Engineer Lisa Poyneer inducted into Women’s Hall of Fame

April 14, 2010

Lisa Poyneer adjusts the mirrors used in a table top adaptive optics system. Photo by Bob Hirschfeld/LLNL (Download Image)

Engineer Lisa Poyneer inducted into Women’s Hall of Fame

LIVERMORE, Calif. — You could say that Lisa Poyneer is working to help astronomers see the stars 100 times better than ever before.

Her work in adaptive optics and the development of the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), which will be the world’s most powerful astronomical adaptive optics instrument, has earned her induction into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame in the science category.

She will receive her award on Saturday, April 17, during the 17th Annual Alameda County Women’s of Hall of Fame awards luncheon at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland.

Poyneer is one of the most promising scientists/engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). A signal processing and adaptive optics engineer, Poyneer was instrumental in the development of GPI, which will be completed in early 2011.

Adaptive optics clears the blurring effects of turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere when viewing stars. It corrects the wavefronts of light so that stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects gain resolution and contrast.

Nearly all of the extra-solar planets that have been discovered so far have been found indirectly (e.g. by the Doppler ‘wobble’ of the star’s light as the planet orbits it). But GPI -- or “gee-pie,” as the telescope is called -- will survey thousands of stars and take direct images of hundreds of planets.

GPI’s spectroscopic analysis of the light from these planets will allow astronomers to determine what extrasolar planets are made of (i.e. what chemicals are in their atmospheres) and refine theories of how they have formed.

Taking images of planets around other stars is an incredibly challenging task; Poyneer’s groundbreaking research was essential in winning the $24 million contract for the LLNL-led international team that is building the instrument. GPI’s adaptive optics system, using algorithms developed by Poyneer, will provide up to 100 times better performance than current systems.

She joins seven other current or past LLNL employees to be selected for the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame.

They include: Gina Bonanno, National Ignition Facility program manager; Pam Hullinger, LLNL’s chief veterinary officer; Dona Crawford, associate director for Computation; Hope Ishii, a physicist in the Lab’s Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics; Tammy Jernigan, Weapons and Complex Integration Principal Directorate chief of staff; Ellen Raber, leader of the Response and Recovery Program within the Global Security Principal Directorate; and Claire Max, now a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

Poyneer is an internationally recognized expert in her field, giving invited talks at conferences and publishing widely. Her work will directly enable a new era in the study of extra-solar planets in which astronomers take pictures of other worlds and can determine what they are made of.

Poyneer received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also won awards as the top female student and top engineering student. She is a 1999 Rhodes Scholar. She joined LLNL in 2001.

In addition to her outstanding work in adaptive optics, Poyneer is a strong supporter of scientific education. She regularly lectures on adaptive optics to college students and has been an instructor for youth at Expanding Your Horizons.