UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


UCL astrophysics alumnus wins European Astronomical Society's (EAS) prize

14 March 2024

Dr Johannes Heyl, alumnus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Centre for Data Intensive Science and Industry, was awarded the 2024 MERAC Prize for the Best Doctoral Thesis in New Technologies (Computational).

Dr Johannes Heyl

Under the supervision of Professor Serena Viti, Dr Heyl embarked on a PhD thesis project aimed to link astrochemistry and statistical and machine learning techniques to better understand astrochemical processes, a completely novel approach for astrochemistry that traditionally had stayed away from these techniques. 

These processes are often underpinned by coupled systems of ordinary differential equations making the relationship between the inputs and outputs non-linear and difficult to understand. Cutting-edge machine learning interpretability techniques were able to provide interpretations to the relationships between physical parameters. 

According to EAS, “during his PhD, he demonstrated high levels of curiosity, interests and independence that allowed him to explore different new techniques or methods to aid astrochemical studies. His skills allowed him to publish six papers including one in a field completely different from astronomy (Data Science in Health), a remarkable achievement considering the requirement of a six-month industry secondment in addition of taught courses.”

Dr Heyl’s articles had a high impact in the field. When modelling and predicting molecular abundances in the dense gas of the interstellar medium, one of the biggest challenges is the completeness and accuracy of the used chemical networks. Dr Heyl’s combination of techniques has opened a completely new avenue for sensitivity analyses as well as reduction networks. 

He also laid out work on interpretable machine learning and showed a very novel and quick way to perform sensitivity analyses, allowing a real potential and rigour that traditional sensitivity analyses methodologies do not have. This was the first time that the concept of machine learning interpretability has been adopted in astrochemistry.

Dr Heyl commented: “I am truly delighted and honoured to receive the European Astronomical Society's MERAC Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis. This achievement would not have been possible without the unwavering support and guidance of my supervisor, Professor Serena Viti, whose expertise and mentorship have been invaluable throughout my doctoral journey. 

“I am also grateful to the Viti research group, the Centre for Data Intensive Science and Industry and the UCL Astrophysics Group for their support. I am truly privileged to have been part of such an inspiring community at UCL.”

Dr Heyl is now postdoctoral research associate at UCL.

Since 2013, the EAS awards the MERAC Prizes to recognise and support young European astronomers. The three laureates of each year are invited to give a plenary lecture at the EAS annual meeting.


  • Dr Johannes Heyl