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Astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi has been awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for her research on neutron stars.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

A McGill University astrophysicist known for her exacting studies of some of the strangest and most powerful stars in the universe has won the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, Canada's top science prize.

Victoria Kaspi, director of the McGill Space Institute, is the first woman to claim the prestigious award in its 25-year history, a startling reminder of the overwhelming gender imbalance that persists at the highest levels of Canadian academia.

"I think this is a very important moment," said Mario Pinto, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which administers the prize. "It signals to girls and young women that science is exciting and it's possible to achieve the highest honour."

A dearth of female professors in science faculties across Canada helps explain why it has taken so long for a woman to win the Herzberg gold medal, Dr. Pinto said. Women account for only 14 per cent of the scientists who receive funding from the research council at the full professor level, and only 9 per cent when the life sciences are excluded.

Dr. Kaspi is scheduled to receive the medal during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday. The occasion also marks the first time a McGill researcher has won the award.

Dr. Kaspi specializes in the study of neutron stars, unimaginably dense and rapidly spinning stellar cores that are created when massive stars go supernova. Because they are subjected to intense gravitational and magnetic fields, they make excellent natural laboratories for studying the laws of physics under extreme conditions.

"You try to listen to what they're telling you and make a coherent story of it," Dr. Kaspi said.

Relying on a global network of radio telescopes and X-ray satellites for her data, she can access much of what she needs from her professional home base on the second floor of a graceful stone house that is part of the McGill campus. With its arched windows and a mansard roof, the institute's headquarters still retains the flavour of a well-to-do family residence from an earlier epoch in Montreal history.

"A lot of people come in and say it doesn't look spacey at all. It looks so homey," she said. "But that's what a space institute is supposed to be about – interacting, discussing and thinking – and so you want to make it a place where people want to be."

Spearheaded by Dr. Kaspi and officially launched last October, the institute is meant to bring together researchers across a range of disciplines to work on space-related questions.

Her own work has benefited from such collaboration. Last spring she was awarded $2.2-million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to augment a cosmology experiment that was already under construction in British Columbia so that she can study an enigmatic class of celestial phenomena called fast radio bursts.

The bursts are powerful flashes of radio energy that only last for milliseconds and are generally thought to be located far outside our own galaxy. They are a cosmic mystery in search of a solution, which Dr. Kaspi said is "like being handed a present."

Born in Austin, Tex., where her father was completing a PhD in Hebrew literature, Dr. Kaspi spent her earliest years in the United States and Israel. But when she was seven years old, the family settled in her mother's hometown of Montreal.

She grew up loving hockey in the era of Guy Lafleur and had no particular interest in space or astronomy. But she adored logic and mathematical puzzles and, when she took her first computer science course as a teenager, she was hooked.

She studied physics at McGill and expected to work on particles when she went to graduate school at Princeton University. Instead, she became interested in the work of astrophysicist Joe Taylor, whose measurements of an orbiting pair of neutron stars indirectly demonstrated the existence of gravitational waves. (The first direct detection of gravitational waves was announced just last week.)

Dr. Taylor would later win the Nobel Prize. As a graduate student in his research group, Dr. Kaspi soon became absorbed by the scientific possibilities of neutron stars.

"She was really keen to get involved quickly," said David Nice, a friend and an astrophysicist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who was also a graduate student under Joe Taylor and remembers Dr. Kaspi's enthusiasm for gathering data and taking on interesting scientific questions.

After receiving her PhD, she worked for a time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but eventually returned to McGill and Montreal, the city where she feels most at home and where her scientific output has flourished.

At a weekly pizza lunch with her graduate students, Dr. Kaspi catches up on projects and plans, and the group discusses the latest observations. It's clear the field is moving fast. The conversation is lively and inclusive, like a family meal.

Life is just as busy at home, where Dr. Kaspi and her husband, cardiologist David Langleben, are parenting three school-age children. That leaves little time for much else, Dr. Kaspi admitted, adding that she tends to work late into the night when she can concentrate on her research.

She agrees that universities still need to do better in supporting female faculty members so that they aren't forced to choose between professional success and family life.

"You need flexibility," she added. "Research is not a 9-to-5 job. You get inspired, you have an idea, you're dying to solve it, and within the confines of all these constraints that are imposed on you, it's hard."

Dr. Kaspi, now 48, says she "lucked out" in being spared from overt sexual harassment as a young researcher – a topic that is currently rocking the astronomical universe, along with other fields, following a series of resignations of prominent male scientists in the U.S. But as an administrator and mentor, she has become increasingly sensitive to gender issues on campus.

Christine Wilson, a McMaster University astronomer and president of the Canadian Astronomical Society, praised Dr. Kaspi's selection as this year's the gold medal winner.

"Vicky is an outstanding scientist and an international leader who is eminently deserving of this national recognition," Dr. Wilson said. "The fact that she is the first woman ever to receive the Herzberg Medal is the icing on the cake for me."

Other scientists recognized this year at the annual ceremony include earth scientists Barbara Sherwood Lollar of the University of Toronto, who will receive the Polanyi award for her recent work on ancient water found deep in Earth's crust. Biochemist Shana Kelley and materials researcher Ted Sargent, also of U of T, have been jointly named winners of the Brockhouse prize for interdisciplinary research for developing a device that can provide on-the-spot medical diagnostics.