National Academy of Sciences honors Indian American scientist

Meenakshi Wadhwa

Meenakshi Wadhwa has ‘deepened understanding of solar system’s evolutionary history.’

Indian American planetary scientist Meenakshi Wadhwa has been honored by the National Academy of Sciences with the 2021 J. Lawrence Smith Medal for her extraordinary scientific achievements.

Wadhwa, School of Earth and Space Exploration Director at Arizona State University (ASU), is among 20 individuals recognized by the academy for their achievements in a wide range of fields spanning the physical, biological, social and medical sciences.

The J. Lawrence Smith Medal is awarded every three years for recent original and meritorious investigations of meteoric bodies. The award includes a $50,000 prize.

The award was established as a gift from Sarah Julia Smith in memory of her husband and has been presented since 1888.

“I’m truly humbled when I think of those who were awarded this medal before me,” Wadhwa said.

READ: Indian American Prof. Menakshi Wadhwa of Arizona State University to study Mars in Ahmedabad (June 12, 2015)

“But I’m also very honored, not just for myself but also for all the amazing students and postdoctoral researchers I’ve been so fortunate to work with over the years.”

“Wadhwa has deepened the world’s understanding of the evolutionary history of the solar system through her significant contributions to the sciences of cosmo-chemistry, solar system chronology, meteoritics, and trace element geochemistry,” the academy stated in a release.

“Her work has elevated the science and knowledge of the evolutionary history of the solar system, and she has advanced scientific understanding of the geologic history of Mars,” it said.

Among her many groundbreaking accomplishments, Wadhwa used long-lived radioisotopes to refine the age of the solar system, in the process correcting the commonly used ratio for decay.

In addition, her studies of the trace elements and stable isotopes (especially hydrogen) in meteoritic minerals have allowed her to develop new ways to interpret that data and reveal planetary secrets, particularly those of Mars.

“Professor Wadhwa is well-deserving of this prestigious award from the National Academy of Sciences,” said Arizona State University Provost Pro Tempore Nancy Gonzales.

“Her trailblazing scholarship is leading to discoveries that are advancing her field and deepening our understanding of the cosmos. She is a committed scholar and leader who represents the best of ASU’s academic community.”

Wadhwa currently serves on the NASA Advisory Council and chairs its Science Committee. She is also serving on the joint NASA-ESA Mars Sample Planning Group.

She was President of the Meteoritical Society for the past two years, and recently also served on the Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board and the National Academies Space Studies Board.

Wadhwa is a planetary scientist and educator interested in the time scales and processes involved in the formation and evolution of the Solar System and planets, according to her official biography.

Her research group is best known for developing novel methodologies for high precision isotope analyses and application of high resolution chronometers for understanding three phenomena.

First, the time scales of events in the early Solar System (such as formation of the earliest solids, as well as accretion and differentiation of planetesimals and the terrestrial planets);

Second, the processes occurring in the solar proto-planetary disk and on planetesimals; and

Third, the abundance and origin of water and other volatiles on rocky bodies in the Solar System.

She has hunted for meteorites in Antarctica with the US Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program.

She received her doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego.

She was subsequently Curator in the Department of Geology at the Field Museum in Chicago before moving to Arizona State University (ASU) as Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in 2006.

At ASU, she served as director of the Center for Meteorite Studies from 2006 till 2019. In July of 2019, she was appointed as director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

She has served on numerous advisory committees for NASA and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

She currently chairs the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council and is President of the Meteoritical Society.

She is a recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award (2015), the Guggenheim Fellowship (2005) and the Nier Prize of the Meteoritical Society (2000).

She was recently awarded an American Council on Education Fellowship (2018-2019) and became a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2019.

Asteroid 8356 has been named 8356 Wadhwa in recognition of her contributions to meteoritics and planetary science.

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