Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at...

Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, has been named winner of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. Credit: National Geographic / Rolf Sjogren

The Stony Brook University scientist who last year reported the discovery of a massive supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins in a remote region of Antarctica has won a prestigious $250,000 scientific prize.

Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution, was named a winner of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, which honors achievements by scientists younger than age 42. Lynch, 40, won in the category of Life Sciences. She has conducted a wide range of studies to better understand the lives of the tuxedoed seabirds that dwell at the bottom of the world.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation and New York Academy of Sciences announced winners in three categories. In addition to Life Sciences, laureates also received prizes in chemistry, physical sciences and engineering. Candidates were nominated by 169 research institutions in 44 states, and foundation officials this year reported the largest pool of nominees — 343 — in the awards’ 13-year history. Lynch was chosen from a pool of 31 finalists.

“I am very flattered — and flattered that I am still eligible to be considered a young scientist,” Lynch said with a laugh. She thanked the university for nominating her and added the Blavatnik prize is based on research conducted throughout her career.

Lynch routinely relies on satellite images captured miles above Earth to study the activities of Antarctic penguins. The Adélie population once was believed to be in steep decline until Lynch’s discovery.

She has been a Stony Brook faculty member since 2011 and was named a national laureate by the award’s sponsors for her “unique synthesis of cutting-edge statistics, mathematical models, satellite remote sensing and Antarctic field biology.”    

Pinpointing the previously unknown population of Adelies is just one of multiple breakthrough findings Lynch has had over the years, which also includes work involving other types of penguins. Antarctica is home to 18 species of the tuxedoed seabirds.

Heather Lynch found a supercolony of Adelie penguins via satellite...

Heather Lynch found a supercolony of Adelie penguins via satellite in a remote archipelago in Antarctica called the Danger Islands. Credit: Heather Lynch

Lynch uses mathematical modeling and data-driven research to shed new light on penguin survival, as well as the health of the Antarctic ecosystem in which the birds thrive.

“Penguins don’t have a social structure like flocking birds,” she said, noting there are no alpha males as occurs among populations of geese and other flying species. “But, they don’t like to be out by themselves. That’s why they are always surrounded by other penguins.”

The supercolony Lynch found via satellite was in a remote and rocky archipelago called the Danger Islands, so named because the terrain makes travel through the area treacherous for ships.

Lynch said she is pleased her work has added to the understanding of penguins and the need for conservation efforts. The birds have been losing habitat because of increasing global climate change.

“Stony Brook University is proud to be a leader in research innovation, and this award is a testament to Heather Lynch, whose work will provide key insights on global ecosystems, and generate solutions to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change,” Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of the university, said in a statement.

Stanley and other Stony Brook officials commended Lynch’s “big data” approach to understanding penguins and their environment. They also underscored her work-in-progress that is revealing patterns across the landscape as they huddle. From a satellite, they can appear as stripes across the icy terrain or even as polka dots. Lynch and her colleagues are trying to find out what those patterns mean.

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