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Two Leiden astronomers awarded with prestigious IAU PhD Prize

Two Leiden astronomers will receive the prestigious IAU PhD Prize. Both Jorryt Mathee and Niels Ligterink of the Leiden Observatory won a prize. Scientific director Huub Röttgering: We are proud that this year two of our PhD students receive an IAU prize for the best thesis in their field of research.’

Niels Ligterink

Molecular building blocks in space ice

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) awards the IAU PhD Prizes each year to the best PhD candidates in the world in nine different divisions. Ligterink won in the division Facilities, Technology and Data Science. With promotors Harold Linnartz and Ewine van Dishoeck, he investigated how and where molecules form in space. He did this in the lab as well as with radio telescopes. ‘This is how I discovered that building blocks of amino acids and proteins can efficiently form in space ice’, says Ligterink. ‘These kinds of building blocks also appeared to be present around a young star, in the area where new planets can form.’ Amino acids and proteins are among the most important building blocks for life. ‘It is therefore possible that these molecules once contributed to the creation of life on the young Earth and now contribute to the contribute to the creation of life on exoplanets.'

Jorryt Matthee

The creation of galaxies

Matthee won in the division Galaxies and Cosmology. He investigated the question: how do galaxies arise and evolve? Earlier this year he already won the C.J. Koks Prize for the best thesis at the Faculty of Science. Matthee used state-of-the-art observational data, in which he found a very bright galaxy at an astonishing 13 billion light-years away. In addition, he used massive computer simulations to investigate why multiple galaxies of a given mass are observed with such a wide variety of properties. At the time, Röttgering was one of Matthee's promoters alongside Joop Schaye. 'As a promoter, it was very pleasant to work with Jorryt', he says. 'Using computer simulations and data from large telescopes and satellites, he has achieved important results.'

Proud and motivated

‘We are proud that this year two of our PhD candidates are receiving an IAU prize for the best thesis in their field of research,’ continues Röttgering. Ligterink: ‘I have worked hard for four years on this thesis, it is satisfying to get recognition from the worldwide astronomical community in this way. For me, this prize is a confirmation of the importance of laboratory research into fundamental chemical and physical processes in the universe. This is exactly what is needed to explain astronomical observations.’

Matthee is also grateful. ‘Especially for the freedom and flexibility I had thanks to a Huygens fellowship at Leiden University and the flexibility of my supervisors and their urge to keep pushing me. This made it possible that the first results of my research determined the direction of my follow-up research in the later years of my PhD. So, it wasn’t a “preconceived” or super-detailed plan, but one project followed another by itself. Matthee further calls it cool and honourable to win the global prize. ‘The recognition is stimulating and motivating to push (even) more boundaries with my current and future research.’

IAU PhD Prizes

The IAU PhD Prize recognises the outstanding scientific achievement in astronomy by PhD students around the world. Each of the IAU’s nine divisions awards a prize to the candidate it feels has carried out the most remarkable work in the previous year and the nine divisions together also agree on awarding an extra prize, the PhD at-large Prize.

The winners receive a number of prizes that differ per division. They will also receive tickets and accommodation to attend the upcoming IAU meeting in 2021 in South Korea. Here they will receive the certificates. Finally, all winners are automatically eligible for the Spring Thesis Award. More information and other winners via this link

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