Rachel Somerville is one of 16 theoretical scientists receiving $500,000 in research support for five years from the Simons Foundation

When most people think of astronomers, they envision scientists who spend time peering at stars and galaxies through telescopes on high mountain tops. Rutgers astronomer Rachel Somerville depends on colleagues who make such observations, but her primary tools for understanding how galaxies formed billions of years ago – and how they continue to evolve today – are large computers.

Rachel Somerville
Rachel Somerville
Photo: Miguel Acevedo

The quality and significance of her work were affirmed this week when the Simons Foundation, a private foundation that sponsors research in mathematics and the basic sciences, awarded Somerville $500,000 in research support over five years. She is one of 16 theoretical scientists at American and Canadian universities who were named Simons Investigators for 2014.

A professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences, Somerville creates computer models or simulations of the physical principles that underlie galaxy formation. These models help astronomers make sense of what they see when the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments peer into the farthest reaches of space and reveal how galaxies looked as they took shape in a young universe.

The Simons Foundation cited her contributions to the development of “semianalytic modeling methods that combine computational and pencil-and-paper theory.” According to the group, these contributions have helped scientists understand how the growth of supermassive black holes and the energy they release is linked to a galaxy’s properties and its ability to form stars.

Somerville explains that astronomers cannot see any single galaxy evolve through a telescope.

“We see galaxies at different points in their lifetimes and in different wavelengths,” she said, referring to images acquired with visible light, radio waves and X-rays. Models then help astronomers predict which kinds of early galaxies evolved into disks like our Milky Way while others evolved into the round balls of stars that astronomers call elliptical galaxies.

As a theoretical astronomer, Somerville values the opportunities she gets to interact with observational astronomers at Rutgers and elsewhere who provide her with new data that make her models more comprehensive and robust.

“It’s hard to make models that fit all the observations,” she said. “I try to go the extra distance to connect what the models predict with things that we can actually observe.”

Somerville is a relative newcomer to Rutgers, appointed in October 2011 to the George A. and Margaret M. Downsbrough Chair in Astrophysics.

In 2013, she received the Dannie Heineman Prize in Astrophysics from the American Astronomical Society and the American Institute of Physics. The prize recognizes exceptional work by mid-career astronomers, citing her for providing fundamental insights into galaxy formation and evolution using modeling, simulations, and observations.

Before joining Rutgers, Somerville held a joint appointment as associate research professor at Johns Hopkins University and associate astronomer with tenure at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). STScI manages selection, planning and scheduling of scientific activities for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Before that, she held faculty appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and the University of Michigan, and postdoctoral appointments at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

Somerville’s goal at Rutgers is to build more expertise in galaxy formation theory and help the department’s astronomy group pursue new areas such as the study of extrasolar planets.

“Rutgers is a great place for galaxy formation theorists because we have opportunities to interact with the excellent observational astronomers here,” she said, noting the university’s involvement with the powerful new Southern African Large Telescope, also referred to as SALT. “I’ve benefitted from supportive colleagues and contact with graduate and undergraduate students. I’m constantly inspired by their enthusiasm.”

An earlier version of this story appeared in January 2013.

For more information, please contact Carl Blesch of Rutgers Media Relations at 848-932-0550 or cblesch@ucm.rutgers.edu