Astronomy News

Prof. Ryan Foley honored as Sloan Research Fellow

2/23/2015  8:00 am

Prof. Ryan Foley
Ryan Foley, Assistant Professor of
Astronomy and Affiliate of Physics
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Ryan Foley, assistant professor of astronomy and affiliate faculty of physics, has been selected as an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in Physics. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders.

About Ryan Foley

With access to more than a dozen powerful telescopes around the world and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Foley studies exploding stars and other transient celestial phenomena to increase our knowledge of the Universe.

Foley has established a close network of outstanding collaborators at major institutions around the globe. Early in his career, he has kept a rigorous pace of research; since earning his doctoral degree, he has published 24 first-author articles and 156 total journal articles.

The three primary thrusts to Foley’s research include (1) using Type Ia supernovae to measure the expansion history of the Universe and to further our understanding of dark energy, based on data from sky surveys like the Dark Energy Survey and his own Foundation Survey; (2) researching the progenitors and explosions of Type Ia supernovae, especially through a Hubble UV spectroscopy program he founded to uniquely probe the explosion physics and progenitor composition, and through the spectra of light echoes from historical Galactic supernovae (captured with the Keck telescopes) that reveal the asymmetries and physical conditions of ancient explosions; and, (3) studying transient celestial phenomena that fall outside of the standard categories of supernova, especially the Type Iax supernovae class, which he discovered and characterized.

Most recently, Foley and his collaborators discovered the progenitor system for one Type Iax supernova in pre-explosion Hubble images, the first detection of a progenitor system from a thermonuclear (or white dwarf) supernova. This discovery reveals more of the history of these low-energy cousins of Type Ia supernovae than we currently know about Type Ia.

Foley’s work involving the Dark Energy Survey relies heavily on the data management provided by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. This infrastructure and the swift work of NCSA scientists are critical for timely discovery of supernovae; since supernovae rise and fall over a period of weeks, even a few days’ delay could be problematic for researchers.

In addition to his deep appreciation for big data research, Foley has a deep passion for teaching and has introduced innovative techniques to the classroom, including research and collaborative tools.

Foley received his bachelor’s degree with a triple major in math, physics, and astrophysics from the University of Michigan in 2002. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 and 2008 respectively.

At Cal, Foley received the Uhl Prize, an award conferred annually for the best doctoral thesis in astrophysics.

From 2008 to 2013, Foley held a Clay postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2012, he was selected for the Block Award, presented to “the most promising young physicist" at the Aspen Center for Physics Winter Meeting.

Foley joined the faculty at Illinois in 2013.

About the Sloan Research Fellowship

Awarded in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics — the Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded through close cooperation with the scientific community. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists, and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars on the basis of a candidate’s independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field.

“For more than half a century, the Sloan Foundation has been proud to honor the best young scientific minds and support them during a crucial phase of their careers when early funding and recognition can really make a difference,” said Dr. Paul L. Joskow, President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “These researchers are pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge in unprecedented ways.”

Past Sloan Research Fellows have gone on to notable careers and include such intellectual luminaries as physicist Richard Feynman and game theorist John Nash. Since the beginning of the program in 1955, 42 fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective field, 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, 13 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics, and 63 have received the National Medal of Science.

Foley is one of 126 early-career scientists and researchers from 61 institutions in the United States and Canada chosen for a two-year Sloan Fellowship this year. Foley's award also marks the second time in recent years that Illinois Astronomy faculty have been so honored - Prof. Neal Dalal was named a Sloan Fellow in 2012.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economic performance.