A University of Tasmania Honours graduate has secured a prestigious national award for her research into supermassive black holes and galaxies, highlighting the strength of the institution’s astronomy program.

Madeline Marshall is the 2017 recipient of the Bok Prize, awarded annually by the Astronomical Society of Australia to an Honours or Masters student for outstanding research in astronomy.

The University alumna received the accolade for her thesis Triggering Active Galactic Nuclei in Galaxy Clusters which investigated what causes supermassive black holes to suddenly ‘switch on’ and emit radiation.

Ms Marshall said her research had helped broaden a global understanding of how black holes operate in their environment.

Supermassive black holes exist in the centres of galaxies. They are objects that are millions to even billions of times heavier than the sun, she said.

“They emit radiation after accumulating gas from surrounding regions. As the gas moves towards the black hole, it forms a disk which gets very hot and radiates extreme amounts of energy. Galaxies hosting these active black holes are called active galaxies, and are the brightest objects in the universe.

“In my thesis, I investigated a potential trigger for this radiation that was yet to be thoroughly examined, known as ‘ram pressure.’ This force may push gas towards the centre of a galaxy to feed a black hole and trigger the release of its radiation.

I found that galaxies can become active because of ram pressure driving gas towards supermassive black holes, which provides us with a greater understanding about the relationship galaxies have with their environment.

Ms Marshall was supervised by Dr Stas Shabala, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Tasmania, who congratulated Ms Marshall on the significant achievement.

“Madeline’s work is relevant to future observations by mega-telescopes, including the Square Kilometre Array,” Dr Shabala said.

In the 29-year history of the prize, this is the third time it has been awarded to a University of Tasmania student. Only two out of the so-called ‘Group of Eight’ universities have produced recipients on more occasions, so this really reinforces the strength of our astronomy program and what we can inspire and guide our students to achieve through their research.

Ms Marshall was also awarded the Ken McCracken prize, a scholarship supported by the Australian Institute of Physics, for submitting the best Honours thesis in the discipline of Physics at the University of Tasmania during the 2016 academic year.

The first University of Tasmania Bok Prize recipient was Dr Stas Shabala in 2004, followed by Ross Turner (2014) who is currently studying for his PhD under the supervision of Dr Shabala.

Interested in studying Science? Apply now.