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Best Early Career Researcher in Observational Astrophysics

Prof. Kevin Schawinski

The 2017 MERAC Prizes for the Best Early Career Researcher are awarded in Observational Astrophysics to Prof. Kevin Schawinski for his groundbreaking work on the galaxy/black hole connection and innovative use of citizen science in astrophysic

Kevin Schawinski was a graduate student at Oxford University from 2004-2008 during which time he co-founded the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project. For his thesis on the role of black holes in the quenching of star formation in early-type galaxies, Kevin received the Royal Astronomical Society's Michael Penston prize for the best thesis in astronomy in the UK. He remained in Oxford for several months as the Henry Skynner Junior Research Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford before moving to Prof. C. Megan Urry's group at Yale University. He was awarded a NASA Einstein Fellowship and remained at Yale until 2012, working with the latest deep field observations from the Hubble, XMM-Newton and Chandra space telescopes. He moved to ETH Zurich in Switzerland as an Assistant Professor with a Swiss National Fund professorship grant where he now leads the black hole astrophysics group. He is strongly engaged in citizen science, recruiting large numbers of people from the general public to engage with science.

Kevin Schawinski has made major advances in the observational understanding of the feedback exerted on a galaxy by outflows from an active, super-massive back hole at its centre. He also used stellar evolution to build phenomenological models of galaxy evolution. Using stars as "cosmic clocks", he constrained the phases in the evolution of galaxies during which their central black holes become active as quasars. He showed using observations that while many disk galaxies – like our Milky Way – cease their star formation activity very slowly over billions of years, some galaxies whose morphology was transformed by a major galaxy merger to an elliptical shape shut down their star formation very quickly. The most plausible cause for this sudden end of star formation is that a very brief active phase by the black hole destroys the gas reservoir used as fuel for star formation. As a co-founder of the Galaxy Zoo project he involved several hundred thousand citizen scientists to classify nearly a million galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The discovery of the famous "Hanny's Voorwerp" by a Dutch school teacher taking part in Galaxy Zoo became a prototypical system for quasar ionisation echoes tracing the past energetic output of central black holes. Kevin Schawinski showed that such echoes limit the duration of a typical quasar phase to only a few hundred thousand years.

The work of Kevin Schawinski has been conducted at Oxford University in the United Kingdom (2004-2008), Yale University (2008-2012) and ETH Zurich in Switzerland (2012-2016).