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Astronomer L. Ilsedore Cleeves Recognized Among Women Leaders in ‘STEM²D’

Jun 18, 2020 |

L. Ilsedore Cleeves’s research on the dusty disks around young stars where planet formation takes place has already established her, at this early stage of her career, as one of the world’s leading experts in theoretical astrochemistry and its applications to newly forming and formed planets.

L. Ilsedore Cleeves, a UVA assistant professor of astronomy, is considered one of the world’s leading experts in theoretical astrochemistry and its applications to newly forming and formed planets.

This afternoon, the University of Virginia assistant professor of astronomy earned another prestigious international honor, with the announcement that Cleeves is one of the winners of this year’s Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM²D (WiSTEM²D) Scholars Awards. Launched three years ago, the Johnson & Johnson program seeks to “fuel development of future female STEM²D leaders and feed the STEM²D talent pipeline by awarding and sponsoring women at critical points in their careers.”

More than 540 nominees from around the world were considered for this year’s awards. The six winners are all assistant professors or senior lecturers at their respective universities and represent women leaders in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design. Cleeves was recognized in the award’s “Science” division.

Each winner will receive $150,000 in funding and three years of mentorship from Johnson & Johnson to support their research on clinical trials, origami-inspired robotics, hospital lighting, the treatment of brain tumors and bowel diseases, and — in the case of Cleeves — planetary systems.

 “I consider myself very fortunate to study something I love,” said Cleeves, who holds a joint faculty appointment within the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in the Department of Chemistry. “Researching the astrochemical origins of planets like Earth provides a unique perspective on how incredible and how precious Earth’s ability to sustain life is.

“I have also benefited from strong female leadership in this field. With the support of this fellowship, I am excited to train the next generation of leaders, aided by the mentorship opportunities that are part of the WiSTEM²D program.”

This is the second prestigious award won recently by Cleeves in recognition of her research. Last October, she received a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. Supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the program is among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used. Intended for early-career scientists and engineers, the Packard Fellowships offered each of last year’s 22 fellows $875,000 over five years to pursue their research.

Craig Sarazin, W.H. Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy and chair of the Department of Astronomy, said Cleeves is making important contributions to our understanding of astrochemistry and the origin of planets.

“Ilse is a brilliant scientist who has now won almost every award available to a young astronomer,” Sarazin said. “She is leading the effort to understand how chemical processes in the environments of newly forming planets can ‘seed’ these planets with organic components, accelerating the formation of life.”

Cleeves came to the University in 2018 from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where she was a NASA Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow. Using clues from interstellar molecular emission, Cleeves and her research group study young planetary systems in formation around low-mass stars. These protoplanetary disks represent the very materials from which planets, comets and other solar system bodies eventually form. 

Cleeves uses both computer models and observations in her study of the dusty disks around young stars where planet formation happens. Her group’s research aims to figure out how the properties of these disks lead to robust planet formation, especially with respect to potentially habitable planets. While she focuses on the theoretical modeling of these systems, her work is guided by observational results from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array in Chile — the largest radio astronomy observatory in the world — as well as data from other observatories.

According to Cleeves, our knowledge of exoplanets – planets that orbit around other stars beyond the solar system – has expanded to the point where they may seem ubiquitous. The challenge remains, however, to understand the diversity in their composition and how they formed.

Johnson & Johnson launched the WiSTEM²D program in 2015 to increase the representation of women in science and technical fields. Nominations were open to female scholars working as assistant professors, or the global equivalent of that untenured faculty position, in each of the STEM²D disciplines.

“Now more than ever, as we are faced with new, uncharted global challenges, we need to remain committed to driving innovation and ground-breaking research,” said Cat Oyler, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Janssen Global Services, LLC and WiSTEM²D University Sponsor. “These incredible women – and the many other up-and-coming female leaders – are making key STEM²D discoveries and shaping the future of tomorrow.”