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Suvrath Mahadevan named Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics

4 October 2023
Suvrath Mahadevan kneels by water on boardwalk

Suvrath Mahadevan, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, has been selected as the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The appointment is awarded by the Office of the President of the University, based on the recommendation of the Dean of the Eberly College of Science, in recognition of Mahadevan’s research contributions, teaching, and service to the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Eberly College of Science.

“Suvrath is a prominent member of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and is highly respected in his field,” said Randall McEntaffer, head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “In addition to his research efforts, which have greatly enhanced the precision of ground-based telescopes, he is a dedicated and passionate teacher and mentor. His combination of exceptional research, teaching, and service embodies the high standards set by the Willaman Professorship.”

Mahadevan’s research focuses on developing novel instruments and techniques to discover and understand exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system. These new instruments— advanced ultra-stable spectrometers—can detect the periodic miniscule changes in the wavelength of light emitted by a star, which is the signpost of the gravitational tug of a planet as it orbits its parent star. Mahadevan and his team designed and built the Habitable-Zone Planet Finder at Penn State, a near-infrared spectrograph attached to the 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas that can detect exoplanets around the coolest known stars. He also leads the team for NEID, a visible light spectrometer also designed and built at Penn State that is installed on the 3.5-meter optical WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Southern Arizona. In 2020, he and the NEID team were recognized by NASA with a Group Achievement Award for this work.  

Mahadevan’s research group, and the now internationally spread HPF and NEID science teams he leads, have focused their effort in recent years on charting out the challenging path to discovering planets of terrestrial mass (1 to 10 times the mass of Earth) in Habitable Zones around the Sun’s nearest neighbors, understanding the intrinsic noise of the stars themselves, and exploring possible signatures of star-planet interactions. The long arc of his research is the search for life in the universe by enabling the discovery of nearby terrestrial exoplanets and the eventual search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of these planets. 

Mahadevan’s research has been published in more than 150 papers in scientific journals. He is a member in Penn State’s Center for Exoplanets & Habitable Worlds (CEHW) and Astrobiology Research Center (ARC), two of the many Centers that together make up Penn State Planetary, the Consortium for Planetary & Exoplanetary Science and Technology. He has also served on high-level national advisory committees and review boards for NASA, NSF, and as a reviewer for several astronomy-related collaborations and instrument teams.

Mahadeven is deeply invested in mentoring the students and postdoctoral fellows in his research group and received the Outstanding Postdoctoral Mentor Award from Penn State in 2017. Additionally, he has taught classes on life in the universe, planetary science, and astronomical instrumentation as well as first-year seminars. He and his research group are also involved in outreach and education efforts in the community. Their current project, “Eclipse Elementary,” is an outreach effort to elementary school children in the State College Area School District to both provide eclipse glasses and inform and educate children about the upcoming solar eclipses on Oct. 14 and April 8.

Prior to joining Penn State in 2009, Mahadevan was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida from 2007 to 2009. He earned a doctoral degree in astrophysics from the University of Florida in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, India, in 2000.

The Willaman Professorships were established in 1999 by Verne M. Willaman, a 1951 graduate of Penn State. The professorships provide outstanding faculty members with a supplemental source of support to further their research, teaching, writing, and public service.