Cosmoparticle Initiative


Cosmoparticle PhD student Luisa Lucie-Smith awarded RAS Michael Penston Thesis Prize - runner up!

14 June 2021

Luisa Lucie-Smith is awarded the RAS Michael Penston 2020 runner up prize for her thesis, ‘Insights into Cosmological Structure Formation with Machine Learning’.

Luisia Lucie Smith

The Michael Penston Prize is awarded annually by the Royal Astronomical Society for the best doctoral thesis in astronomy or astrophysics, including astrochemistry, astrobiology and exoplanets. Many past winners and runners-up have become leading figures in their respective fields.

Q. Did you know that you had been nominated, did the award come as a surprise?

It took me completely by surprise as I had no idea I had been nominated. At first, I couldn’t believe I had been selected as runner-up given how competitive the prize is. Once it sunk in, it felt very rewarding to know that my thesis was recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society as second-best in the country!

Q. Looking back at your thesis, what was the most challenging part?

At the start of my PhD, the biggest challenge was bringing together many different elements including machine-learning, structure formation physics and numerical simulations. We started off the project in one direction but soon realized machine learning had far more potential than we anticipated. We realized we could use machine learning to learn something new about the physics responsible for the formation of dark matter haloes, going beyond what was achieved with traditional approaches over the last decades.

The explorative nature of my work made my PhD a very creative and fun journey throughout. One challenging part of my thesis then became convincing the rest of the community that machine learning has the potential of enabling new interesting discoveries about the physics of cosmological structure formation. This is why receiving this prize from the Royal Astronomical Society has even more special meaning to me.

Q. Where are you now, and what is your current research area?

I am now a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, working on my own research program developing interpretable machine learning tools applied to cosmological structure formation. I am particularly interested in understanding the final characteristic properties of halos and their relation to the initial conditions of the Universe, as well as the connection between halos and galaxies. I am still actively involved with research at UCL, working with Hiranya Peiris, Andrew Pontzen and others to continue the line of research we started during my PhD.

Q. Looking back, what is your take away from your time at UCL?

My time at UCL as a PhD student was wonderful! I cannot thank enough the Astrophysics group and the Cosmoparticle Initiative for providing me with so many opportunities that helped me develop as a young scientist. I was also extremely lucky to have two brilliant scientists as my supervisors, Hiranya Peiris, whom I must also thank for nominating me for the RAS Michael Penston Thesis Prize, and Andrew Pontzen.


The Michael Penston Prize

Thesis prize winners 2020

Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics

Luisa Lucie-Smith