Astronomer Xavier Prochaska receives Outstanding Faculty Award

Xavier Prochaska, Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics (Photo by C. Lagattuta)
J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, has received the 2016-17 Outstanding Faculty Award from the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences. The annual award is the division's highest honor for faculty achievement, recognizing combined excellence in research, teaching, and service.

"Xavier has been an outstanding scholar focused on observational astronomy, a leader in the UC Observatories, an innovative and dedicated instructor of undergraduate and graduate students, and a contributor to the life of the campus through his Academic Senate service," wrote Paul Koch, dean of physical and biological sciences, in a letter to the division announcing the award.

Prochaska's research examines the nature of gas both within and outside of galaxies, primarily during the first few billion years of the universe, shedding light on early cosmology and structure formation in the universe, including the formation and evolution of galaxies. Three times in the last decade (2011, 2014, and 2015), his discoveries have been recognized by the editors of Physics World, Science, or Astronomy as among the top scientific breakthroughs of the year.

These achievements rely on high-resolution spectroscopy using powerful telescopes, and Prochaska has worked to improve the core instruments of observational astronomy. In 2013, he received a large award from the National Science Foundation to build a new tertiary mirror and its mount for the Keck I telescope. His design allows the new mirror to rapidly deploy and rotate to any instrument mounted on the telescope, making them all available when needed for time-sensitive scientific programs. This project will enable new discoveries in areas such as gravitational waves, measurements of our galaxy's central black hole, and the nature of exploding stars.

Koch noted that Prochaska has also distinguished himself as an extremely dedicated and transformative educator, deeply engaging students in astronomical techniques and methods through innovative projects. "He has tremendous abilities in team-based settings, which complement his affability and collegial approach to novel modes of instruction," Koch wrote.

Prochaska's commitment to learning extends beyond the classroom and labs to professional development work with teachers in local school districts, as well as multiple conference presentations and the publication of educational materials exploring topics relevant to astronomy. Prochaska has worked tirelessly on behalf of the UC Observatories, holding important roles in oversight and management of the telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. He has also been highly engaged in maintaining NCAA athletics at UCSC as chair of the Academic Senate Special Committee on Athletics.

Prochaska earned his B.S. in physics at Princeton University and M.S. and Ph.D. in physics at UC San Diego. He was a Carnegie Fellow and a Hubble Fellow at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena before joining the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 2002.