ACT astronomer becomes first Australian to receive this major science award

ACT astronomer becomes first Australian to receive this major science award

For the first time in 133 years, an Australian has been awarded one of world’s top science awards, with astronomer Lisa Kewley named the recipient of the James Craig Watson Medal for 2020.

Kewley is the director of ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D in Canberra and received the award recognising outstanding contributions to the science of astronomy.

The prize, which includes $US25,000 personal endowment, $US50,000 for research support and a gold-plated bronze medal, was given to Kewley for her pioneering investigations in theory, modelling and observation as well as her studies into galaxy collisions, cosmic chemical abundances, galaxy energetics, and the star-formation.

“I am deeply honoured to have been awarded the James Craig Watson Medal,” Kewley said in a statement.

“It speaks to the strength of astronomy in Australia. In pursuing my academic passion, I have been fortunate to be able to collaborate with many talented and insightful scientists. I am also grateful that my work has been supported by the Australian National University, by ASTRO 3-D, and by funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council.”

Kewley undertook a Bachelor of Science at the Adelaide University, graduating with a BSc (Hons) in astrophysics, before moving to Canberra to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics at the Australian National University. She currently also serves as a ARC Laureate Fellow at ANU’s Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and was among the 80 researchers and scientists to sign an open letter to the Morrison government calling on them to show more leadership on the climate crisis.

She is widely cited by astronomers around the world, and produced the first models for star-forming galaxies and investigated oxygen distribution left by colliding galaxies.

Kewley is also an outspoken advocate for gender equality. Last December, she was published in Nature magazine. In the piece titled Diversity and inclusion in Australian astronomy, Kewley shared a broad survey of national programmes making an important impact on diversity, culture and climate. She also described some of the innovative initiatives being pursued in Australian universities and institutions helping to diversify the historically male-dominated field of astronomy.

In a statement released by the Australian Academy of Science, Kewley elaborated on her scientific origins.

“At school I thought physics would be too hard. But I had a wonderful physics teacher whose love for astronomy was contagious. Now we understand how to make a computer model of the impact of star formation and supermassive black holes on their host galaxies.”

She also recognised the good timing of her career. 

“Early in my career I benefited from the Hubble Space Telescope and the 10 metre Keck telescopes in Hawaii. Students starting today are going to have access to amazing new telescopes including the James Webb Space Telescope, massive new optical telescopes in Chile and the Square Kilometre Array in Australia and South Africa.

“We’re going to require astronomers, engineers, data experts and artificial intelligence to use these new instruments, taking us back to the moment of the Big Bang, finding new planets and more.”

Kewley’s other accolades include The Bok Prize, Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy and the Newtown Lacy Piece Prize. In 2014, she was named one of Australian Financial Review & Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence in the field of Innovation.

So, what’s next for Kewley? She is currently looking into the the oxygen history of galaxies like the Milky Way. No doubt, we will hear exciting, and fruitful discoveries from her and her institute in the near future.

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