Athena Ng was a young scientist of huge potential

2 December 2023

She died, at the age of 22, in October of this year.

Cheuk Nga Athena Ng was born in Hong Kong and attended Ying Wa Girls’ School. She was a brilliant student, excelling not only in science subjects but also in languages. Her abilities were many and varied. For example, she was also a talented flautist and singer, passing the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music at the highest grade.

In 2017 and 2018, she attended the Astronomical Training Programme for Secondary Students organised by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Astronomical Society and the Hong Kong Space Museum, returning to the programme afterwards as a group leader. This programme included “stargazing camps” and it is clear that her ambitions were set high in every sense. Indeed, in 2019 she participated in the Young Astronaut Training Camp organised by the Hong Kong Space Museum.

In 2018, she achieved a distinction in mathematics and physics in the Secondary School Mathematics and Science Competition organised by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

With her natural ability in the sciences, Athena could have chosen any subject to study. Inexorably drawn towards exploring the fundamentals of the universe, she chose to study physics with astrophysics and cosmology at King’s College London.

During 2020, she found time to be a student research assistant at the University of Hong Kong, where she carried out research on particle physics.

But her passion for science never distracted Athena from making use of her other abilities and from putting something back into the community she came from. For instance, in the summer of 2021, she joined the a volunteer project organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. Here, she was an English tutor for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The staff at the Federation remember her as cheerful, positive, and highly responsible. She coped calmly and patiently with the ever-changing demands made upon the volunteers due to the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic and showed real leadership ability for someone of such a young age.

Back at King’s College London, she continued to excel, despite having to deal with all the disruptions caused by the pandemic while living so far from home. Her final-year project was entitled Rotating Supermassive Black Holes. The professor who led her project group commented that “Athena’s performance in this project was outstanding,” noting her ability to “think beyond what she had been given”. She was active, engaged, and able to study independently of supervision, even when grappling with very difficult, highly technical subjects.

Athena graduated with first-class honours from King’s College London in 2022, a tremendous achievement at any time, but especially during the pandemic years. She then moved across London to study an MSc in Physics at Imperial College. Her teachers there speak very warmly of her very constructive attitude towards learning and her great determination and enthusiasm for her subject. Her questions were insightful and would often transcend the specifics of the topic at hand.

Athena achieved a distinction for her dissertation project on simulating gravitational wave signals from binary mergers. The academics who worked with her at Imperial were united in recognising her as a student of great promise, one who would excel in her PhD studies.

Athena received her acceptance from the University of Manchester to begin her PhD in October this year, building on the foundation of her studies at King’s College and Imperial. Her research topic was on supermassive black holes and nuclear star clusters, aiming to use machine learning to develop a new way of describing them and thereby gain insights into the formation of early galaxies.

To support her studies, she applied to Croucher Foundation. “The competition for Croucher Scholarships is very fierce. But when we met Athena at the interview, we could see that she was a talented and passionate young scientist with huge potential who we were happy to support”, commented Professor Vivian Yam, a Trustee of Croucher Foundation. “At Croucher, we are deeply saddened at her tragic passing, and our thoughts remain with her family and friends.”

Her tragically early death leaves a huge gap in the lives of all who knew her.