Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Dylan Nelson receives the 2023 MERAC Award for New Technologies

Dr Dylan Nelson (Copyright: Oliver Fink, Uni. Heidelberg, Kommunikation und Marketing)

The 2023 MERAC Prize for the Best Early Career Researcher in New Technologies (Computational) is awarded to Dr Dylan Nelson (Heidelberg University, Germany) for his leading role in computational astrophysics, in particular for the IllustrisTNG series of cosmological simulations and his work to enable their widespread use.

Dr Dylan Nelson triple-majored in physics, mathematics, and astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his PhD at Harvard University in 2015, and became one of the earliest active developers of the AREPO moving-mesh code for galaxy formation simulations, making key contributions to the original Illustris cosmological simulation. He was the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, as well as the Institute for Applied Computational Science Fellowship. In addition to his PhD, he obtained a secondary degree in Computational Science and Engineering at Harvard. He then moved to the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics as a postdoctoral fellow (2015-2020). Nelson became a key figure and leader of the IllustrisTNG simulations. He is the Co-PI of the TNG50 simulation, completed in 2019, a cosmological galaxy formation simulation of unprecedented scope and resolution. In 2020 he was awarded an Emmy Noether Research Group Leader position at the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University. He received the Research Career Development Award of the Hector Fellow Academy in 2022.

Dylan Nelson develops, carries out, and studies large large numerical calculations of structure formation across cosmic time. He has played a unique role in making publicly accessible some of the largest and most sophisticated cosmological simulations, namely, IllustrisTNG. The simulation has (i) re-shaped our theoretical understanding of galaxy feedback and the impact of AGN-driven outflows, (ii) predicted how galactic disks and morphological structure emerge at early epochs, as now being probed with JWST, and (iii) provided foundational theoretical predictions for space telescope mission proposals. Based in part on the IllustrisTNG simulations, Dylan Nelson has studied the dynamics of the diffuse gas outside of galaxies, in the intergalactic medium and circumgalactic medium (CGM). His results have changed our understanding of cold, filamentary accretion flows, and their ability to feed high-redshift galaxies. One of the most scientifically exciting and novel results is that the CGM encodes a non-trivial “historical record” of past galactic feedback activity. The release of the simulations to the community is a high-impact example of Open Science in astronomy. Dylan Nelson has designed and developed the entire infrastructure to enable researchers to remotely explore, search, analyse, and download these petabyte-scale datasets ( Since its launch, more than 5.200 registered users have downloaded tens of thousands of simulation snapshots and catalogues, and tens of millions of individual galaxy datasets. The work was conducted at Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and at the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics of the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University.

European Astronomical Society (EAS)

The MERAC Prize consists of three prizes awarded every year by the European Astronomical Society (EAS) . These MERAC Prizes are for early career astrophysicists, one each in Theoretical Astrophysics, Observational Astrophysics and New Technologies: Instrumental / Computational / Multi-Messenger, and they are awarded on uneven years to early career astrophysicists who have achieved their PHD degrees in the previous ten years, which period shall be extended by two years in case of career interruptions for maternity, illness or the like (“Best Early Career Researcher Prizes”), and on even years for the best doctoral thesis in the previous three years, which period shall be extended by one year in case of career interruptions for maternity, illness or the like (“Best Doctoral Thesis Prizes”).

Best Early Career Researcher Prizes are awarded to young astrophysicists either affiliated to or having largely performed the work to be recognized in a European institute. Best Doctoral Thesis Prizes are awarded to the best thesis performed in a European institute. The term European is understood to include all countries with an astronomical society affiliated to the EAS and the Scandinavian countries without a national astronomical society. The EAS will announce the winners of the MERAC Prizes awarded by the European Astronomical Society each February. Awardees will give plenary lectures at the following EWASS meeting and also will give a lecture in Switzerland under the patronage of the FONDATION MERAC.

All awardees will give a plenary lecture at the European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting 2023 to be held in Krakow, Poland, from 10 to 14 July 2023.

Dr Dylan Nelson
Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University (ZAH)
Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (ITA)

Dr Guido Thimm
Center for Astronomy at Heidelberg University (ZAH)




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