In addition to Amina Helmi Utrecht historian Bas van Bavel, cell biologist Yvette van Kooyk at the VU medical centre in Amsterdam, and quantum physicist Ronald Hanson at TU Delft have also won the Spinoza Prize.
This is the eighth time a RUG employee has won the award. Previous winners were physicist George Sawatsky (1996), medical biologist Dirkje Postma (2000), and chemist Ben Feringa (2004), who went on to win the Nobel Prize. After the RUG not winning anything for a decade, migratory bird expert Theunis Piersma was awarded the prize in 2014, and geneticist and current rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga won it in 2015. In 2016, philosopher Lodi Nauta and engineering physicist Bart van Wees.
She really, really wasn’t expecting it, says Amina Helmi. When she joined the KNAW two years ago she’d ‘hoped’ she would eventually get one, but actually winning a Spinoza Prize ‘is such a big deal!’ she says. ‘I had tears in my eyes when they called me. It’s so amazing!’
It wasn’t a long phone call; five minutes at most. But, she says, it was ‘long enough’. ‘I was at a loss for words. I just kept thinking: wow, wow, wow!’
The timing of the Spinoza Prize, which is awarded by research financier NWO, is special for Helmi. She is currently in the midst of analysing the measurements taken of 1.7 billion stars in by the European Gaia satellite. The data was released last year. ‘I’d love to do more follow-up’, she says. ‘We want to determine the chemical make-up of stars. Gaia doesn’t do that, but we’ve noticed we need the information if we want to determine how the Milky Way came into being.’
She’d also like to return to a part of her research she hasn’t been able to focus on much over the past few years: the distribution of mass, specifically dark matter, across the Milky Way, as it would help them figure out what exactly dark matter is. ‘Because we kept making discovery after discovery in galactic archaeology, we focused more on that. But this is really important as well, and now I’ll have the chance to get back to that.’
Out of balance
Over the past few years, the Gaia data has shown that the Milky Way is out of balance. ‘People assumed it was when making models of galaxies, but we’ve now realised that those assumptions were wrong. That means we’ll need to develop new methods to determine how dark matter is distributed across the Milky Way, because it can tell us more about the nature of dark matter.’
She has until October to figure out how to research everything; that’s when she’ll actually receive the prize. She’ll then present her ideas for what to do with the money.
She’s also organising a party for her entire research group, including every single student, PhD candidate, and postdoc she’s ever worked with. ‘In the end, they deserve to share in the glory.’
UKrant interviewed Amina Helmi about her work earlier. We republished and updated it.