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December 7, 2009 — Astrophysicist awarded 2009 Steacie Prize

by Christine Elias — Monday, Dec 07, 2009

December 7, 2009 — Astrophysicist awarded 2009 Steacie Prize

Ray Jayawardhana

December 7, 2009
Sean Bettam

Astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is the recipient of the 2009 Steacie Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious honours for rising stars in science and engineering.

"I'm surprised, honoured and humbled," says Jayawardhana.  "The Steacie Prize is a wonderful recognition of the frontline astrophysics research going on at U of T. It's been tremendous fun to be part of that endeavor together with the postdoctoral fellows and students in my group, and to share our discoveries with the public, especially during this International Year of Astronomy."

Holder of the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, Jayawardhana explores the origin and diversity of planetary systems and the formation of stars and brown dwarfs. His discoveries have made media headlines on several occasions, including last year when he and his Toronto collaborators captured the first direct image of what is likely a giant planet revolving around a young sun-like star.

Pushing the limits of available technology is one of Jayawardhana’s specialties. Working in a highly competitive area, his innovative research proposals win him coveted observation time on the world’s largest telescopes.

"We’re using the most advanced instrumentation on the world’s premier facilities to push the boundaries of science," he says. "That way you get to do new things and discover new types of objects, and characterize them in ways that haven’t been possible until now. It is fun to work on the edge."

Jayawardhana acknowledges that 2009 has been a bit of a "banner year" for him. In March, he received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, one of Canada's premier science and engineering research awards, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a ceremony in Ottawa. In May, he was named as one of Canada's "Top 40 Under 40" by the Globe & Mail and Caldwell Partners.

Known as RayJay to colleagues, Jayawardhana looks forward to the powerful capabilities of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) now designed and ready for construction in Hawaii.  “RayJay will be able to continue his leadership in the field with the TMT, which will open up the study of a vitally interesting class of extrasolar planets — including young Earths — by enabling observations of smaller, fainter planets closer to the parent star,” says astronomy & astrophysics department chair Peter Martin.  "For Canada, having top facilities like the TMT exploited by talented scientists of RayJay’s calibre is a winning combination.  It is very exciting to provide leadership in researching such profound questions."

Jayawardhana’s lifelong enthusiasm about the cosmos is infectious, and he has received many accolades for his communications skills. Had he not become a researcher, he might have pursued a career as a science journalist. The latest of his many outreach efforts involved 3,000 ads that appeared in Toronto’s buses, subways and streetcars for one month in early 2009, at the kickoff of the International Year of Astronomy, promoting a sense of wonder about the cosmos. "The idea was to reach literally hundreds of thousands of people, even for just 30 seconds, to highlight that we are intimately connected to the rest of the universe," he explains.

"Congratulations to Professor Jayawardhana on this prestigious honour," said Professor Paul Young, vice president (research).  "The Steacie Prize is one of the most coveted forms of recognition for a young Canadian scientist.  This is a true testament to Ray's outstanding innovation in astronomy research and science in general."

The Steacie Prize, with a value of $10,000, is awarded annually in recognition of exceptional contributions by a scientist or engineer aged 40 or younger.  Winners are selected by a panel appointed by the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science and engineering in Canada.  Recent University of Toronto recipients of the Steacie Prize include Stephen Scherer (Molecular Genetics, 2003), Jerry Mitrovica (Physics, 2001), Ian Manners (Chemistry, 2000), Lewis Kay (Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, 1999) and Sajeev John (Physics, 1996).

Photo: Paola Scattolon.