To Boldly Go

Astrophysicist Rachel Somerville receives an award recognizing her expertise in galaxy-formation theory.

Rachel Somerville, a professor of astrophysics and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the School of Arts and Sciences, was awarded $500,000 by the Simons Foundation to support her research over the next five years. She was one of 16 theoretical scientists at American and Canadian universities who were named Simons Investigators for 2014.

Somerville, who was featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Rutgers Magazine, creates computer models, or simulations, of the physical principles that underlie galaxy formation. These models help astronomers make sense of what they see when the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments peer into the farthest reaches of space and reveal how galaxies looked as they took shape in a young universe.

The Simons Foundation, a private foundation that sponsors research in mathematics and the basic sciences, cited her contributions to the development of “semi-analytic modeling methods that combine computational and pencil-and-paper theory.” According to the group, these contributions have helped scientists understand how the growth of supermassive black holes and the energy they release is linked to a galaxy’s properties and its ability to form stars.

Somerville’s goal at Rutgers is to build more expertise in galaxy-formation theory and help the department’s astronomy group pursue new areas such as the study of extrasolar planets. “Rutgers is a great place for galaxy formation theorists because we have opportunities to interact with the excellent observational astronomers here,” she says, noting the university’s involvement with the powerful new Southern African Large Telescope.