Nicolas Cowan selected for prestigious Arthur B. McDonald Fellowship

World-leading exoplanet researcher recognized by NSERC for visionary science as well as commitment to public outreach and equity activities
Nicolas Cowen
Nicolas Cowan is an Associate Professor in the departments of Physics and of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill

Professor Nicolas Cowan has received the 2023 Arthur B. McDonald Fellowship from NSERC. These prestigious fellowships are awarded annually to early-stage academic researchers in the natural sciences and engineering.

Worth $250,000 over two years, these awards were previously known as the EWR Steacie Memorial Fellowships and 14 have previously been awarded to McGill’s researchers including to Elena Bennett, Vicky Kaspi, and Joelle Pineau.

Exoplanet atmosphere investigation

Cowan – jointly appointed to the departments of Physics and Earth and Planetary Sciences – has been a professor at McGill since 2015. During this time, he has driven research through the McGill Exoplanet Characterization Alliance, which works on the whole gamut of exoplanet atmosphere investigations, from mission design to instrument detrending, data analysis, and theoretical modelling.

Cowan intends to leverage the prodigious capacities of the James Webb Space Telescope to extend our understanding of planetary atmospheres. He is also leading the Canadian contribution to the European Space Agency’s Ariel mission, which will study the atmospheres of a thousand exoplanets. Lastly, Cowan is participating in an international consortium to develop a new high resolution infrared spectrograph for the European Extra-Large Telescope. The project aims to search these distant worlds for signs of life.

“McGill congratulates Professor Cowan on this significant honour and thanks NSERC for their support of innovative research,” said Martha Crago, Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation. “In pursuit of new knowledge about exoplanets and the Earth’s climate, he has helped position McGill as a leading institution in Canada in these fields of study and has made an impact on the lives of students and emerging researchers.”

Planet hunter

Exoplanets are planets that are not found in our solar system. Locating and characterizing these celestial bodies has become an increasingly significant topic, as the ‘holy grail’ of exoplanets, a planet capable of sustaining life, remains an elusive discovery.

Cowan’s research has had an impact in many areas of the study of exoplanets, including astrophysics, in particular the mapping of exoplanet atmospheres, understanding exoplanet energy budgets, comparative exoplanetology, and looking at the Earth itself as an exoplanet.

With the help of McGill undergraduate students, Cowan developed the Climate App for high school students to learn about the greenhouse effect, global warming, and planetary habitability using their smart phone. The bilingual app is now being deployed in classrooms across Canada.

Important equity work

Cowan’s work on equity issues has also been influential. In 2019, he co-founded the Astronomy in Indigenous Communities program, which aims to support elementary students in Kanien’keha:ka through hands-on astronomy activities with Indigenous professional astronomers.

“It is a huge honour to be McDonald Fellow,” said Cowan. “The additional time and money awarded by the Fellowship will allow me to double down on investigations of exoplanet atmospheres while continuing my efforts to design and build the next generation of telescopes to study these strange worlds.”