Ralph Nicholls Award

The Ralph Nicholls graduate award in science communication

The Ralph Nicholls Graduate Award is to be given by the Physics and Astronomy Graduate Executive (PAGE), and is funded by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in memory of Dr. Ralph Nicholls who founded the Graduate Program in Physics and Astronomy in 1965. The award was suggested and established in 2008 by Alireza Rafiee and Edward Ackad and with the help and support from Ms. Marlene Caplan, Dr. Marshall McCall, and Dr. A. Kumarakrishnan, to recognize outstanding science presentation skills in the field of Physics and Astronomy. No restrictions are placed on a candidate’s citizenship or country of residency as long as they are registered in the York Graduate Program in Physics and Astronomy. The certificate comes with a $100 cash award and is presented to the recipient at the end of the annual PAGE conference. The recipient is chosen by PAGE during the one day PAGE conference. Members of PAGE are not eligible.

Mandatory Presentation Criteria:
1. The presentation must be original.
2. The presentation must fit the time requirements of the conference (15 minutes plus 5 minutes for questions).
3. External information, diagrams, and figures should be clearly identified and acknowledged.

Suggested Presentation Criteria:
1. The topic should be sufficiently focused and adapted appropriately for the audience at the 3rd year undergraduate level in either Physics or Astronomy.
2. The presentation should have a clear sense of purpose or application.
3. The presentation should have a clearly identifiable and appropriate design, with an introduction and conclusion.
4. It should make effective use of transitions, previews and summaries.
5. It should be presented with poise and at appropriate pace.
6. It should be a polished presentation that artfully integrates verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
7. It should demonstrate clear communication skills with a dexterous use of language.
8. It should create and sustain attention throughout the presentation.


The Ralph Nicholls Graduate Award Recipients:
2015: Mr. George Conidis
2014: Mr. Jesse Rogerson
2013: Mr. Bin Jian
2012: No PAGE conference was held
2011: Mr. Mark Wurtz
2010: Mr. Ephrem Chemali
2009: Mr. Jesse Rogerson
2008: Ms. Xiaoyi Dong (Sunne)

The Ralph W. Nicholls, In Memoriam (1926-2008)

Ralph W. Nicholls (OC, FRSC), Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York University in Toronto, died peacefully in his sleep, on January 25, 2008 at the age of 81 years. Nicholls was born in Surrey, England in 1926 and graduated from Imperial College, London where he obtained his Ph.D. and D.Sc. degrees and for a time (1945-48) served as Senior Lecturer. In 1948 he was appointed to the Physics Department at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), and one of his first acts must have been to join the CAP, as he has been a supportive member since that year. At UWO he established a theoretical and experimental group focused on the determination of transition probabilities in molecular systems. In 1950 he gave a paper on this work to a very small Saturday morning audience of the American Physical Society in Cleveland and after his talk one of the members of the audience, Nate Gerson of the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, asked him if he would like a contract to extend the scope of his work. Gerson had a mandate to establish auroral research in North America, and recognized the value of the transition probability research to this enterprise. He implemented contracts to other Canadian universities as well, as he described in Physics in Canada 40, 308, 1984. Nicholls in turn wrote an obituary for Gerson in PIC, the March/April issue, 2002. This link not only provided Nicholls with ample funds to build up a thriving group, but also altered his outlook beyond “classical spectroscopy” to its many application areas, of which the upper atmosphere and the aurora became the first. One of Nicholls’ first tasks under this contract was to organize an international Auroral Physics Conference, where in 1951 the leading scientists in the field worldwide, many from the Scandinavian countries, were brought to the UWO campus. This brought him to the forefront on this subject, and established his reputation as a scientist and organizer.
In 1965 he was enticed to move to the new York University campus on Keele Street, Toronto, where he established the Department of Physics and the Physics Graduate Programme, acting as Chair for both from 1965-1969. His wife Doris joined and helped to build the Biology Department. During this time he appointed all of the original physics faculty members, and designed the Petrie Science Building. However, he recognized that the space age had begun in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1, and “space” became his new focus. Thus he founded two partner entities, the Graduate Programme in Experimental Space Science and the Centre for Research in Experimental Space Science (CRESS). In his early years at York he launched rockets to measure the ultraviolet spectrum of the aurora, and added faculty members with space interests, building up an internationally recognized research centre.
In 1971 when the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing was created Ralph Nicholls recognized another important application of spectroscopy, soon making this a part of CRESS. At about the same time, York University began a program in Earth Science, and CRESS was adapted to this by changing its name to the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science; Nicholls continued as its Director until 1992. In 1986 he initiated discussions within this group that led to the formation of an Ontario Centre of Excellence on the York University campus, the Institute for Space and Terrestrial Sciences. From 1985 onwards he was a member of a number of space mission teams, including SPEAM 1 that was operated by Marc Garneau during his first flight. In more recent years his interest in radiative transfer increased and he with his collaborators, including those at Defence Research Establishment Valcartier, created spectral synthesis code and spectroscopic atlases. The latter occupied his time to the end of his career.
His enormous energy extended well beyond the York University campus. He held visiting professorships at the US National Bureau of Standards, and at Stanford University, and was visiting lecturer at the NASA Ames Research Center. He served on many national and international committees. Internationally he was involved with the International Astronomical Union, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics and the Americal Physical Society and was the Canadian Observer on the NASA Space and Earth Sciences Working Group on the Scientific Uses of the Space Station. Nationally he chaired the NRC joint sub-committee on Space Astronomy (1974-80), the NRC Associate Committee on Space Research (1984-85) and the Canadian Advisory Committee on the Scientific Uses of Space Station. He was Editor of the Canadian Journal of Physics from 1986-1992. He also received numerous honours, including the Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada (1978), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), and the Order of Canada in 1997.
Ralph Nicholls’ door was always open, especially to young scientists, and he worked hard to improve their security in the universities. He offered his advice and support freely, and in so doing created enduring relationships. The number of lives he influenced is enormous. He will be remembered with respect and affection by all.

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