Jill Tarter (born in Eastchester, NY in 1944) received her Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree with Distinction from Cornell University and her Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since the termination of funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, she has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science. Currently, she serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, an innovative array of 350 (when fully realized) 6-m antennas at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, it will simultaneously survey the radio universe for known and unexpected sources of astrophysical emissions, and speed up the search for radio emissions from other distant technologies by orders of magnitude.
Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, Chabot Observatory’s Person of the Year award (1997), Women of Achievement Award in the Science and Technology category by the Women’s Fund and the San Jose Mercury News (1998), and the Tesla Award of Technology at the Telluride Tech Festival (2001). She was elected an AAAS Fellow in 2002 and a California Academy of Sciences Fellow in 2003. In 2004 Time Magazine named her one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world, and in 2005 Tarter was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization at Wonderfest, the biannual San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science.
Tarter is deeply involved in the education of future citizens and scientists. In addition to her scientific leadership at NASA and SETI Institute, Tarter was the Principal Investigator for two curriculum development projects funded by NSF, NASA, and others. The first, the Life in the Universe series, created 6 science teaching guides for grades 3-9 (published 1994-96). Her second project, Voyages Through Time, is an integrated high school science curriculum on the fundamental theme of evolution in six modules: Cosmic Evolution, Planetary Evolution, Origin of Life, Evolution of Life, Hominid Evolution and Evolution of Technology (published 2003). Tarter is a frequent speaker for science teacher meetings and at museums and science centers, bringing her commitment to science and education to both teachers and the public. Many people are now familiar with her work as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.
The SETI Institute was incorporated as a 501(c)3 California Non-Profit Corporation on November 20, 1984. The inaugural officers of the Institute were CEO Thomas Pierson and SETI scientist Jill Tarter. The Institute began operations on February 1, 1985.
Prior to the inception of the SETI Institute, NASA was funding a small project in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. John Billingham, Chief of Life Sciences at NASA Ames Research Center and Bernard (Barney) Oliver, formerly of Hewlett-Packard invited Tom Pierson and others into discussions about maximizing the effectiveness of the funds, and ways of putting more money into the research and less into institutional overhead. These discussions led to the concept of a dedicated non-profit research organization focused on research and education around the factors of the Drake Equation. This vision was realized in the 1984 incorporation of the SETI Institute.
The newly-formed SETI Institute’s first Trustees were Frank Drake, Andrew Fraknoi, Roger Heyns, and William Welch. Over the years, such well-known figures as Carl Sagan, Lew Platt, and Nobel Prize winners Baruch Blumberg and Charles Townes have served on the Board of Trustees. Jill Tarter is currently a Trustee of the Institute.
The first grant-funded proposal at the Institute was for SETI research, led by Jill Tarter. Following shortly thereafter, the first astrobiology grant (then known as exobiology) was received, with Harold Klein as the Principal Investigator. Hundreds of research and education grants have been successfully managed at the SETI Institute since those first few awards.
Founder and CEO Tom Pierson helmed the SETI Institute from its inception until ill health overtook him in 2013. He passed away in 2014. Acting CEO Edna DeVore led the Institute until she was succeeded by President and CEO David Black in 2014, who served for a year.