University of Hawaii scientist Lisa J. Kewley has been awarded the 2006 Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy for her studies of oxygen in galaxies.

For most of us, oxygen is the gas that keeps us alive, but for Kewley, oxygen is a tool for understanding the history of the Universe. “Oxygen is manufactured inside stars and, once created, tends to stick around,” said Kewley, “so modern-day stars and galaxies contain more oxygen than their predecessors did billions of years ago.”

Kewley uses data obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, which has the two largest (10-meter) optical/infrared telescopes in the world. She focuses the Keck telescope on galaxies so distant that the light they emit has been traveling through space for billions of years. From the spectrum of each galaxy’s light, Kewley can work out how much oxygen it contained when it emitted the light. By comparing galaxies at different distances, she has been able to sketch a broad history of the Universe. “It looks like there was a burst of oxygen production during the first six billion years of the Universe, and oxygen has been increasing steadily since then,” she said. “This means that oxygen atoms in your next breath could be anywhere from five to twelve billion years old.”

The Annie Jump Cannon Award is presented annually by the American Astronomical Society for distinguished contributions to astronomy by a woman who received her Ph.D. within the last five years.

Born and raised in South Australia, Kewley received her Ph.D. in 2002 from the Australian National University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at UH’s Institute for Astronomy.

The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.

Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaii is the state’s sole public system of higher education. The UH System provides an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and community programs on 10 campuses and through educational, training, and research centers across the state. UH enrolls more than 50,000 students from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, and around the world.