Senior wins top prize for astronomy paper

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Sun, 11/13/2016

Wenrui Xu ’17, a physics and math major in the College of Arts & Sciences, will accept the top prize for a student paper during the New York Astronomical Society’s meeting Nov. 12 in Albany.

Xu was honored for a paper he published about his research into how stars may influence the architecture of planets and multi-planet systems beyond our own solar system, including exoplanets being detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.

“Wenrui's work contains a significant original contribution to our understanding of the circumbinary planets and compact multi-planet systems discovered by the Kepler satellite, and, because of the novel theoretical tools he developed, will have a lasting impact on planetary/astrophysical dynamics in general,” said Dong Lai, professor of astronomy and Xu’s research advisor.

Lai said it was unusual for him to give such a difficult research problem to an undergraduate — more on the scale of something he would assign to a senior graduate student. Xu was able to succeed because of his “superb innate ability, curiosity and hard work,” Lai said.

“Although I am a co-author of this paper, Wenrui has carried the lion's share of the work presented in the paper,” Lai said.

The paper, “Disruption of planetary orbits through evection resonance with an external companion: circumbinary planets and multiplanet systems," was published in the Monthly Notice of the Royal Astronomical Society in July 2016.

As a high school student in China, Xu said he took part in many physics competitions, but he wasn’t sure which branch of physics he wanted to study until he met Lai at a dinner sponsored by the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board.

“I had never studied astrophysics before but I found the topic interesting and so Professor Lai gave me a few papers to read,” he said. After that, he was curious, continued to read papers and became a member of Lai’s lab.

Xu received the Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship in 2015 and the Shelly Undergraduate Research Prize in Astrophysics in May 2016 and now has two other large projects in progress, both of which should publish sometime next spring.

Although Xu will graduate in December, he will stay on campus next semester to continue his research, then plans to attend graduate school to become a professor and researcher.

Image courtesy of NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech