Professor Phiala Shanahan is a world-leading theoretical physicist and an inspiration to aspiring young scientists all over the world. Prof Shanahan was just 27 years old when she became the youngest Professor of Physics at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where her research in theoretical nuclear and particle physics has shed new light on the structure and interactions of the most fundamental building blocks of our universe. Her innovative use of machine learning techniques in lattice quantum field theory calculations has led to a new generation of algorithms exploiting artificial intelligence to enable studies that were previously thought to be computationally intractable.
Prof Shanahan grew up in Adelaide, South Australia. She completed her Bachelor of Science (Honours) in High Performance Computational Physics and her PhD in Physics at the University of Adelaide, attracting the Bragg Gold Medal from Australian Institute of Physics, for the most outstanding Ph.D. thesis under the auspices of an Australian university. Upon completion of her PhD in 2015, she moved to the USA to join the Centre for Theoretical Physics at MIT as a Postdoctoral Associate, before being appointed as Assistant Professor at the College of William & Mary and Senior Staff Scientist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. During her time at MIT, Prof Shanahan has contributed to significant advancements in her scientific field. In 2018, she led a collaboration to achieve the first calculation of the gluon structure of light nuclei, making predictions which will be testable in new experiments proposed at Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and at the planned Electron-Ion Collider – projects aimed at improving international understanding of the smallest structures in our universe. Her calculations are helping scientists put the ‘standard model’ – the theory that governs elementary particles and their interactions – to the test.
Prof Shanahan’s contributions to modern physics have been globally recognised within the sciences community. She has received numerous awards, including the 2021 Maria Goeppert Mayer Award from the American Physical Society for outstanding achievement by early-career women physicists, the 2020 Kenneth G Wilson Award for Excellence in Lattice Field Theory, the 2020 Teaching With Digital Technology Award from MIT, the 2020 Early Career Research Award from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the 2018 National Science Foundation CAREER Award. In 2017, she was named in Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Science, in 2018 she was named as a Simons Foundation Emmy Noether fellow, and in 2020, Science News listed her among the top 10 Scientists to Watch.