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Wen-fai Fong named ‘Rising Star’ by Astronomy Magazine

Honor recognizes 25 distinguished early career astronomers
wen-fai Fong
Wen-fai Fong was cited for her work to better understand the universe’s fastest explosions, known as transients, which include short gamma-ray bursts and fast radio bursts.

Astronomy Magazine named Northwestern University astrophysicist Wen-fai Fong to its list of “Rising Stars in Astronomy,” an honor recognizing 25 early career astronomers who have already made significant impacts in the field.

Fong was cited for her work to better understand the universe’s fastest explosions, known as transients, which include short gamma-ray bursts (SGRBs) and fast radio bursts (FRBs). These enigmatic events flare up quickly and then disappear within seconds or even fractions of a second. Fong’s research group seeks to understand what powers these events, what types of host galaxy environments give rise to them and uncover the nature and composition of material ejected from the explosions.

When Fong entered the field, the origins of SGRBs were uncertain. Now, thanks in part to her research, astronomers suspect SGRBs might be generated by colliding neutron stars or black holes. 

“I am honored to be among this international group of talented scientists,” Fong said. “This honor gives me a chance to reflect upon my career thus far. It has been thrilling to interact with the universe as it changes on timescales relevant to humans (hours to days) and make new discoveries. It is particularly heart-warming for me to pass excitement on to the next generation of students and for them to see the universe in fresh ways and make their own discoveries.”

Fong is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astronomy (CIERA).

To study transient events, Fong’s team uses observations across the electromagnetic spectrum. The University’s remote access to telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory and the MMT Observatory has made it possible Northwestern astronomers to make deeper observations into the universe, enabling Fong and her team to uncover and probe transients’ host galaxies. Her future work focuses on applying her skills to FRBs, a relatively new type of explosion that also has a mysterious origin. 

The “Rising Star” designation is the latest honor for Fong, who has received significant recognition for his work since joining the Northwestern faculty in 2018. Her recent awards include a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, a Cottrell Scholar Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

In addition to her research, Fong is a dedicated teacher and mentor, aiming to make astronomy more inclusive for women and other underrepresented minorities. 

“We knew early on that Wen-fai is a rising star in our group,” said Vicky Kalogera, the Daniel I. Linzer Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Weinberg and director of CIERA. “It is wonderful to see her recognized publicly one more time and is truly a privilege to have her as our colleague and a role model for our students and postdoctoral researchers.”