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IfA Graduate BJ Fulton Receives Prestigious Trumpler Award

14 August 2018


Dr. B. J. Fulton

Dr. Roy Gal
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Picture of B. J. Fulton, 2018 Trumpler Award Winner

Dr. Benjamin J. (BJ) Fulton, 2018 Trumpler Award Winner

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Dr. Benjamin J. (BJ) Fulton, who received his doctorate from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) in 2017, has been awarded the Robert J. Trumpler Award, given by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to recognize a recent PhD thesis considered unusually important to astronomy. He is the fourth IfA gradute to receive the award in the past six years.

Dr. Fulton's landmark doctoral dissertation focused on the discovery and categorization of extrasolar planets, and in particular smaller planets between the sizes of Earth and Neptune.

Fulton analyzed data from the W. M. Keck Observatory for over 1,300 planets that were initially discovered by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. The primary result of Fulton's thesis, under the advisement of Prof. Andrew Howard, is the discovery that the size distribution of extrasolar planets has a gap separating two types: super-Earths with sizes smaller than about 1.5 Earth diameters, and sub-Neptunes with sizes 2-3 Earth diameters.

The interpretation of this gap is that it represents the separation of rocky planets from low-mass planets with gas atmospheres, and its discovery has already sparked numerous theoretical and observational studies. BJ's paper announcing this gap garnered immediate attention. A measure of how important this effect is on the field is that it has been given a name, the Fulton Gap.

As one of his nominators stated, the Fulton Gap "will undoubtedly be in undergraduate and graduate textbooks. It demonstrates a natural division among planets, on par with the division between rocky planets, ice giants, and gas giants in our Solar System."

Fulton is now a staff scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI), based at IPAC, a science and data center for astronomy at Caltech. He serves as the deputy project scientist for the NASA-National Science Foundation Exoplanet Observational Research (NN-EXPLORE) program, which funds and operates the NEID spectrograph, an instrument with the ability to discover Earth-like planets orbiting the nearest stars.

This award continues a remarkable streak for graduates of the IfA's PhD program, who have won four awards in the past six years. The previous recipients were Dr. H. Jabran Zahid in 2015, who is now a Clay Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Dr. Brendan P. Bowler in 2014, who is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Emily Levesque in 2012, an Assistant Professor in the University of Washington's astronomy department.

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakalā and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi.

Since its humble beginnings over 125 years ago, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific has evolved into one of the most recognized and well-respected nonprofit astronomy organizations in the country. For more information about the ASP, please visit