stars and other bodies within disks. A thrilling observation confirmed his prediction that a protoplanetary disk orbiting at a steep incline around two stars would eventually “stand on edge” instead of flattening to the stars’ plane. Proving that planets can stabilize in such chaotic environments exposes compelling possibilities for finding new worlds. “As an astrophysical theorist,” says J.J., “it sometimes feels like I’m shouting into the void, especially when waiting for groundbreaking observations. So, I remember feeling completely shell shocked when an observation found that a bizarre scenario I predicted actually existed.”

In his fellowship, J.J. will further test and validate ideas for detecting forming planets via signs of disk and star distortions—such as a color change in the disk or a flickering of the star. He will model warped and eccentric disks and examine gravitational impacts over time. J.J. will also gather data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and Kepler missions to calibrate his theories. J.J. received a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics from Cornell University in Summer 2018. Prior to starting his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship, J.J. will continue to work as a Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics postdoctoral research associate at the University of Toronto.

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship was established in 2017 by the Heising-Simons Foundation, and named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star. The growing field of planetary astrophysics studies objects both within and beyond our solar system, bridging planetary science and astronomy. From improving our understanding of planetary system formation and evolution, to advancing new technologies for detecting other worlds, 51 Pegasi b Fellows make unique contributions to the field.

Learn more about the fellowship and the fellows at

About the Heising-Simons Foundation 

The Heising-Simons Foundation is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, California. The Foundation works with its many partners to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people. Learn more at