Remember the character Jodie Foster played in the movie "Contact," based on the book by Carl Sagan? She wasn't entirely invented; her character's basis was astronomer Jill Tarter.
Tarter, 68, has spent more than three decades leading the search for intelligent non-Earthly life at the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that devotes itself to scientific research, education and outreach on the subject of life in the universe.
This week, Tarter announced her retirement from directing the research side of SETI; she will now focus on fundraising, she told CNN Light Years in a recent interview.
From the time she was about 8 years old, Tarter thought she wanted to be an engineer. She got an engineering degree at Cornell at a time when she was the only woman in a class of 300 engineering students. She also believed the curriculum needed a serious overhaul.
"If engineers were as boring as my professions, I was going to find some other interesting problems to do," she said.
She came across the problem of star formation, and then got interested in SETI after reading a 1971 NASA report called "Project Cyclops." It talked about how radio telescopes could be utilized for finding life on other worlds.
"I realized that I was alive in the very first generation of humans that could try and do an experiment to this old question, and we could stop asking the priests and philosophers what we should believe, and actually go and see what the answer is," she said.
Sagan's novel "Contact" is an accurate portrayal of how SETI works, including the funding and credibility problems the organization has had, Tarter says. But in that story, the main character finds a signal from outside Earth - that hasn't happened in real life (yet).
Tarter remembers reading the opening scene describing driving a Thunderbird convertible toward an observatory and hitting a rabbit, she thought, "Wait, wait this is too real! I've done that!"
Being a female scientist isn't always easy, and when Tarter was starting out, men didn't always take her and colleagues seriously. Tarter once took part in a conference of women scientists and engineers and talking to them about what had helped them succeed in a male-dominated world. They realized that many of their fathers had died when they were young. Tarter's own father passed away when she was 12.
"They were the center of our universe. They were what encouraged us, and we lost them. And in that very sad process, we learned a difficult lesson that most people, and in particular women, don't learn until later in life, and that's this whole carpe diem - seize the opportunity," she said.
Many of them had been cheerleaders or drum majorettes as well. They tended to be competitive, but there were no women's sports in which they could compete. Tarter herself had been a drum majorette in high school.
Today, things look better for women in Tarter's field than they did in those days - and not just because women can compete in athletics. There's a concerted effort in universities to recruit and retain female faculty. Every junior faculty member, especially women, needs a mentor, she said.
"Things are better, but women still do the bulk of family and child care," she said. "My younger astronomy colleagues, male and female, sort of expect to be sharing that load, but it’s not quite 50-50.”
Her husband, Jack, is also a radio-astronomer. They used to detect signals, and not from aliens: that they talked too much about their work at home. Tarter's daughter, at age 9, announced that she wanted to be a shopkeeper because your work ends at 5 p.m. and "you have another life at home" (she's now in her 40s and works at a wilderness medicine organization).
SETI is trying to expand its search and look into new technologies, Tarter says. As computing becomes more affordable, huge steps forward are possible. "It's all about doing our job better than we did yesterday," she said.
So, who are these aliens? Tarter disagrees with Sir Stephen Hawking's warning that aliens might one day invade to conquer or colonize us; Tarter believes intelligent beings from elsewhere would just want to explore. Movies such as "Men in Black III" and "Prometheus" should be seen as "metaphors for our own fears," not a foreshadowing of danger, Tarter said in a recent statement.
After all these years, how confident is Tarter that there is extraterrestrial life?
"I actually don’t know the answer to that question, and that’s why I’m searching ," she said.