Montana State University

Fourth solar physicist affiliated with MSU wins national prize

January 19, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Dibyendu Nandi, a solar physicist who spent seven years at MSU, is the latest recipient of the Karen Harvey Prize. He is shown here along the Ganges River in India. (Photo courtesy of Dibyendu Nandi).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - A fourth solar physicist affiliated with Montana State University has won a national prize for making significant contributions to the study of the sun.

"We believe that there is no solar physics group in the country that gets close to that record," Richard Smith, head of the MSU physics department, said when he announced that Dibyendu Nandi was the latest recipient of the Karen Harvey Prize.

MSU research professor Piet Martens said, "I don't think there's even another group in the United States that has more than two awards. That's exceptional, I would say."

Nandi will receive the $1,000 prize in June at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in Anchorage, Alaska. Nandi will also give the Harvey Prize Lecture in which he will discuss the origin of the sun's magnetic cycle and the knowledge that is necessary to predict solar activity.

"It is a subject that is close to my heart, and I have devoted a significant fraction of the last decade towards understanding this," Nandi said by email from India.

Nandi -- now at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata -- said he came to MSU by chance, but it wasn't by chance that he stayed seven years.

"The MSU Solar Physics Group is one of the best in the world, and the physics department offers a great environment for creative work," Nandi said. "It felt like one big family, and I was happy to be part of it."

Nandi was a postdoctoral researcher from 2002 to 2004 in Dick Canfield's group at MSU. He was a research scientist from 2005 to 2007 and assistant research professor from 2007 to 2008 at MSU, primarily working with Martens' group from 2005 to 2008. And Nandi still returns to MSU at least one month a year for ongoing collaborations. Much of the work for which he is being honored was conducted at MSU. Nandi and Martens have written many papers together, organized several scientific meetings and mentored graduate students who now work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Durham University in the United Kingdom. A new collaboration being proposed to NASA would unite Martens, Nandi and Scotland's University of St. Andrews as they work on a five-year project to better predict solar activity.

"We're lucky to have such great collaborators, nationally and internationally," Martens commented.

Martens said he nominated Nandi for the Karen Harvey Prize because of Nandi's contributions to understanding the solar cycle, for outstanding leadership in the space climate and solar physics communities, and for mentoring graduate students.

Nandi has written a series of papers that explain solar activity, including one that revealed for the first time why sunspots unexpectedly disappeared from 2008 to 2010. Nandi was lead author of that paper, which was published in Nature, a weekly international journal that publishes the top peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology. Co-authors were Martens and former MSU graduate student Andres Munoz-Jaramillo.

Nandi is only 38, but he has already mentored several outstanding MSU graduate students, including Munoz-Jaramillo, Martens said. Within a year of earning his Ph.D. in physics, Munoz-Jaramillo became a visiting fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, received a postdoctoral fellowship from NASA and won a national award for conducting outstanding research.

The AAS Solar Physics Division, which has more than 500 members worldwide, established the Karen Harvey Prize in May 2002. The prize honors a solar physicist who was president of the Solar Physics Research Corporation and treasurer of the Solar Physics Division before dying of cancer at the early age of 59. Recipients of the prize must be no more than 40 years old and must have earned their doctorate within the previous 10 years. The prize can go to solar physicists anywhere in the world.

"It feels wonderful and at the same time humbling," Nandi said about his selection. "I know that there are other outstanding solar physicists around the world to whom this award could also have gone. Given that I am now far from the American shores and in India for the last three years, I also feel grateful to the American Astronomical Society's Solar Physics Division for their magnanimity in opening up this award to the world."

The first person to receive the Karen Harvey Prize was Dana Longcope of MSU, now an MSU professor of physics. He received his prize in 2003. MSU's second recipient was Jiong Qiu, who received hers in 2007. She is now an associate professor of physics at MSU. Brian Welsch, who earned his master's degree and doctorate at MSU with Longcope as his adviser, received his Karen Harvey Prize in 2010. He works at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Winning the Karen Harvey Prize is both a personal and group honor, Qiu said.

"This has been a tremendous spiritual support, knowing that my colleagues care about me, see values in my effort and have confidence in our pursuit," Qiu said.

At the same time, she said, "It is not an accident that so many at MSU have won the award. Everybody in the solar group strives to provide an excellent and supportive intellectual and academic weather that all of us enjoy. It is pleasant studying and working with this group, and at this point, I'd view the prize as the honor to the entire group."

Welsch said he noticed that winning the award means that, "People pay more attention to what you are saying." In general, it can help recipients get better jobs, he added.

Longcope said it was a great honor to be recognized by his colleagues. It was also an honor to be the first recipient of an award that memorialized someone he knew personally and whose work he admired.

"The field of solar physics has seen an increase in younger scientists over the past decade," Longcope said. "The award has been valuable in recognizing the best of them."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu