UMass Boston alum wins prestigious national academic award in physics

Recent UMass Boston alum Joseph Farah ‘21 has won the prestigious LeRoy Apker award from the American Physical Society (APS), the highest honor awarded to undergraduate physics students in the United States, for his contributions to the Event Horizon Telescope’s (EHT) ongoing efforts to image the Galactic Center. Farah developed the selective dynamical imaging method with applications for studying rapidly-varying black holes. 

“I am humbled and grateful to the Apker committee,” Farah said. “Every time I remember I won [the award], I think about the incredible support structure I’ve had—both at UMass Boston and within the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)—and I get overwhelmed with gratitude towards the people that have helped me get here.”

Farah’s work on the selective dynamical method, which identifies optimal times to perform imaging reconstructions of interferometric data during a very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) observation with time-variable Fourier coverage, was reported in a paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, and was is a large part of his latest work within the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration. The 347-member team won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their scientific achievement.

"Winning the Apker award is an amazing accomplishment: Joseph is being recognized as the top undergraduate researcher in physics in the entire nation,” said the Chair of the Physics Department Rahul Kulkarni. “This is a testament to Joseph's creativity and his incredible work ethic and perseverance in finding solutions to previously intractable problems. It is also a recognition of the highly supportive environment for undergraduate research in physics that we have at UMass Boston.”

Looking back at his time at UMass Boston, Farah said he appreciated how he was able to customize his curriculum through a series of intense independent studies, giving him extra background in astronomy, statistics, and quantum mechanics. 

“I had the great fortune of being instructed in physics at UMass Boston by some of the brightest minds on the planet,” Farah said. “The advising and mentoring structure UMass Boston provided is a huge part of the reason I had the flexibility and freedom to pursue collaborating with the EHT, despite demands from coursework.”

As a physics major, Farah’s academic excellence was recognized in several ways, including the 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholarship Award. Farah has also led, co-authored, and contributed to numerous celebrated journal publications and has given several public talks on behalf of the EHT Collaboration.

In 2021, Farah was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and received multiple acceptances from Ph.D. programs, ultimately deciding to enroll as a first-year Ph.D. astrophysics student and NSF Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is currently doing research in supernova and dark energy with Andy Howell at the Las Cumbres Observatory. 

“The research being conducted at the Las Cumbres Observatory is fascinating and has broad impacts on astronomy and cosmology,” he said. “[Howell’s] group is sharp and friendly and welcoming. I’ve also been able to continue my collaboration with the EHT as we work towards making the first images of galactic center.”

Farah’s advice for undergraduate students that also want to pursue a career in science is to “never make a decision based on fear.” 

“Take the initiative and be fearless. Following that one rule made it easier for me to reach out to research groups, take on hard projects, and learn new skills,” he said.