On 26 April, Amina Helmi (Bahia Blanca, Argentina, 1970) was appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion. She is Professor of Dynamics, Structure and Formation of the Milky Way at the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, which is part of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Groningen. Since her arrival in Groningen in 2003, she has rapidly progressed to become one of the world’s most successful young astronomers. Her love of the stars led her to become well known the world over as the founder of and pioneer in Galactic Archaeology, the study of the origin and evolution of our own Milky Way and other galaxies in the Universe.
Amina Helmi grew up in Argentina, where she was fascinated by the beautiful, clear starry sky when she was a child. She calls herself a galactic archaeologist – gazing at the Universe, she searches for signs of what happened in the past. During her PhD research, she managed to find the remnants of a small galaxy that merged with the Milky Way billions of years ago. This discovery prompted her to set up a very successful research line, for which she is the inspiration and which she leads to this very day. The pioneering research that she carries out touches on a basic question on everyone’s mind: Where do we come from? She is, consequently, acknowledged worldwide as the founder of the study of Galactic Archaeology and an undisputed authority when it comes to the structure and evolution of the Milky Way. She is a pioneer who has radically innovated our thinking and knowledge about the Milky Way and is, therefore, justifiably among the absolute best in the world in the field of astronomy.
Based on theoretical calculations that are performed on state-of-the-art powerful computer systems and simulations, Helmi studies the merging of many hundreds of small galaxies with the Milky Way over the course of billions of years. In 2003, when the European Space Agency (ESA) started preparations for the launch of a satellite that would enable much more precise observations of the Universe, she was among the first to realize that this project offered a unique opportunity to elevate the study of Galactic Archaeology to an undeniable element of the astronomical quest to determine the origin of galaxies. She therefore played a leading role in the establishment of the observation programme of the Gaia satellite.
The Gaia satellite was launched by the ESA in 2013 and offers astronomers the opportunity to record, compare and test positions and movements of individual stars with high precision. In fact, this satellite allows astronomers to study the stars in much more detail and, consequently, around 500 European astronomers are currently working on mapping the entire Milky Way. Once the data has been collected, anyone who is interested will be able to download this star map – with its measurements of over 1.5 billion stars – for their own use.
Following two decades of steady and persistent work and the first observations from the Gaia data becoming available, Helmi managed to make world headlines in 2018 with the discovery of the Gaia Enceladus, the remnant of a galaxy that at some point in the past merged with our Milky Way. This was only possible due to her foresight, sharp insight and unique ability to inspire people to work together towards a common goal, both on an academic level and on a social level: unravelling the formation of the Milky Way.
The fact that Helmi is recognized as an authority in her field is evident from the many prestigious prizes and research grants that she has won, such as the Christiaan Huygens Prize, which she was awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) for her excellent PhD thesis, and the Spinoza Prize – also referred to as the Dutch Nobel Prize – awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in 2019. This made her the second female laureate of the seven Spinoza Prizes that have been awarded to astronomers since the introduction of this prize in 1995. Furthermore, she has received several important international fellowships, such as an ERC Advanced Fellowship, and she is a very popular speaker at many international conferences. Her academic work has been cited more than 30,000 times. She was appointed a member of KNAW in 2017.
Helmi is also a very inspiring instructor and has successfully supervised many PhD students. Many of them have now started their own successful careers in astronomy. Her enthusiasm contributes to her ability to attract young talent, and young female talent in particular, to the natural sciences in general and to astronomy specifically. She is, therefore, a significant role model for women who aspire to a career in science. She always makes time for a personal chat, and her advice about a work-life balance and the position of women in a world dominated by men is very much appreciated by her PhD students and undergraduate students. For example, she helps young scientists understand how to achieve a perfect balance between developing their independence as a scientist while encouraging the feeling that they are not on their own.
In addition to being an extremely versatile, talented and outstanding scientist, Helmi is an excellent science communicator who always thinks carefully about the message that she wants to communicate. Without exception, she always tells a clear and interesting story. In the media appearances that her results compel, she injects enthusiasm, putting into words the beauty of nature and the charm of her academic field. As a scientist, administrator and instructor, she is widely lauded for her composure and clarity. She works in a calm and thoughtful manner and is, consequently, effective and efficient. She always remains friendly while focused; and her questions almost always hit the nail on the head. She generally waits until the right moment to speak, and her word is generally the last.
Scientists in focus: Amina Helmi
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