The first six LSSTC Catalyst Fellows funded by the John Templeton Foundation have been selected to conduct cross-disciplinary work on big data from US astronomy’s flagship Rubin LSST. These early-career scientists will study everything from black holes to galaxy formation while collaborating to explore how social science can improve collaborations among researchers.
TUCSON, Az. – In the run-up to the Vera C. Rubin Observatory beginning scientific operations in 2024, the LSST Corporation has announced the first winners of its LSSTC Catalyst Fellowship — Funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
The six postdoctoral fellows are the first of what will ultimately be at least 10 astrophysics researchers to be funded by the Catalyst Fellowship program, as well as several postdoctoral fellows in social science. The social scientists will study the ways in which astronomers and physicists from different countries and backgrounds collaborate as they process and analyze unprecedented quantities of data that will be collected each night by the Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).
With dozens of terabytes of astronomical data being collected every night by the observatory, astronomers will be faced with unprecedented challenges in this new era of so-called ‘big data’ astronomy. The Catalyst Fellowships aims to support early career researchers as they develop new ways of analyzing this data and new ways of collaborating with colleagues in order to improve the practice of science.
The Catalyst Fellowship is the first of its kind to include a social science dimension when it comes to understanding how scientists handle all this data.
The first six astrophysics awardees have now been revealed, and they will use their skills to not only make novel discoveries with the data from Rubin’s LSST but to support their colleagues within the astronomical community by developing new software and collaboration frameworks and assisting with social problems other scientists might face. Along the way, the fellows will also receive extensive mentoring and leadership training through the Catalyst Fellowship.
“The steps that we are taking to help the fellows launch successful careers and become scientific leaders during the LSST decade is one of the unique aspects of this fellowship,” says Jennifer (Jeno) Sokolski, who is LSSTC’s Director for Science.
“Coordinating data collected by Rubin with new and existing surveys is an avenue of interest I find most appealing, and one that will benefit astronomers regardless of what they study,” says Christopher Carroll, who is one of the first cohort of Catalyst Fellows, who will study active galactic nuclei at Washington State University. “And just as important to me is preparing the next generation of astronomers with the knowledge and skills to extract the most from LSST.”
Echoing Carroll’s enthusiasm for giving something back to the astronomical community is fellow Tansu Daylan, who will develop a pipeline to search for exoplanets and black holes in data collected by the LSST, with the intention of investigating the abundance and properties of those objects in our Milky Way galaxy.
“I’m deeply excited about the opportunity to make lasting contributions to the LSST mission, as well as providing mentorship to students to help them build leadership skills and research expertise,” says Daylan, who will be at Princeton University for his fellowship.
Another fellow, Azalee Bostroem, who will be based at the University of Arizona, says that she was drawn to the Catalyst Fellowship “because it encompasses three important aspects of astronomical research that I value: scientific results; community focused software development; and community education.”
In particular, Bostroem will build a software tool that can model the brightness of core-collapse supernovas – the explosions of massive stars at the end of their lives. Bostroem intends to apply this tool to the data coming out of Rubin to characterize supernovae en masse to determine the diversity of such explosions. Ultimately, Bostroem intends to make her tool available to other astronomers through the LSST Interdisciplinary Network for Collaboration and Computing (LINCC) to help train current and future astronomers to make the most of the huge databases that the Rubin Observatory will produce.
Modeling data is also a key aspect of the work of another Catalyst Fellow, Somayeh Khakpash, who will study gravitational lensing at Rutgers University.
Khakpash became a parent while studying as a graduate student and then as a postdoc. Inspired by her own experiences, as part of her fellowship, Khakpash will also build a database of resources and accommodation for graduate students and postdocs who are also facing the challenges of becoming parents.
“I hope I can provide beneficial resources for my fellow astronomers who are going through the same challenges that I did,” she says.
The fifth fellow is Arrykrishna Mootoovaloo of the University of Oxford, UK, who will study dark energy by applying informatics and statistics on the Rubin databases.
“The Catalyst Fellowship comes with a unique set of opportunities,” says Mootoovaloo. “For example, learning and sharing new skills, doing cutting-edge research on forthcoming LSST data, mentoring, and a combination of social science and astronomy, all of which, in my personal opinion, is crucial for growth and development.”
The sixth LSSTC Catalyst fellowship was awarded to Emily Cunningham, who will take up the fellowship at Columbia University in Fall 2025. Her research focuses on using large-scale surveys, such as LSST, to probe the Milky Way galaxy’s halo of stars.
To extend her impact beyond her own research, Cunningham will support the Research Experiences for Veteran Undergraduates (REVU) program, which is a summer program for enlisted veteran undergraduate students.
This first cohort of Catalyst Fellows will spearhead new ways of doing astronomy in the world of big data and new ways for astronomers to collaborate and help each other in their community while at the same time learning new skills.
“We see the Catalyst Fellowship as a unique opportunity to enable not only cutting-edge science but also a deep conversation about the practice of science at a transformative moment in astronomy,” said Aamir Ali, program officer in Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the John Templeton Foundation, “but the success of the fellowship was always going to hinge most of all on the fellows themselves. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the LSSTC’s recruitment of such a talented and diverse first cohort, and we can’t wait to see what they produce in the months and years to come.”
Somayeh Khakpash sums up what receiving this fellowship means to her and the other new fellows.
“The LSSTC Catalyst Fellowship is an ideal opportunity for me,” says Khakpash, “Because it will allow me to receive the right training and mentorship for leadership and provide an opportunity to participate in activities aimed at enhancing diversity and equity within the community.”