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Best Early Career Researcher in New Technologies (Computational) 2023

Dr Dylan Nelson

Dr Dylan Nelson triple-majored in physics, mathematics, and astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his PhD at Harvard University in 2015. Dylan became one of the earliest active developers of the AREPO moving-mesh code for galaxy formation simulations, making key contributions to the original Illustris cosmological simulation. He was the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, as well as the Institute for Applied Computational Science Fellowship. In addition to his PhD, he obtained a secondary degree in Computational Science and Engineering at Harvard. He then moved to the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics as a postdoctoral fellow (2015-2020). He became a key figure and leader of the IllustrisTNG simulations. He is the Co-PI of the TNG50 simulation, completed in 2019, a cosmological galaxy formation simulation of unprecedented scope and resolution. In 2020 he was awarded an Emmy Noether Research Group Leader position at Heidelberg University, where he leads the Computational Galaxy Formation and Evolution Group.

Dylan Nelson develops, carries out, and scientifically explores large numerical calculations of structure formation across cosmic time. Dylan Nelson has played a unique role developing, carrying out, and making accessible some of the largest and most sophisticated cosmological simulations, namely, IllustrisTNG. The simulation has (i) re-shaped our theoretical understanding of galaxy feedback and the impact of AGN-driven outflows, (ii) predicted how galactic disks and morphological structure emerge at early epochs, as now being probed with JWST, and (iii) provided foundational theoretical predictions for space telescope mission proposals. Based in part on the IllustrisTNG simulations, Dylan Nelson has studied the dynamics of the diffuse gas outside of galaxies, in the intergalactic medium and circumgalactic medium (CGM). His results have changed our understanding of cold, filamentary accretion flows, and their ability to feed high-redshift galaxies. One of the most scientifically exciting and novel results is that the CGM encodes a non-trivial “historical record” of past galactic feedback activity. The release of the simulations to the community is a high-impact example of Open Science in astronomy. In particular, Dylan Nelson has designed and developed the entire infrastructure to enable researchers to remotely explore, search, analyze, and download these petabyte-scale datasets ( Since its launch, more than 5,200 registered users have downloaded tens of thousands of simulation snapshots and catalogs, and tens of millions of individual galaxy datasets.

The work was conducted at Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and at the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics of the Center for Astronomy, Heidelberg University.