Research News

Stephen Taylor receives NSF CAREER award to study gravitational waves from supermassive black holes

Stephen Taylor, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award to further his efforts to probe ultra-low-frequency gravitational waves.

Stephen Taylor (Vanderbilt University)

The award—the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious—supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. His project, “Unveiling the Nanohertz GW Discovery Landscape by Broadening Participation in Multi-Messenger Astrophysics,” will receive $450,000 through 2026.  

“I am extraordinarily excited, honored and humbled by this NSF CAREER award,” Taylor said. “It will allow me and my research group at Vanderbilt to get to work on developing bleeding-edge new gravitational wave search techniques that will help characterize the dynamics of supermassive black hole binary systems, find possible obscured exotic cosmological gravitational wave signals, map the low-frequency gravitational-wave sky, and limit possible successor theories to Einstein’s theory of gravity.” 

Gravitational waves, which are ripples in the fabric of space-time, are created by pairs of black holes colliding and possibly by other cosmological phenomena. Their existence was theorized by Einstein’s general theory of relativity and is a component of how we fundamentally understand physics.  

The technique used to detect gravitational waves through pulsars—the most precise clocks of space—is called a pulsar timing array. Taylor describes the development of pulsar timing arrays as an effort to “hack the Milky Way galaxy to make a giant gravitational wave antenna, where we look for correlated timing wobbles of precisely timed pulsars spread across the galaxy, very much like seeing buoys on an ocean bob and sway in tune with each other when a wave passes by.”  

The wave periods he examines move in time increments of years to decades, making his work a long timescale experiment that has just begun to bear fruit—with some exciting breakthroughs expected within the next few years. 

“It was only five years ago that scientists first detected gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes. Now, with results coming in from LIGO and NANOGrav and the Event Horizon Telescope, it is a golden age for studying black hole astrophysics,” said M. Shane Hutson, chair of the department of physics and astronomy. “This NSF CAREER award for Stephen shows that he is an emerging leader in this exciting new field. With Stephen on board, and with continuing investments in math and physics faculty through the Vanderbilt Initiative for Gravity, Waves and Fluids (VandyGRAF), Vanderbilt is well positioned to be a major player in this new perspective on the universe.” 

The award also will support efforts to increase equity, diversity and inclusion among the researchers and students assisting Taylor. “The integrated educational dimension of this award will improve the participation in pulsar timing array science by underrepresented minority students, boost the gravitational wave research footprint of Middle Tennessee and leverage the existing Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program to greatly advance the field,” Taylor said. 

Taylor joined Vanderbilt as an assistant professor and Dean’s Faculty Fellow in 2019. After his undergraduate and graduate studies at Oxford and Cambridge in the U.K., respectively, Taylor was a NANOGrav Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology and a Caltech Postdoctoral Scholar and NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.