Prof. dr. A. (Amina) Helmi

Amina Helmi is Professor of Dynamics, Structure and Formation of the Milky Way at the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen. She is one of the founders of galactic archaeology: reconstructing the history of galaxies based on the current positions, movement and the composition of stars. As an astronomical archaeologist, she searches for remnants of ancient galaxies and uses these to reconstruct the evolution of our Milky Way.

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Prof. dr. A. Helmi (Photography: Studio Oostrum/Hollandse Hoogte)

Helmi is one of the few astronomers who can make predictions based on theoretical models and simulations, organise observations to test those predictions, and develop analytical models to interpret the experimental data obtained.

Helmi stream

As part of her doctoral research, Helmi discovered the remnants of a small galaxy that was absorbed into our young Milky Way billions of years ago. This collection of stars has since been known as the Helmi stream. Her discovery was the first confirmation of the idea that our Milky Way must be composed of smaller, ancient galaxies.

Since then, Helmi and her theories, models and experiments have considerably expanded our knowledge about the shape, structure and history of the Milky Way and the nearby galaxies. For example, she determined that the dark matter halo surrounding our Milky Way must be shaped like a rugby ball instead of an elongated frisbee as had often been assumed before.

European space telescope Gaia

Helmi’s vision and leadership were crucial in the realisation of the European space telescope Gaia, which has been measuring the movement of more than one billion individual stars since its launch in 2013. In 2018, Helmi used this dataset to discover the remnants of a large galaxy that merged about 10 billion years ago with the then young Milky Way and made an important contribution to the current shape of our galaxy.

International role in the future of astronomy

Helmi leads one of the largest and most productive groups in the world in the area of stellar dynamics and Milky Way studies. She also plays an important role in national and international organisations that determine the future of astronomy. For example, she is the Dutch science representative on the board of the European Southern Observatory and a member of the committee that is currently advising the scientific director of the European Space Agency on future astronomical space missions.

Helmi has managed to acquire major grants for her research, such as a Vidi grant, a Vici grant and an ERC Starting Grant. She has also received several prestigious prizes, such as an Amelia Earhart Fellowship in 1995 and 1997, both the C.J. Kok prize from Leiden University and the Christiaan Huygens Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences for her doctoral thesis, and the Pastoor Schmeits Prize. She was a member of the Young Academy from 2007 to 2012. She is currently a member of both the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Helmi is a sought-after speaker, who frequently and willingly shares her fascination with astronomical discoveries with fellow scientists and the general public. She is also an active champion of gender equality in science, which is also apparent from the list of people who have been part of her research group throughout her career.

Interview with Amina Helmi

  • Who is Amina Helmi?

    1970 born on 6 October in Bahía Blanca, Argentina
    1994

    obtained her diploma in astronomy, with a specialisation in theoretical physics from the National University of La Plata,    Argentina

    1999

    published a groundbreaking article in Nature about the first discovery of remnants of a dwarf galaxy absorbed by the Milky Way

    2000

    obtained her doctorate cum laude from Leiden University for her research into the formation of the galactic halo, the veil of pristine stars surrounding our Milky Way. Afterwards, she returned to the National University of La Plata as a postdoc

    2000

     

    received the C.J. Kok Prize from Leiden University for her doctoral thesis

    2001

     

    moved to Germany for a postdoc position at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics

    2002

    returned to the Netherlands as a NOVA fellow at Utrecht University

    2003

    appointed assistant professor and later associate professor at the Kapteyn Institute of University of Groningen, and received a Vidi grant

    2004

    received the Christiaan Huygens Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences for her doctoral thesis

    2007

    became a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

    2009

    received an ERC Starting Grant to carry out studies combining cosmological simulations with surveys providing the motions and chemical composition of nearby stars

    2010

    received the Pastoor Schmeits Prize for Astronomy

    2013

    appointed Professor of Dynamics, Structure and Evolution of the Milky Way at the Kapteyn Institute

    2015

    received a Vici grant for research into the evolutionary history of the Milky Way based on data from the Gaia satellite

    2016

    elected a member of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities

    2017

    elected a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

    2018

    as joint research leader, published the results from the Gaia mission in two articles in Nature

    2019

    received the Suffrage Science Award 2019 at the Royal Society, London