Australian astronomer wins major US science award


Lisa Kewley transformed our understanding of the universe.


Lisa Kewley was recognised for her work on galaxy formation.

ASTRO 3D

By Natalie Parletta

Quietly tucked away in Canberra, Australia, is one of the world’s most influential astronomers right now.

Lisa Kewley has been awarded the James Craig Watson Medal by the US National Academy of Science in recognition of her work’s impact on understanding how galaxies formed and evolved over the past 12 billion years.

Her pioneering research in theoretical modelling sheds light on power sources for galaxies, what happens when they collide, the history of stars forming, and how oxygen is distributed throughout the Universe.

“Now we understand how to make a computer model of the impact of star formation and supermassive black holes on their host galaxies,” she says.

“We can run the model forward and see how we expect galaxies to evolve, and we can go backwards and see how galaxies like the Milky Way formed, shortly after the epoch of reionisation, when the early Universe lit up.”

Kewley’s vision isn’t limited to the skies – her most recent paper, published in the journal Nature, argued that Australia needs more Indigenous, LGBTQ and disabled scientists to produce quality research.

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, who supported the nomination, says the award for her “stellar research and the incredible contributions she has made to our understanding of the Universe” is richly deserved.

“Here at ANU, we push the boundaries of what is known every day. This includes our place in the Universe,” he says. “The work of Lisa and her colleagues position Australia as a world-leading centre for astronomy.”

Kewley is director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO-3D).

After completing her PhD in 2002 on the connection between star-formation and supermassive black holes in infrared galaxies, career highlights include a fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and a NASA Hubble Fellowship at the University of Hawaii.

Ten years ago she was named one of Astronomy Magazine’s top 10 rising stars. She has appeared on national documentaries and won other awards including the 2006 American Astronomical Society Annie Jump Cannon Award and the 2008 American Astronomical Society Newton Lacy Pierce Prize.

The James Craig Watson award, named after an American-Canadian astronomer, has been presented every two years since 1887 “for outstanding contributions to the science of astronomy”.

Kewley is the first Australian – in fact the first person in the southern hemisphere – to win the award in its 133-year history.

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-019-0954-1.pdf?origin=ppub
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