Prof. Gary Ferland has been awarded the 2016 Albert D. and Elizabeth H. Kirwan Memorial Prize, the University’s highest honor for research. This award is given annually to one UK faculty member in recognition of outstanding contributions to original research or scholarship.
Ferland’s research focuses on astrophysical applications of atomic and molecular physics; specifically, how matter in space produces the light we see. “We take the light that we can receive here on Earth and figure out what’s happening out there,” Ferland said. “Our computers here on the Earth allow us to run simulations to see how matter in space emits light, and what that light tells us about the galaxy.”
Ferland developed a computer platform, Cloudy, to simulate the effects of interstellar matter on astronomical observations. Cloudy is now one of the more widely-used theory codes in all of astrophysics. Cloudy was open source from its birth, allowing the astronomy community to improve and maintain it. “I started Cloudy in 1978 at Cambridge and my work on it has continued ever since,” Ferland said. “It’s completely open-source. As the atomic theory gets better, computers get faster, Cloudy gets better and is able to tell us more about what is happening at the edge of the Universe.”
Ferland travels extensively—he spent last year as Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor at Trinity College in Dublin—and has collaborators on several continents. “Astronomy today is so expensive that entire countries can’t afford to purchase an instrument, like a deep space telescope, so researchers must be fiercely collaborative,” Ferland said. “It’s very liberating to be in Lexington and be able to telecommute with my colleagues across the globe.”
Recently, Ferland’s team was awarded two high-profile research grants, from the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Theoretical Astrophysics program, that will support their endeavors. These awards, amounting to more than $1 million, contribute to the theoretical calculations Ferland’s group conducts here at UK.
“Our department is fortunate to have him on our faculty,” said Sumit Das, department chair. “He is currently the most highly funded faculty member in our department. He has trained a large number of graduate and postdoctoral students, and has contributed much to the visibility of our department.”
For more information about Gary Ferland and his research, listen to this A&S podcast or visit any of these press releases: