Canberra astronomer becomes first Australian to win major US science award in 133 years

ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO-3D), Media releases

Lisa Kewley has transformed our understanding of the early years of the Universe, the development of galaxies, and what happens when they collide.  

2020 James Craig Watson medal winner Professor Lisa Kewley in her office. Credit: ASTRO 3D

For her pioneering investigations across theory, modelling and observation, she will receive the US National Academy of Science’s biennial James Craig Watson Medal in Washington DC.

“At school I thought physics would be too hard.  But I had a wonderful physics teacher whose love for astronomy was contagious!” says Lisa.

Today, Professor Lisa Kewley is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D) and ARC Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School for Astronomy & Astrophysics. She is the first person in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere to be awarded the James Craig Watson Medal.

In awarding her the Medal, the Academy recognised the global impact of her research on our understanding of how galaxies have formed and evolved over the past 12 billion years.

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

“We can run the model forward and see how we expect galaxies to evolve, and 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.” 

She says we’re living in a golden era for astronomy: “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.”

During her career, Professor Kewley has made fundamental contributions to the study of galaxy collisions, cosmic chemical abundances, galaxy energetics, and the star-formation history of galaxies.

Her widely cited papers cover the development of theoretical models to identify the power sources of galaxies, deriving the first star-formation rate calibration to correct for chemical abundance, revealing the distribution of oxygen abundances left behind by colliding galaxies, showing that low-ionisation nuclear emission-line regions are powered by super-massive black holes, and measuring the oxygen history of the universe.

“I am deeply honoured to have been awarded the James Craig Watson Medal,” Dr Kewley says.

“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 3D, and by funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council.”

Professor Kewley is currently researching the oxygen history of galaxies like the Milky Way.

“This award is highly-deserved recognition of Lisa’s stellar research and the incredible contributions she has made to our understanding of the Universe,” said Professor Brian Schmidt, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011 and supported the nomination.  

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

Named after American-Canadian nineteenth century astronomer James Craig Watson, the award has been presented every two years since 1887 “for outstanding contributions to the science of astronomy”. It comprises a $US25,000 personal endowment, $US50,000 for research support and a gold-plated bronze medal.

Pic captions/credits

2020 James Craig Watson medal winner Professor Lisa Kewley in her office. Credit: ASTRO 3D
Professor Lisa Kewley is the first Australian ever to win the James Craig Watson Medal for outstanding contributions to astronomy. Credit: ASTRO 3D

More about the James Craig Watson Medal: The James Craig Watson Medal is presented every two years for outstanding contributions to the science of astronomy and carries with it a gold-plated bronze medal, a $25,000 prize, and $50,000 to support the recipient’s research. The Watson Medal was established by NAS Member and prolific Canadian-American astronomer, James Craig Watson. Watson is credited with discovering twenty-two asteroids in his lifetime. He published many articles and wrote A Popular Treatise on Comets (1861) and Theoretical Astronomy (1868). Past winners here:

More about ASTRO 3D: ASTRO 3D is a seven-year $40 million Centre of Excellence project funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council. The Centre began in June 2017 and will end in June 2024. It hosts around 200 investigators and professional staff, mostly based at six nodes: the Australian National University, Curtin University, Swinburne University of Technology, University of Melbourne, University of Sydney, and University of Western Australia.