Lea Bonnefoy ’15, a Cornell postdoctoral researcher in astronomy who will soon examine NASA mission landing spots on the Saturnian moon Titan, has been awarded a 2020 L’Oréal-United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Young Talents France Prize For Women in Science.
Bonnefoy, who was among 20 doctoral candidates and 15 post-doctoral researchers in all selected to represent France, was recognized in the physical chemistry category.
The awards, announced Oct. 1, are for female scientists who combine exceptional talent, a deep commitment to their professions and “remarkable courage in a field still largely dominated by men,” according to Fondation L’Oréal, Paris.
“I’m very proud to receive this honor,” Bonnefoy said. “It’s a great recognition of my science and it’s very encouraging for future work. I see this as an opportunity to build future projects and share my love of planetary science.”
Bonnefoy fell in love with astronomy by way of artful words. To ease summer boredom when she was 11, she amused herself by writing a small book, “The Moons,” a story full of meteoric feasts and imaginary friendships between moons.
“I also read the encyclopedia, and this is where I first discovered planetary science,” she said, noting when she learned of Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos; one of Jupiter’s moons Io, with its volcanoes; and one of Neptune’s moons Triton, with its nitrogen geysers.
“I had a lot of fun with it,” she said, “and that’s when I learned about Saturn’s moon Titan.”
As a first-year Cornell student a decade later, Bonnefoy majored in physics and took several science courses, including chemistry, biology, math, physics, meteorology and astronomy. “The one I really liked was astronomy, a course taught by Rachel Bean,” she said, referring to the professor of astronomy and now senior associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences.
As an undergraduate, in the laboratory of Alexander Hayes, associate professor of astronomy, Bonnefoy wrote the algorithm that mapped Titan’s dunes from Cassini mission data.
Bonnefoy earned her master’s in astronomy in 2016 from the Paris Observatory, and her doctorate in astrophysics this year at the Paris Observatory.
She recently completed her thesis on the icy surfaces on three Saturnian moons – Iapetus, Rhea and Dione. Her work combined Cassini mission data with new observations from radio telescopes on Earth.
Also, Bonnefoy was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the French space agency the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES,) which will start in November at the Institute of Earth Physics of Paris, and it allows her to split time between Paris and Cornell. She will study the dune fields on Titan, which will help NASA prepare for the Dragonfly mission (launch scheduled for 2027).