Growing up watching Flash Gordon on TV, Dr. Jill Tarter has said that she assumed that there was other intelligent life in the universe and when she and her father would walk along the beach stargazing she would think about other little girls doing the same with their fathers looking up at their stars, our sun being one among the many. Even though as a child she felt sure in her answer to the age old question, “are we alone?” Tarter has spent her career looking for solid evidence to support her conclusion.
Earning a bachelor of engineering physics degree from Cornell, she was bored with the subject and decided to pursue other interests including astronomy. Attending graduate school at the University of California at Berkley she was part of project SERENDIP which had been designed to search radio frequencies for clues about extraterrestrial life forms. It was Tarter’s first, but certainly not last, time working with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence or SETI. While at UC Berkley she also learned to program one of the first mini-computers and this programming knowledge led to a job offer as part of a SETI program at Hat Creek Radio Observatory.
When SETI was cut off from federal funding in 1993 and became privately funded, Tarter was named the director of Project Phoenix-the world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Appointed Director of SETI Research at the SETI Institute in 1999, she continued her research as well as serving as Principal Investigator for two curriculum development projects sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Awarded the TED Prize in 2009 for her wish to “to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company,” Tarter used the funds and support to create setiQuest a living global community of citizen scientists all working together to search for signals in the sky.
In 2012 Tarter stepped down from the role as director of SETI and shifted her efforts into securing private funding for the continuation of its important work.
Written by Angela Goad