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Astrophysicist Brice Ménard receives President’s Frontier Award

Feb. 13, 2019
CONTACT: Jill Rosen
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Many astronomy researchers benefit from sky surveys containing millions of stars and galaxies observed by telescopes. But Brice Ménard’s colleagues say his imagination and insight make him particularly adept at discovering the universal secrets hidden in a daunting amount of data.

Ménard, an astrophysicist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, has received this year’s $250,000 President’s Frontier Award to support his exploration of astronomical data.

University President Ronald J. Daniels, Provost Sunil Kumar, Dean Beverly Wendland and other colleagues surprised Ménard with the award on Tuesday, walking into the classroom where he was teaching.

The award was established by alumnus Louis J. Forster, who is chair elect of the university’s board of trustees, and alumna Kathleen M. Pike to recognize one faculty member a year and “to give them freedom and allow them to do extraordinary things,” Daniels told Ménard at the presentation.

“But the key is, of course, the person that receives it must him- or herself be extraordinary,” Daniels said, “and clearly that is the case. … Colleagues outside your discipline who reviewed the nomination had very little difficulty in seeing what a worthy candidate you would be.”

Timothy Heckman, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, noted in his nomination letter that Ménard has worked with very large astronomical data sets that have been available to hundreds of other very capable scientists, often for many years.

“His genius,” Heckman said, “was to conceive of and develop new and potentially far-reaching ways to analyze these data. He then used his intellect and intuition to make a series of remarkable and often unexpected discoveries.”

Ménard used the data set of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to discover that tiny grains of cosmic dust, formerly only known to exist inside galaxies, are distributed throughout the universe. This insight had major implications for understanding the chemical evolution of the universe, Heckman said.

“I spend most of my time studying the universe, millions of stars and millions of galaxies,” Ménard said at the celebration. “The challenge is out of all these data to try to extract information, signals that we have not seen, to always push the limits of knowledge. [The award] is an amazing opportunity to expand in new directions without having to apply for grant funding.”

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