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Best Doctoral Thesis in Observational Astrophysics

Dr Renske Smit

(University of Cambridge, UK)

The 2018 MERAC Prizes for the Best Doctoral Thesis are awarded in Observational Astrophysics to Dr Renske Smit (University of Cambridge, UK) for the observational characterisation of the physical properties of the galaxies that formed in the first billion years of cosmic time.

Renske Smit earned her undergraduate and PhD degrees at Leiden University in the Netherlands. During her master thesis she secured a scholarship to pursue part of her degree at the University of California, Berkeley. For her PhD she conducted research into the formation and evolution of the first galaxies using cutting-edge observational facilities. She then began her postdoctoral career at the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University. In 2016 she was awarded a Rubicon grant by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) based on her thesis work. She is currently working as an independent research fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Renske Smit's doctoral research focused on the study of very distant galaxies, seen in the first few billion years of cosmic history, using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Her studies were among the first to obtain genuine insight into the physical conditions of these galaxies, paving the way for detailed follow-up studies with ground-based instrumentation. Her research established that emission lines associated with the formation of massive, young stars often dominate the broadband flux of distant galaxies. This work resolved a major discord between observations and theoretical models of the evolution of galaxies in the early Universe. Renske Smit's innovative work also enabled her to identify new galaxies in the Epoch of Reionisation; spectroscopic follow-up of these sources with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array allowed her to obtain the first measurement of velocity structure in galaxies at this early epoch. She participated in efforts to detect even more distant (z≈8-9) galaxies, spectroscopic follow-up of which yielded spectacular confirmation of their redshifts via the Lyman- alpha emission line, breaking two consecutive records for the most-distant galaxy known to science. As a member of the NIRSpec Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) Galaxy Assembly team, Renske Smit is now preparing for the forthcoming revolution promised by the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The PhD thesis of Renske Smit was conducted at the University of Leiden, under the supervision of Dr. Rychard Bouwens.