Ray Jayawardhana

Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Hans A. Bethe Professor and Professor of Astronomy

Summary

Ray Jayawardhana is the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Hans A. Bethe Professor and Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University.

As the leader of the largest and most academically diverse college at Cornell, he is responsible for an institution with over 520 professorial faculty, 400 academic professionals and staff, 4600 undergraduates and 1300 graduate students. The College offers 40 undergraduate majors and 35 graduate fields, and boasts a network of over 65,000 alumni. In the past five years, applications to Arts & Sciences have risen by nearly 70% and the early-decision pool has more than doubled, resulting in the greatest selectivity and the highest yield in the College’s history.

Ray has positioned Arts & Sciences as “the nexus of discovery and impact,” and focused on strategic priorities in the areas of faculty renewal and support, research and creative excellence, academic innovation and student experience, and public engagement. He has overseen the recruitment of 90 new faculty members and appointments to 50 endowed professorships. During Ray’s tenure, the College has garnered more than $200 million in new gifts and commitments in support of these priorities. Fundraising in the current fiscal year is the highest on record.

Signature initiatives launched under Ray’s leadership include:

  • the Klarman Fellowships, a premier postdoctoral program for exceptional emerging researchers;
  • the New Frontier Grants for novel research projects with potential for transformative advances;
  • the Nexus Scholars program, to expand opportunities for undergraduate research with faculty;
  • the Humanities Scholars Program, a curated and mentored pathway through humanistic inquiry for select students;
  • the Distinguished Visiting Journalist program, to recognize excellence in journalism while fostering meaningful engagement between the media and the academy; and
  • the Arts Unplugged series of marquee events that bring the campus community and the public together around themes of broad interest.

On his watch, the College has adopted a new undergraduate curriculum, introduced first-year advising seminars to all entering students, implemented the highly coveted Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity, more than tripled funding for Summer Experience Grants, and enhanced career development support. Arts & Sciences has increased media engagement dramatically, more than quadrupling annual media hits and increasing placement of faculty op-eds. In recent years, tens of thousands of people have joined virtual public events organized by the College. 

Ray played a key role in establishing the new Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy and the “super-departments” of Sociology and Psychology and expanding Economics. Ray has also partnered with select deans and faculty across the university to formulate and lead three “big idea” initiatives –on climate, AI and quantum research.

Ray’s own research focuses on the diversity, origins and evolution of planetary systems as well as the formation and evolution of stars and brown dwarfs. In particular, his group uses the largest telescopes on the ground and in space to do ‘remote sensing’ of planets around other stars (“exoplanets”), with a view to investigating prospects for life in the universe. He is a core science team member for the NIRISS instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope, and his group leads a Gemini Observatory large program on high-resolution spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres. Ray is the co-author of 145+ refereed papers in scientific journals, with over 8100 total citations (h-index: 51, i10-index: 130 – according to NASA ADS), and the co-editor of two volumes of conference proceedings.

Ray is also an acclaimed writer whose articles have appeared in publications including The Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and Scientific American. His popular science book Strange New Worlds was the basis for “The Planet Hunters” television documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.; his book Neutrino Hunters won the Canadian Science Writers Association’s Book Award. His latest, a picture book for children titled Child of the Universe published by Penguin Random House in 2020, received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal.

Ray’s research, writing and outreach have led to numerous accolades, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, Steacie Fellowship, Steacie Prize, McLean Award, Radcliffe Fellowship from Harvard University, visiting professorships from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Stockholm University and the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, Rutherford Medal in Physics from the Royal Society of Canada, Nicholson Medal from the American Physical Society, and Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences. Asteroid (4668) Rayjay is named after him.

Before moving to Cornell, he served as the Dean of Science at York University, following a decade on the faculty at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he held an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan and a Miller Research Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a Ph.D. degree in astronomy from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy and physics from Yale University.

An avid traveler, he has visited more than 55 countries and all seven continents. His travels, for research and writing, have included numerous visits to mountaintop observatories in Chile and Hawaii, a meteorite collecting expedition in Antarctica, a parabolic flight with the European Space Agency, a solar eclipse chase in western Mongolia and a descent into a South African mine with geobiologists.

Beyond Cornell, Ray serves on the Board of Trustees of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Alumni Council of Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and Steering Committee of the International Astronomical Union’s Division on Stars and Stellar Physics.

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