November 16, 2010

Professor Wins Presidential Early Career Award

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On Nov. 5, President Barack Obama named Prof. Rachel Bean, astronomy, a winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor the White House bestows on young professional scientists.

The five-year, $620,000 research grant will help fund Bean’s efforts to illuminate the mysteries of “dark energy” and “dark matter” in the universe. Bean will join the 84 other winners for a formal recognition ceremony at the White House in December.

“I am confident that these individuals, who have shown such tremendous promise so early in their careers, will go on to make breakthroughs and discoveries that will continue to move our nation forward in the years ahead,” President Obama said in a statement.

Prof. Ira Wasserman, astronomy and head of the department, called Bean’s presidential recognition a “singular honor” for the department and the university as well as for Bean herself, one that gives Bean a place amongst “the best young researchers in all fields of science.”

Bean said she was honored and encouraged by the award, which she saw as reinforcing the importance of astronomy to not just the scientific community but also to the country as a whole.

“It’s very exciting. This is basically an affirmation of the national importance of this kind of work,” Bean said. Bean added that the prospect of next month’s award ceremony was “a bit daunting.”

Since her arrival at Cornell in 2005, Bean’s work has focused on cosmology — the study of the universe -— and on “dark energy,” the mysterious forces that cause the universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate.

“It’s 95 percent of the universe and we don’t have a clue what it is,” Bean said of dark matter.

Bean expressed hope that emerging technology — especially new, more powerful telescopes — will allow her to more fully explore the composition of our universe.

“It’s a really exciting time to be doing cosmology,” she said, observing that though scientists can always come up with theories, the data to prove or disprove such theories has been scarce in previous years. Bean expressed hope that new data will soon afford her and her colleagues insights into the universe that were completely unattainable a few years ago.

Bean cited the community atmosphere in Cornell’s astronomy department as one of the reasons for her continued success. She said the frequent discussions with faculty in related fields such as string theory has helped her own ideas develop, and that she looked forward to years of further exploration in pursuit of a better understanding of the ever-mysterious universe.

“People think it’s just crazy scientists locked away in labs, but it’s not,” Bean said of her work. “It’s very social.”

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie