U of C Astronomy prof wins fellowship

By Rhia Perkins

University of Calgary professor Dr. Sun Kwok recently won a Killiam Research Fellowship thanks to work on dying stars and a space-based telescope that searches for water and oxygen.

Dr. Kwok, a U of C professor for 17 years, was one of 16 professors to win the award this year, and the only one from Alberta. The fellowship provides approximately $53,000 per recipient, which lets the university hire someone to take over the winner’s teaching responsibilities while they dedicate two years exclusively to research.

This is the 32nd year the fellowship has been awarded. It began as a result of a bequest by Mrs. Dorothy J. Killam before her death in 1965. The awards acknowledge research projects of outstanding merit in several fields, and a jury of eminent Canadian scholars selects the recipients.

"It’s based on the excellence of the proposal and on his previous achievement," said Franceska Gnarowski, Program OVicer for the Canada Council for the Arts. "When you have a competition like this, it’s the best of the bunch."

Kwok is quick to acknowledge the importance of this recognition.

"It’s obviously a great honour–it’s still sinking in," said Kwok. "The last Killam fellow here was quite a while back."

Dr. T. Zeigler, from the faculty of Chemistry, received the fellowship in 1996.

Kwok plans to use much of the time to travel to Sweden where he is collaborating with scientists on the odin satellite, which houses a telescope that uses high-frequency receivers to detect oxygen and water molecules in space.

"The method of search, the capability to detect these molecules, only recently became available because of the very high-frequency receivers," said Kwok. "It’s very high technology."

With this satellite, scientists can better understand the chemistry of the universe, speculating how stars were created and where life might be, or was.

"I’m very interested in the origin of life," said Kwok.

Kwok also worked with the Hubbell Space Telescope, looking at how stars die.

"I made quite a bit of a discovery in terms of having pictures of the final moments of a star’s life," said Kwok. "So we have a better understanding of how this occurs."

Part of the research involves studying the sun’s future, and what it will likely do in the next five billion years.

"It’s not going to have an effect on us, but it is still an interesting problem," said Kwok.

Though Kwok will travel a great deal during his two fellowship years, he will still be available in the Astronomy and Physics department, and continue to work with his graduate students.

"I will still be around, I’m not going to disappear or anything," said Kwok. "This really [just] makes things much more flexible for me."

In fact, the Faculty of Science has asked Kwok to give a distinguished lecture in the second week of March in recognition of his award.

"I think this is good for the department," said Kwok. "It will raise the profile."