Two young researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have won the UK’s two most prestigious fellowships for physical scientists in the same year, copperfastening Queen’s international reputation for world-leading research in astrophysics.

Dr Neale Gibson and Dr Kate Maguire were awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and an Ernest Rutherford Fellowship respectively, and both chose to bring their posts to Queen’s – out of all the UK’s universities. Their total funding is close to £1million, which will all be spent here in the Northern Ireland economy.

The awards will allow the pair, who are both graduates of Queen’s but who have also carried out post-doctoral research at Oxford University and the European Southern Observatory (which hosts the Very Large Telescope in Chile) to continue their pioneering research into exoplanets and supernovae.

Currently, Dr Gibson is working on the atmospheric composition of “hot-Jupiters” – the biggest, brightest and most inhospitable planets. With next-generation telescopes he hopes to be able to do the same for “Earth-like” planets, and begin the hunt for habitable worlds outside the Solar System.

Dr Maguire’s research focuses on a particular type of exploding star that can be seen to great distances in the universe. Measurement of these supernovae are the best way to measure distances to high precision in the universe; they are key to understanding the mysterious ‘dark energy’ that makes up greater than 70 per cent of the mass-energy of the universe but the origin of which is still unexplained.

Professor Stephen Smartt, of Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre in the School of Mathematics and Physics said: “It is a tremendous boost to Queen’s research to have winners of the two most prestigious fellowship schemes in the UK for physical scientists bring their fellowships here. These are highly competitive positions, with the best young scientists from around the world applying every year. The winners of these awards are regarded as the brightest and best scientists around and it is a pleasure to have Kate and Neale chose to host their fellowships at Queen’s. They could have chosen anywhere in the UK, but recognised the high-quality research environment in astrophysics that Queen’s has now built. They will play a key role in making us more internationally competitive with the aim of attracting more international funding and international students to Belfast.”