Postdoctoral Fellow Receives Inaugural NAS Science Communication Award

October 21, 2022 • by Emily Engelbart

Arianna Long of UT Austin has been recognized for her communication of research on the evolution of the universe.

Portrait of a woman

Arianna Long, a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, was awarded one of the inaugural Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communication from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This award honors science journalists and research scientists who have developed creative, original work related to issues and advances in science, engineering, and/or medicine to inform the general public.

"This award reinforces the idea that scientists can and should work to effectively communicate complex topics to the public," said Long, who works with associate professor Caitlin Casey. "As the first college graduate and Ph.D. in my family, it's important to me that our community sees value in making science accessible to people from all educational backgrounds."

Long was recognized for her recent piece published in Scientific American, "Ancient Galaxy Clusters Offer Clues about the Early Universe." Her piece discusses her work on the mystery of how distant galaxies grew so big so fast, in order to better understand the evolution of the universe. Starting about 15 years ago, scientists aimed to understand the clustering properties of galaxies that produce stars at a much higher rate than ordinary galaxies, called dusty starbursts, but more advanced technology was unavailable then for interpreting the results.

By September 2018, Long and her colleagues could observe ultraviolet and optical emission from a young cluster of dusty starbursts as seen 12 billion years ago, the Distant Red Core, for the first time. They used the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope to capture the multiwavelength perspective necessary to gain an understanding of this structure's past and future.

When Long received the image, she said she saw something remarkable.

"No words can describe how it feels to be the first person to glimpse a part of the universe that no one else has seen," Long said.

The protocluster was "shockingly massive," with nearly the largest allowable halo of dark matter at that period in the history of the universe. Because of this abundance of dark matter, the Distant Red Core may be so large that it violates the understood laws of our universe. Long said that this investigation may lead scientists to reconsider their understanding of galaxy cluster formation. The question remains: How did such massive objects form so quickly?

Long received one of 12 awards for best science communication by research scientists; 12 other awards went to science journalists, split among six categories.

"Long conveys a personal sense of excitement and wonder while describing complex scientific tools and methods that are leading to new discoveries and posing large-scale questions to which we don't know the answers," the award committee wrote. "She has done a magical, effective job of combining the science and the personal."

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