Mackenzie Jones, Physics and Astronomy PhD Candidate, Wins Neukom Prize

Mackenzie Jones, a 5th year PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is this year’s Neukom Prize winner for Outstanding Graduate Research in Computational Science. The prize was awarded to Jones for her work on the cosmic evolution of supermassive black holes.

According to its website, each year the Neukom Institute “recognizes first-rate computationally-oriented research by graduate students”. Whether writing a novel algorithm or simply crunching some statistics, computers are ubiquitous in nearly all research areas in some shape or form. The Neukom Prize aims to highlight the best graduate projects each year by honoring and publicizing work that might otherwise remain in a niche field.

Jones’s research focuses on the observations of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies that are actively eating any surrounding dust and gas. These types of objects are known to astronomers as active galactic nuclei (AGN). Astronomers now believe that virtually all galaxies contain a supermassive black hole, which is to say a black hole that has a mass greater than or equal to one million times that of our Sun. As these supermassive black holes eat their surroundings, they emit enormous amounts of energy. “Enough energy in one second”, Jones explains, “that it is roughly equal to ten hydrogen bombs exploding for every grain of sand on the Earth.” Put another way, an AGN can emit 20 quintillion (a two with 19 zeros) times more energy per second than all of humanity consumes in one year.

Jones’s graduate research is supported by a NASA Jenkins Fellowship, which is the second external fellowship awarded to her during her time at Dartmouth. This research involves building a computer simulation that tracks the properties of hundreds of millions of supermassive black holes as they evolve over billions of years – big data on a cosmic scale.

Impressively, the data set that she is creating is able to reproduce observations of supermassive black holes taken with X-ray space telescopes as they surveyed the entire universe. The goal of her project, ultimately, is to build a model that can predict currently undetected supermassive black holes. By understanding what we can’t see, we may be able to improve the design and construction of future space telescope missions.

As her advisor Dr. Ryan Hickox states, “[t]he model she is building has the potential to be an extraordinarily useful tool for understanding the massive data sets from the coming generation of astronomical surveys.” Her current simulation can accurately trace these black hole giants up to seven billion light years away, and Jones is currently working at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, MD to refine her models to track them even further into the past. Jones’s awards and accomplishments continue to impress, and are of particular note in a field that has been historically dominated by men.

Congratulations, Mackenzie!

For more information and to read her research paper, please visit the Neukom Institute site.