Maura McLaughlin, WVU Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, talks about her research at the WVU Planetarium. McLaughlin has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in the scientific world. (WVU Photo/Scott Lituchy)

Acclaimed WVU astrophysicist elected to elite National Academy of Sciences, a first for the University

An internationally renowned astrophysicist at West Virginia University has been selected as a new member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in the scientific world.

Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, was one of over 100 new members from around the globe to be elected to the Academy this week “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.” She is the first WVU researcher to join the prestigious group.

McLaughlin is co-director of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves Physics Frontiers Center, or NANOGrav, which recently announced evidence for gravitational waves with periods of years to decades that had never previously been observed. The Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County is the primary telescope used for this work.

McLaughlin is also credited with helping discover fast radio bursts — intense, unexplained pulses of energy, coming from billions of light years away, that pop for mere milliseconds.

In 2023, she was recognized for her efforts by earning the Shaw Prize, described as the “Nobel Prize of the East.” 

McLaughlin, who was traveling back to Morgantown from a colloquium at Harvard University when she received the news, said she was caught off guard and had no idea she was being considered. 

“I started receiving congratulations via phone and email from other NAS members around 1:30 p.m. (Tuesday), even before I got the official invitation letter,” she said. “I was completely surprised and, of course, extremely happy to receive congratulations from so many of my colleagues who I hold in such high esteem.

“I’m excited to meet and interact with other members and be able to discuss important scientific topics through this interdisciplinary network and, hopefully, influence U.S. science policies and their trajectory in some small way.”

Founded in 1863 as an Act of Congress approved by President Abraham Lincoln, the NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science, engineering and medicine. 

“Professor McLaughlin’s election signifies the continued growth of WVU as one of America’s great research universities,” WVU Vice President for Research Fred King said. “We have worked over two decades to build one of the world’s leading astrophysics research programs and are fortunate to have faculty like Professor McLaughlin at our University.”

In 2006, McLaughlin joined WVU, which lacked a graduate program in astronomy at the time. She and her husband, Duncan Lorimer, also a professor of physics and astronomy, built a new graduate program and helped more than triple the number of astronomy faculty over the next decade. She also helped establish the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology at WVU to further expand the portfolio of astronomy research.

Additionally, McLaughlin co-founded the Pulsar Science Collaboratory at Green Bank Observatory that has involved thousands of high school students in pulsar searches. 

“While clearly an outstanding researcher and thought leader in the physics of pulsars, Professor McLaughlin is also a dedicated teacher working with undergraduate and graduate students to lead them to be the next generation of astrophysics research scientists,” King said. “It is worth noting the contributions to overall STEM education that Professor McLaughlin has also made through the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.”

McLaughlin said she believes her work with the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center is part of the reason for her consideration for the Academy.

“I believe it is a significant reason for their decision, especially as we announced evidence for low-frequency gravitational waves back in June 2023 for the first time,” she said. “This is something I’ve devoted much of my career to, along with colleagues worldwide.”

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