press release
Published: 20 September 2019

Surrey astrophysicist wins Future Leaders Fellowship

Dr. Payel Das – a world leader in galactic dynamics, galactic archaeology and machine learning – has won a prestigious UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowship. Set up to support the very best early career researchers and innovators, Payel will take up her fellowship within the astrophysics research group in the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey.

The latest theories for how galaxies form suggest that they started out very small, growing in size by merging with one another to produce ever larger systems. What is not yet known is how this leads to the diverse range of morphologies – spirals, bars, discs, ellipticals and even “irregular” types – that can be seen today. The evolution of galaxies has a number of drivers acting on different scales: the interstellar scale includes processes such as star formation, explosions of massive stars, and interactions between stars; on a larger scale, mergers between nearby galaxies serve to reshape the distribution of stars as well as deposit alien stars from satellite galaxies in the outer haloes. The veils of dark matter that enshroud all galaxies modulate the rate of star formation and merger events.

Payel will look to reveal the delicate balance between these drivers of galactic evolution and explain the origin of the present diversity by establishing a new research field at the interface between studies of galaxies in our cosmic backyard, and studies of galaxies at enormous distances. She will carry out detailed galactic “archaeological” studies of the Milky Way and beyond. To do this she will take advantage of her unique background as both an astrophysicist and an engineer, combining advanced statistical tools with new state-of-the-art galaxy models to provide new insights into how galaxies grow and evolve, and the nature of the elusive “dark matter”.

The second round of the competitive Future Leaders Fellowships is supported by a £78 million investment fund from UKRI and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The Fellowships provide researchers and innovators from diverse backgrounds and career paths with the flexibility and time they need to make progress on truly challenging questions.

Dr Payel Das said: “While we have already learnt a lot about how galaxies evolve, to arrive at a complete picture requires going beyond the domain of astrophysics, borrowing tools from engineering to efficiently harvest the deluge of data becoming available right now from state-of-the-art surveys. With the help of the Future Leaders Fellowship, I will be able to bring together these disciplines in a novel way to tackle key remaining challenges in our understanding of galaxy evolution.”

Professor David Sampson, Vice-Provost Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey, said: “I sincerely congratulate Dr Das on this fine achievement and I look forward to following the progress of her ambitious and important project. One of our key priorities at the University of Surrey is to make our institution the destination of choice for the best and brightest researchers at all stages of their career. This news is an indicator that we are on the right track.”

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Delivering on our research and innovation ambitions means putting people first, whether they are just starting out in their career or are leading major projects in academia or industry. 

“These inspirational Future Leaders Fellows will generate the ideas of the future, helping to shape science and research for the 21st century. But to realise the full potential of these discoveries, their ideas need to be taken out of the lab and turned into real products and services, where they can actually change people’s lives for the better.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “The Future Leaders Fellowships will enable the most promising researchers and innovators to become leaders in their fields, working on subjects as diverse as climate change, dementia and quantum computing.

“UKRI is committed to creating modern research and innovation careers and our Future Leaders Fellowships aim to support and retain the most talented people, including those with flexible career paths.”

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