Laureation address: Professor Anneila Isabel Sargent FRSE

Lauren Sykes
Monday 12 June 2023

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Dr Kenneth Wood, School of Physics and Astronomy

Monday 12 June 2023


It is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Anneila Sargent.

Anneila Sargent is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and past Vice-President for Student Affairs at the California Institute of Technology and truly one of Fife’s finest scientists, educators, and administrators. Anneila was born in Fife and raised in Burntisland, attending Burntisland Primary and Kirkcaldy Secondary schools before completing her BSc in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. She moved to the USA with her astronomer husband Wal where she gained her PhD in astronomy from Caltech in 1977.

Anneila’s research has focused on the earliest stages of star and planet formation using radio and millimeter-wave telescopes to probe the structure and composition of the disks of dust and gas that surround newly born stars. As director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory and then CARMA – the Combined Array for Millimeter-wave Astronomy – she made leading contributions to instrumental development in the field of radio astronomy. Subsequently, she chaired the board of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile, which has transformed many fields of astronomy, in particular the formation of other planetary systems. As the first amazing high-resolution images arrived from ALMA in recent years confirming her early work on the origins of planets in disks, I recall Anneila saying, “Of course, it is important to be sure you have done everything right from the very beginning.”

Anneila has guided many science councils in the USA, including as President of the American Astronomical Society, NASA’s Space Science Advisory Committee, and the National Research Council Board of Physics and Astronomy. In 2011, she was appointed by President Obama to the National Science Board and served for 12 years. Never leaving her roots in Scotland, for the past decade Anneila has also been a key member of the International Board of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance.

Anneila has received many honors for her work as a scientist and administrator, but her daughters Lindsay and Alison told me that one of her most rewarding roles was when she was Vice-President for Student Affairs at Caltech. Always passionate about working with students, this job required her to draw on everything that she had ever learned before, not only professionally as a scientist, teacher, and administrator, but also from her personal life as a parent. Discussing her experiences in a public lecture, she joked, “Telescopes don’t talk back.” Lindsay and Alison also said the theme that stands out in Anneila’s public lectures is gratitude – for the opportunities she was given and the people who have supported her along the way. Mum will tell you she was lucky and that the wonder of her life is that a wee lassie from Burntisland went on to use and help construct some of the best telescopes in the world. But anyone who knows Anneila would also observe that she worked hard to make those opportunities real, out of a genuine curiosity and love for the science.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contributions to science and education, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Anneila Sargent.

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