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Vera Rubin Observatory at twilight

Astrophysicists, Social Scientists to Probe the Universe’s Deepest Mysteries

Interdisciplinary fellowship program will explore data from massive sky survey
18 August 2021
Vera Rubin Observatory at twilight
The Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile. Credit: Rubin Obs/NSF/AURA

The LSST Corporation (LSSTC), a non-profit consortium of approximately 30 research Institutions including Penn State, has received $7 million to establish the LSSTC Catalyst Fellowship funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The fellowships will support early-career researchers in astrophysics and in social sciences as they study the enormous amount of data generated from the soon-to-be-completed Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile.

The fellowship program will fund ten new astrophysics fellows and several social science fellows, selected from institutions around the globe. One fellow from each cohort will be stationed at a historically underserved institution.

"Penn State has been an active member of the LSST project since 2005," said Donald Schneider, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics and Penn State's representative on the LSST Corportation Institutional Board. "We are quite excited by the possibilities offered by this innovative fellowship for young scientists."

Announced at the Rubin 2021 Program and Community Workshop in August 2021, the program is the first fellowship of its kind. Researchers from disparate fields—including those from traditionally underrepresented groups and institutions—will converge to pursue an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to science.

“Big data is changing how we view the universe,” said Jennifer Sokoloski, director for science at LSSTC and an astrophysicist at Columbia University. “It’s a perfect time to discover new ways of doing science. By training a diverse set of early-career researchers, Vera Rubin Observatory will be poised to make exciting scientific discoveries within its first few years.”

Over the course of a decade, researchers at the Vera Rubin Observatory will create the first-ever deep, multicolor movie showing the southern sky as it changes over time. The project will generate dozens of terabytes of data per night, potentially holding answers to the universe’s most elusive secrets, including the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of the periodic table of elements, and whether life exists beyond Earth.

The fellowship recognizes the dawn of the Vera Rubin Observatory as a transformative moment in the astronomy and astrophysics community, with hundreds of astronomers from multiple countries tackling enormous data sets. By supporting social science fellows alongside astrophysicists, the fellowship aims to catalyze formal study of the many social questions that will arise when large, multi-national groups of scientists work together to collect and analyze large amounts and new forms of data.

“By supporting this cross-disciplinary fellowship, the foundation hopes to enable critical research, but also catalyze an exchange between astrophysicists and social scientists to understand and capitalize on this transformational moment in the astrophysics community,” said Aamir Ali, program officer in mathematical and physical sciences at the John Templeton Foundation, and an astrophysicist by training.

Although the Rubin Observatory is committed to making all of its data available to the public, not everyone will have the skills to interpret such data. Not even every lifelong astrophysicist—let alone student, schoolteacher or museum staff member—is trained to handle, analyze or interpret the enormous quantities of data. The fellowship program is committed to financing and supporting fellows at low-resource institutions, to ensure that everyone has the tools they need to make use of the data.

"Since the inception of the project we have known that it would radically alter how astronomical data is processed and analyzed," noted Schneider. "This program will play an important role in addressing these unprecedented challenges."

About the John Templeton Foundation

Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation funds work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. It also encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large. With an endowment of $3.8 billion and annual giving of approximately $140 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, its philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 57 countries around the world.

Media Contacts
Donald Schneider
Department Head and Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Gail McCormick
Science Writer