SANTA CRUZ - Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, "We're made of star-stuff." The pioneering work of UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Charlie Conroy is helping to prove that.

This week Conroy won the prestigious Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. Granted by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the $875,000 award is one of the most celebrated prizes in the country for young professors.

The Packard award will be allocated over the next five years to support Conroy's current research into the birth of stars and how they created the elements in the periodic table.

The elements are created numerous ways: Some are unleashed from a dying star when it bursts into a supernova, while others form a star's core. Yet they ultimately form the basis for all of the planets in the universe and for every life-form on Earth.

Touted as an "extragalactic archaeologist," Conroy uses light measurements from high-powered telescopes to figure out the ages of stars from nearby and faraway galaxies. The Big Bang theory argues that the universe is gradually expanding, so the distance that light travels from a given star to Earth gives Conroy an indication of its age.

Next, he deciphers the light from a star using a technique called "stellar spectroscopy." This tells him what elements are inside of the star, known as elemental abundance pattern.

Akin to an art historian describing the architectural influence of ancient Greece on ancient Rome, Conroy compares the elemental abundance patterns of elderly and juvenile stars to understand how one impacted the other.


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"Elemental abundance patterns could be the key to connecting galaxies across time," Conroy said.

This is the second major honor for Conroy this year. In February, the astronomer won a $50,000 fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Conroy joined the UCSC faculty in 2012, after earning his doctorate from Princeton and a stint as an astrophysics junior fellow at Harvard.

Fifteen additional recipients will also receive identical five-year Packard fellowships. Over the past 25 years, the Los Altos-based foundation has granted $330 million to more than 500 young scientists and engineers.

Former awardees have gone on to win the so-called MacArthur genius grants, the Fields Medal for mathematics, and the Nobel Prize in physics.

"David Packard believed one of the best ways to make progress as a society and as a nation is to give talented people the resources they need to accomplish their work and then get out of the way to let them do it," said Lynn Orr, a professor at Stanford University and chairman of the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel. "Their independent, exploratory research will generate new knowledge, spark fresh thinking and produce ideas that can improve the human condition."