Assistant professor Ryan Cloutier awarded Polanyi Prize in Physics

A headshot of Ryan Cloutier

Ryan Cloutier, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster, has been awarded the prestigious Polanyi Prize in Physics for 2023. 

The Polanyi Prize is awarded annually to as many as five researchers from Ontario universities who are in the early stages of their careers in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, economic science and physiology/medicine. 

Given by the Ontario Council of Universities, the award is named in honour of Ontario’s Nobel Prize winner John C. Polanyi who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research in chemical kinetics.  

The prizes are awarded to early-career researchers who are either continuing postdoctoral work or have recently gained a faculty appointment. Each of the award recipients receives $25,000 in recognition of their exceptional research. 

Cloutier’s research explores key questions about what physical processes dominate the formation and evolution of super-Earths and sub-Neptunes around the most abundant stars in our galaxy to help find potentially habitable planets where scientists can search for signs of life.  

We are so pleased that Ryan has won this well-deserved award for his fascinating work on these very common but relatively poorly studied planets in our universe,” said Alison Sills, chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

“Ryan’s enthusiasm and energy have been a great addition to our department, and we’re excited, but not surprised, that he has been recognized in this way.” 

McMaster and the Faculty of Science are equally proud to see Cloutier being recognized for his excellence as a next generation research leader, said Faculty of Science Dean Maureen MacDonald. “Ryan is among our newest faculty members and he has made an immediate and significant contribution as a researcher, supervisor and valued colleague.” 

Cloutier joined McMaster in September 2022 from the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian where he was a Banting Fellow. Cloutier earned his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto.  

“I’m very grateful to the Ontario government for this award and their acknowledgment of this fundamental research into the origins of the galaxy’s most common planets around its most common stars, and the prospects for habitability on these worlds,” said Cloutier.  

Cloutier leads an observationally focused research program with his group of students and postdocs at McMaster University.  

His research includes using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to search for planets around over 10,000 red dwarf stars, stars that are less than 50 per cent the size of the Sun and outnumber Sun-like stars 10:1 in the Milky Way.  

The goals are to measure how common super-Earths are around the smallest red dwarfs and establish whether they begin their lives rocky, like the Earth, or if they initially have a large envelope of water and gas that is later lost to space. 

Cloutier’s research also explores the impacts of energetic flares and stellar winds, and how these processes can drive the loss of planetary atmospheres and affect surface conditions. Part of this research involves developing tools for Canada’s planned flagship mission, CASTOR, which will study red dwarf flares in the UV.  

Additionally, Cloutier uses UV spectroscopy from the Hubble Space Telescope to search for signatures of red dwarf stellar winds as they interact with compact, companion stars. These observations help us to understand how energetic flares and winds impact atmospheric evolution and the potential for life on orbiting planets. 

Cloutier’s research also investigates how stellar abundances of planet-forming elements like iron, magnesium and silicon influence the compositions of super-Earths. By measuring elemental abundances in red dwarfs using the SPIRou spectrograph on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Cloutier’s work aims to provide insights into the diversity of super-Earth interior compositions.  

This information will help establish the connection between star-planet compositions and guide our search for potentially habitable Earth-like planets in our cosmic neighbourhood.  

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