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UW astronomy professor wins award for exoplanet research

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Dr. Eric Agol

Dr. Eric Agol is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. Dr. Agol's research uses planet shadow data to find extrasolar planets that share similar characteristics to Earth.

Living in an ever expanding universe, it’s only natural to wonder what could possibly be out there. With much curiosity shifting toward the study of exoplanets — planets found outside of our solar system — scientists are pushing to find more technology and data to uncover possible Earth-like planets in outer space. 

One of those scientists is UW astronomy professor Eric Agol, who will be the recipient of this year’s Lecar Prize, awarded by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for his contributions to exoplanet research.

Agol’s main focus of study was originally centered on the research of black holes before he discovered his work had many connections with exoplanets. From there, he went on to publish several papers comparing similarities between the two, and shifted his focus toward researching newly discovered planets.

In 2003, Agol came to the UW as an assistant professor in the department of astronomy, before eventually becoming a full professor in 2014. Agol continued his research while simultaneously teaching classes, and found time to mentor graduate students in between.

“Professor Agol is an incredibly knowledgeable and attentive mentor,” said Brett Morris, one of Agol’s graduate students. “He has also long been an active proponent of inclusivity in the astronomy community.”

Agol has made many contributions to the astronomy community, most notably discovering a five-planet system including the most Earth-like exoplanet ever detected. 

In addition to his noteworthy research, the Lecar Prize committee also recognized Agol’s willingness to share his research as a key factor in the decision to give him the award.

“In selecting the winner, we are looking for people who have made numerous innovative contributions that have shaped the way the rest of us do our research,” said Matthew Holman, Smithsonian senior astrophysicist and chair of the Lecar Prize committee. “Professor Agol is also a very generous and generative researcher. He openly shares his ideas with junior and senior colleagues and actively participates in their work, helping them along and encouraging their careers.”

Aside from the prestige of the award, Agol mostly takes pride in what his contributions mean for the astronomy community.

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“It’s exciting to know that my research is being used by other scientists,” Agol said. “It’s definitely an honor.”

Agol attributes part of his success to his colleagues and the UW department of astronomy.

“I have a really supportive department and good mentors,” he said. “That’s really helped my career.”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center first awarded the Lecar Prize in 2014 to encourage research focusing on theoretical astrophysics and extrasolar planets. The winner of the award receives an honorarium and gives a talk at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center. 

In his talk, Agol plans to discuss his research modeling the light curves of moving exoplanets, which allows researchers to measure planet size and orbital speed more accurately. 

With the progression of technology, Agol anticipates the future with bright hopes for new research and discovery.

“I’m hoping that in the near future we can better characterize planets orbiting other stars,” Agol said. “And in the longer term I’m hoping that we’ll build a telescope that will be able to find other planets like Earth.”


Reach reporter Amy Wong at Twitter: @amyewong

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