Kennicutt, who also serves as executive director of Texas A&M’s George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, is a globally renowned expert in observational extragalactic astronomy, based on his work in galaxy evolution over cosmic time and his co-leadership of the scientific team that definitively measured the expansion of the universe. He is best known for his namesake Kennicutt–Schmidt law defining the relationship between the gas density and star formation rate in a given region, as well as for his role in constraining the value of the Hubble constant, the unit of measurement that astronomers and astrophysicists use to describe the expansion of the universe. In addition, he recently served as one of two co-chairs of the National Academies’ Astro 2020 Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, a comprehensive study performed by the Academies every 10 years to help determine and prioritize the most important scientific and technological activities in astronomy and astrophysics for the next decade.
Kennicutt earns recognition along with five additional Texas A&M faculty as the latest recipients of the coveted title: Dr. Israel Liberzon, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences within the College of Medicine; Dr. George M. Pharr, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering within the College of Engineering; Dr. Farida Sohrabji, professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics within the College of Medicine; Dr. Raghavan Srinivasan, professor in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Dr. Josh Wand, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
The 2022 university distinguished professor honorees join a select group of roughly 100 current faculty members who hold the prestigious title — more than 30 of whom are affiliated with the College of Science. The title, which is bestowed in perpetuity, identifies faculty members who are pre-eminent in their fields and have made at least one landmark contribution to their disciplines. Their work is considered central to any narrative of the field and widely recognized to have changed its direction of scholarship. Past recipients of the lifetime title participate in the selection process, growing the ranks of distinguished professors by just a handful of scholars each year.
“These exceptional faculty members have stretched the boundaries of their fields, making transformational contributions in astrophysics, psychiatry, neuroscience, nanotechnology, environmental assessment and protein biophysics,” according to the April 5 official announcement from the Texas A&M Office of Faculty Affairs. “From changing the way post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be studied and treated, to introducing a law enabling more precise measurement of rates of change across the universe, these distinguished professors are leaving a legacy.”
Kennicutt and his fellow 2022 honorees will be recognized at a April 28 induction ceremony and reception jointly hosted by the Offices of the President and Faculty Affairs to celebrate all faculty who are distinguished professors.
Kennicutt joined the Texas A&M faculty in 2018 after spending the previous year as a Texas A&M Hagler Institute for Advanced Study Faculty Fellow. An emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, he also holds a primary appointment in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, Kennicutt held the Plumian Professorship of Astronomy & Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, a chair created in 1704 under the direction of Sir Isaac Newton and widely considered as the most prestigious in astronomy worldwide. He previously served as Dean of the School of Physical Sciences and director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1978.
“While the University Distinguished Professor committee is looking for a transformational discovery, Rob Kennicutt has two,” said Texas A&M astronomer and nominator Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, a 2016-17 Regents Professor of Astronomy and a distinguished professor since 2013. “He’s well known for the Kennicutt-Schmidt law used daily by astronomers that is a necessary part of their education, but he is also one of the pioneers in the precision measurement of the expansion of the universe.
“For almost half a century, astronomers could only measure the Hubble constant to no better than a factor of two. In astronomy units, we were arguing if the number was 50 or 100. Rob had been using his studies of the rotation rates of spiral galaxies to measure relative distances to these galaxies. With these sorts of measurements, we could say that one galaxy was five times farther away than another, but we could not give an accurate distance to any galaxy. It is like having a map where the scale has been left off. With the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, Rob Kennicutt, along with Wendy Freedman, the late Marc Aaronson and Jeremy Mould, began directing their H0 (pronounced H-naught) Key Project to measure direct distances to nearby galaxies and convert the relative distances into absolute distances. The H0 project was one of only three ‘key projects’ selected for the Hubble Space Telescope. The main project was completed in 2001 with the expansion rate measured to 10% as 72, a fivefold improvement in this fundamental constant of cosmology.”
A member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society and the American Astronomical Society, Kennicutt has been recognized with the Royal Astronomical Society’s highest honor, the 2019 Gold Medal, as well as the 2019 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Award for Scientific Reviewing for his influential 1998 review paper, “Star Formation in Galaxies Along the Hubble Sequence,” that has become one of the most-cited papers in astrophysics. His many additional career awards include the 2009 Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the 2007 Dannie Heineman Prize in Astrophysics from the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society.
To learn more about Kennicutt and his teaching, research and professional service accomplishments, visit https://physics.tamu.edu/directory/rck/.
See a bonus feature from the University of Arizona on Kennicutt and his life after “retirement.”