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Young stars form with circumstellar disks that provide the raw materials for planets. How these ubiquitous disks form planets and then dissipate to leave mature planetary systems is a remaining major puzzle of exoplanet science. I will describe measurements that help us to understand the lifetime of disks, and therefore the timescales for planet formation. Disks are visible to us by scattering light from their central stars and by emitting light in continuum. I will describe how we can measure the compositions of the disks and try to relate this to the processes occurring within them and the ultimate composition of planets.
I will discuss two projects aimed at enabling breakthrough studies in understanding how planets form: a new spectrograph for Magellan and GMT that will enable precision measurement of disk and exoplanet compositions, and our theoretical explorations of the interaction of porous dust grains, similar to the interplanetary dust grains, to help us interpret new imaging of disks.