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Observational astronomer receives prestigious Packard Fellowship

Fellowship honors the nation’s most innovative, early-career scientists

Northwestern University observational astronomer Wen-fai Fong has received a 2021 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The prestigious fellowship includes an unrestricted grant of $875,000 over five years to pursue innovative and experimental research.

The foundation today named Fong and 19 others as the nation’s most innovative, early-career scientists and engineers.

Wen-fai Fong
Wen-fai Fong

“I view the Packard Fellowship as a life-changing opportunity for me,” said Fong, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “With it, I will be able to pursue high-risk, interdisciplinary scientific endeavors that I have been dreaming of, but have never had the resources to carry out.

“I credit my army of scientific and personal mentors for their unending support over the past decade. It is equally incredible to share this opportunity with my research group at Northwestern, who motivate and inspire me to pay it forward and be the best mentor I can be. Equipped with the Packard Fellowship, I am so excited for the transformational science we will be able to pursue together in the coming years.”

Fong is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Education and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

I view the Packard Fellowship as a life-changing opportunity for me. With it, I will be able to pursue high-risk, interdisciplinary scientific endeavors that I have been dreaming of, but have never had the resources to carry out.”

Astrophysicist Wen-fai Fong

Fong and her research group are investigating the enigmatic origins of the universe’s fastest explosions, known as transients, and their host galaxy environments.Fong utilizes observations across the electromagnetic spectrum to study fast radio bursts, gamma-ray bursts, electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources and anything that collides or explodes.

She is interested in the origins of these transients, the types of environments they explode into and the nature and composition of the material ejected. To do this work, Fong and her group use a large variety of telescopes on the ground and in space that span radio, optical, near-infrared and X-ray wavelengths. 

“What a moment for celebration,” said Nancy Lindborg, Packard Foundation president and CEO. “At a time when we are confronting so many difficult, intertwined challenges, including climate change, a global pandemic and racial injustice, I am buoyed by the determination and energy of these 20 scientists and engineers. Through their research, creativity and mentorship to their students and in their labs, these young leaders have the potential to help equip us all to better understand and address the challenges we face.”  

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering, established in 1988, are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used. Packard Fellows also gather at an annual meeting to discuss their research, where conversations have led to collaborations across disciplines.

David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company, inspired the program by recognizing that the success of his company was derived from the research and development conducted in university laboratories.

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