Faculty Footnotes: Mansi Kasliwal

Mansi Kasliwal is a new assistant professor but certainly not a Caltech newbie. The astronomer earned her PhD here in 2011, having helped design and build the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), an automated widefield survey at Palomar Observatory that systematically searches for cosmic transients—powerful events like supernovae that appear in the night sky with the light of a million to a billion suns, and then fade away.

“These are extreme events where a lot of elements that we see around us are actually synthesized,” says Kasliwal.

Kasliwal continues to work with PTF and its successor, the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), but is also leading a major international project devoted to chasing and studying transients using observatories around the globe. Known as GROWTH, for Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen, the project was recently granted $4.5 million through the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program. Its goal is to detect transients and then “stay unbeaten by sunrise.”

“We just go around the globe and keep passing the baton so that the sky remains dark,” explains Kasliwal. Here are a few more fun facts about Kasliwal:

  • She grew up in Indore, India, and came to the United States as an adventurous
    15-year-old.

Noting Kasliwal’s love of the natural sciences, a teacher in India advised Kasliwal to apply to American boarding schools. She took her advice and attended a college-prep school in Connecticut for her junior year. She spent her senior year taking classes and working with a professor at Bryn Mawr College.

  • She studied applied and engineering physics as an undergrad at Cornell.

Astrophysics was only her concentration, but at Cornell she was able to work with the late Jim Houck, the principal investigator for the infrared spectrograph on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. “Spitzer was being launched, and I got to see the data start flowing in,” says Kasliwal. “From then on, I was just completely hooked.”

  • Her work has already made it into textbooks.

Kasliwal received a freshman astronomy textbook in the mail from a professor she had interned with and was astonished to find a page in it dedicated to a supernova that she had discovered. “It was one of the most awesome moments for me,” she says.


Photo credit: Caltech