Princeton Junction Native Wins Prestigious Hertz Fellowship

October 12, 2006

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- OCTOBER 12, 2006 Even as a child gazing at the mysterious dark sky through a telescope, James Wray reached for the stars. The 22-year old Princeton Junction native and future astronomer is one of 15 students selected from more than 670 across the country to receive a full five-year fellowship from the prestigious Fannie and John Hertz Foundation to support his research in planetary science and outer space exploration at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Ive always been excited by the idea that life may exist on other planets, both in our solar system and beyond, Wray says. I will join the scientific search for life on other planets, because answering this most basic question has such profound implications for life on Earth. Wray will use his Hertz Fellowship to study planets under Steve Squyres, PhD, professor of astronomy at Cornell and principal investigator for the renowned Mars Exploration Rover project.

Of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, Hertz Fellows receive up to $240,000 each in support to pursue their own scientific interests with the best academicians at top research universities in the United States. This no-strings-attached support gives Hertz Fellows financial independence from the constraints many graduate students face of having to choose a university or a research project because of its funding.

After a competitive application process, Hertz Fellows are chosen for their creativity and leadership as well as for their achievements in science, says John Holzrichter, PhD, Hertz Foundation president. These young people represent the future of science in America, and the results of their research will make a significant contribution to the ongoing spirit of innovation in this country.

Wrays earliest memories include reading Ranger Rick magazines with awe, particularly an issue dedicated to the alien world of the island of Madagascar. An explorer at heart, Wray imagined alien worlds in outer space, and after a star-gazing trip with his father became inspired by the great night sky he saw. Realizing that I was looking at galaxies two million light years away was so spectacular to me; it made me want to learn more about what else could be out there, Wray reflects.

In his research, Wray plans to use data and high-resolution images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to search for evidence for (or against) past environmental conditions on Mars that would have been suitable for life to exist there. He envisions a career in research that he hopes will culminate in a leadership role on a future NASA mission related to astrobiology.

During a recent NASA Academy program at the Goddard Space Flight Center, located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Wray designed a concept for a robotic lander for a mission to Saturns moon Enceladus. Other previous research includes a stint at the University of Hawaii as part of a National Science Foundation program, where Wray researched planetesimal debris disks matter leftover from the formation of planets -- around low-mass stars using pre-existing data and large telescopes on Mauna Kea volcano, on Hawaiis Big Island.

Even though his academic achievements are out of this world, Wray is pretty down to earth when it comes to other interests. He offered his voice to books-on-tape recordings for special needs children, including those who are blind or dyslexic, because reading opens up a whole new world for kids, he says. Wray also joined a fundraising effort started by one of his friends to provide clothing and school supplies to New Jersey-area children in need.

Wray is a 2002 graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction, N.J.. He holds a bachelor of arts in astrophysics and engineering physics from Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., where he graduated summa cum laude in 2006. Previous honors include being named a National Merit Scholar, a Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholar and an Edward J. Bloustein Distinguished Scholar. Wray has also received a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship, the Soffen Leadership Award from the NASA Academy, and the Princeton Sigma Xi Book Award for Astrophysical Sciences. Wrays father, David Wray, is a private practice attorney in Princeton Junction, and his mother, Patricia Wray, a former Broadway dancer and actress, is currently a drama teacher for Princeton High School. Wray has a younger brother, Jeffrey, who is attending Princeton High School.