WVU News

WVU astrophysicist elected to National Academy of Sciences

MORGANTOWN – A WVU astrophysicist has been selected as a new member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in the scientific world, according to a release from WVU.

Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, was one of over 120 new members and 24 international members to be elected to the Academy this week “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.”

Maura McLaughlin

McLaughlin is the first WVU researcher to join the group. Total membership is now 2,617, plus total international membership at 537. International members are nonvoting members of the academy, with citizenship outside the United States.

McLaughlin is co-director of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves Physics Frontiers Center (NANOGrav), which recently announced evidence for gravitational waves with periods of years to decades that had never previously been observed.

The Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County is the primary telescope used for this work.

McLaughlin also helped discover fast radio bursts — intense, unexplained pulses of energy, coming from billions of light years away, that pop for mere milliseconds.

In 2023, she was recognized for her efforts by earning the Shaw Prize, described as the “Nobel Prize of the East.”

McLaughlin was traveling back to Morgantown from a colloquium at Harvard University when she received the news, and said she was caught off guard and had no idea she was being considered.

“I started receiving congratulations via phone and email from other NAS members around 1:30 p.m. (Tuesday), even before I got the official invitation letter,” she said. “I was completely surprised and, of course, extremely happy to receive congratulations from so many of my colleagues who I hold in such high esteem.

“I’m excited to meet and interact with other members and be able to discuss important scientific topics through this interdisciplinary network and, hopefully, influence U.S. science policies and their trajectory in some small way.”

WVU Vice President for Research Fred King commented, “Professor McLaughlin’s election signifies the continued growth of WVU as one of America’s great research universities. We have worked over two decades to build one of the world’s leading astrophysics research programs and are fortunate to have faculty like professor McLaughlin at our university.”

House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Notre Dame, also issued a statement. “Our state is home to a lot of exceptional people, but with the news that one of our own has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, West Virginia truly has reached an impressive benchmark through WVU astrophysicist Maura McLaughlin.

“I know most people aren’t proud science geeks like I am,” he said, “so I want to lead us all in standing up to cheer for this recognition of Dr. McLaughlin and her research in neutron stars and their environments. Only 2,617 people have achieved this honor, and it’s something every West Virginian should be proud to now say one of our own has achieved.”

In 2006, McLaughlin joined WVU, which lacked a graduate program in astronomy at the time. She and her husband, Duncan Lorimer, also a professor of physics and astronomy, built a new graduate program and helped more than triple the number of astronomy faculty over the next decade. She also helped establish the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology at WVU to further expand the portfolio of astronomy research.

Additionally, McLaughlin co-founded the Pulsar Science Collaboratory at Green Bank Observatory that has involved thousands of high school students in pulsar searches.

King said, “While clearly an outstanding researcher and thought leader in the physics of pulsars, professor McLaughlin is also a dedicated teacher working with undergraduate and graduate students to lead them to be the next generation of astrophysics research scientists. It is worth noting the contributions to overall STEM education that professor McLaughlin has also made through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.”

McLaughlin said she believes her work with the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center is part of the reason for her consideration for the academy.

“I believe it is a significant reason for their decision, especially as we announced evidence for low-frequency gravitational waves back in June 2023 for the first time,” she said. “This is something I’ve devoted much of my career to, along with colleagues worldwide.”

The NAS explains the election process: Because membership is achieved by election, there is no membership application process. Although many names are suggested informally, only academy members may submit formal nominations. Consideration of a candidate begins with his or her nomination, followed by an extensive and careful vetting process that results in a final ballot at the academy’s annual meeting in April each year.

The NAS is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and—with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine—provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.