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Ron Allen (1940–2020)

Allen was a pioneer in the field of radio astronomy and the physics of the interstellar medium in galaxies from radio, optical, and far-ultraviolet observations. He spent most of his career at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Published onOct 02, 2020
Ron Allen (1940–2020)

Ron Allen died on Saturday the 8th of August, 2020.

With the passing of Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer Ron Allen the greater scientific community has lost a brilliant research astronomer and deeply respected mentor.

Ron was a pioneer in the field of radio astronomy and the physics of the interstellar medium in galaxies from radio, optical, and far-ultraviolet observations. He inspired countless young astronomers to always “look at the physics first” and to seek answers to the universe’s most interesting questions.

Ron joined the Institute in 1989 and held various management positions until his retirement in December, 2019. Before his retirement, Ron worked most recently in the Science Mission Office and was responsible for the Hubble and Giacconi Fellowship programs. He was known to be very supportive and thoroughly enjoyed working with the fellows.

For some time Ron co-chaired the Institute’s Research Support Advisory Committee, which awards Director’s Discretionary Research Funds to Institute astronomers. In this role, Ron is remembered as being a high-level, strategic thinker. Ron was able to keep the larger picture in mind with every decision he made both as a part of this committee and in his own teaching and research.

“He was very direct and always was able to cut out the surrounding noise to get to the most essential information within a complex idea," remembered longtime colleague and observatory scientist Anand Sivaramakrishnan. “Ron was able to ignore what was not important and focus on what would advance the Institute’s reputation and reach.”

Ron played a key part in awarding funds to the team that led the development of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which gave new life to Hubble and has subsequently ushered in countless scientific discoveries since its installation.

Ron completed his undergraduate work in physics in 1962 at the University of Saskatchewan. He went on to receive his PhD from MIT in 1967. Ron held postdoctoral positions at the Kapteyn Institute, Groningen, before becoming a Lecturer there in 1972, and then a Professor in 1980. He moved to become the head of the department of astronomy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1985 before arriving at STScI.

Ron also served as an Adjunct Professor and graduate lecturer on “Fourier Optics and Interferometry in Astronomy” in the Physics and Astronomy Department of Johns Hopkins University. Sivaramakrishnan, who co-taught the course with Ron for many years, remembers him as a highly approachable and nurturing mentor who motivated his students to always seek answers to the interesting, important questions.

“He was always finding ways to challenge people to do their utmost by saying, ‘What more can you get out of this, how much more can you do?’” Sivaramakrishnan said. “And the way he did it was very nonthreatening and brought out people to do extremely good work.”

Ron was a respected researcher published in 18 invited review papers (16 as the first author), more than 100 papers in refereed journals (33 as the first author), and more than 66 papers in conferences and media (24 as the first author).

According to Dr. Colin Norman, a longtime colleague, Ron was particularly proud of the four Nature covers, and their associated groundbreaking studies, framed on his office wall.

Ron’s research over the years focused on spiral galaxies, and he is specifically remembered for his work on neutral hydrogen gas in the Andromeda galaxy.

Rosa Gonzalez-Lopezlira, Ron’s former postdoc student and Laurent Loinard, a former PhD student of Ron’s, worked closely with him at the Institute in the 1990’s. They both remember Ron for his generosity and feel lucky to have had a supervisor that always made time for their questions.

“Ron was incredibly busy with his various responsibilities, but always found the time to work with us through our studies,” Gonzalez-Lopezlira recalled.

In addition to fostering relationships within the context of his research, Ron was known as quite the Renaissance man who enjoyed what the world had to offer. A speaker of several languages, including Dutch and French, Ron made the most of any free time during various travels to observatories throughout the world. Ron even dabbled in amateur aviation during his time spent abroad.

“He could spend many hours working and being very serious about what needed to be done, but there was always something more to the trip,” Loinard said. “If it was the French Alps, we skied. He just loved to enjoy the culture.”

For many years Ron raised a small flock of sheep on his Northern Baltimore County property.

Ron was most recently focused on research surrounding dark, cold molecular gas in spiral galaxies, which his students will continue.

It was known that Ron felt lucky to be able to get paid to do what he loved, but in fact, we were the lucky ones to have felt his impact.

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