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Erin Kara named Edgerton Award winner

The award recognizes exceptional distinction in teaching, research, and service at MIT.
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Headshot of Erin Kara with out-of-focus galaxies in the background
Assistant Professor Erin Kara has been awarded the Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.
Photo: Steph Stephens

Class of 1958 Career Development Assistant Professor Erin Kara of the Department of Physics has been named as the recipient of the 2023-24 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.
Established in 1982, the award is a tribute to the late Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton for his support for younger faculty members. This award recognizes exceptional distinction in teaching, research, and service.

Professor Kara is an observational astrophysicist who is a faculty member in the Department of Physics and a member of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI). She uses high-energy transients and time-variable phenomena to understand the physics behind how black holes grow and how they affect their environments.

Kara has advanced a new technique called X-ray reverberation mapping, which allows astronomers to map the gas falling onto black holes and measure the effects of strongly curved spacetime close to the event horizon. She also works on a variety of transient phenomena, such as tidal disruption events and galactic black hole outbursts.

She is a NASA Participating Scientist for the XRISM Observatory, a joint JAXA/NASA X-ray spectroscopy mission that just launched this past September, and is a NASA Participating Scientist for the ULTRASAT Mission, an ultraviolet all-sky time domain mission, set to launch in 2027. She is also working to develop and launch the next generation of NASA missions, as deputy principal investigator of the AXIS Probe Mission.

“I am delighted for Erin,” says Claude Canizares, the Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics. “She is an exemplary Edgerton awardee. As one of the leading observational astrophysicists of her generation, she has made major advances in our understanding of black holes and their environments. She also plays a leadership role in the design of new space missions, is a passionate and effective teacher, and a thoughtful mentor of graduate students and postdocs.”

Adds Kavli Director Rob Simcoe, “Erin is one of a very rare breed of experimental astrophysicists who have the interest and stamina not only to use observatories built by colleagues before her, but also to dive into a leadership role planning and executing new spaceflight missions that will shape the future of her field.”

The committee also recognized Kara’s work to create “a stimulating and productive multigenerational research group. Her mentorship is thoughtful and intentional, guiding and supporting each student or postdoc while giving them the freedom to grow and become self-reliant.”

During the nomination process, students praised Kara’s teaching skills, enthusiasm, organization, friendly demeanor, and knowledge of the material.

“Erin is the best faculty mentor I have ever had,” says one of her students. “She is supportive, engaged, and able to provide detailed input on projects when needed, but also gives the right amount of freedom to her students/postdocs to aid in their development. Working with Erin has been one of the best parts of my time at MIT.”

Kara received a BA in physics from Barnard College, and an MPhil in physics and a PhD in astronomy from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. She subsequently served as Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow and then Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She joined the MIT faculty in 2019.

Her recognitions include the American Astronomical Society‘s Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, for “outstanding achievement, over the past five years, in observational astronomical research,” and the Rossi Prize from the High-Energy Astrophysics Division of the AAS (shared).

The award committee lauded Kara’s service in the field and at MIT, including her participation with the Physics Graduate Admissions Committee, the Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellowship Committee, and the MKI Anti-Racism Task Force. Professor Kara also participates in dinners and meet-and-greets invited by student groups, such as Undergraduate Women in Physics, Graduate Women in Physics, and the Society of Physics Students.

Her participation in public outreach programs includes her talks “Black Hole Echoes and the Music of the Cosmos” at both the Concord Conservatory of Music and an event with MIT School of Science alumni, and “What’s for dinner? How black holes eat nearby stars” for the MIT Summer Research Program.

“There is nothing more gratifying than being recognized by your peers, and I am so appreciative and touched that my colleagues in physics even thought to nominate me for this award,” says Kara. “I also want to express my gratitude to my awesome research group. They are what makes this job so fun and so rewarding, and I know I wouldn’t be in this position without their hard work, great attitudes, and unwavering curiosity.” 

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