"It was the novelty of the project. I had an idea that there was now enough archive material from the Hubble Space Telescope and other large telescopes to spot these stars before they had exploded," said Stephen Smartt, a lecturer at Belfast University's astrophysics and planetary science division.
Last week, Dr Smartt's stellar idea landed him a five-year, €1.4 million (£830,000) research grant from the European Science Foundation as part of the European Young Investigators (Euryi) awards scheme.
Astronomers have so far identified only four "progenitor" stars, which subsequently exploded into supernovae. In a research area where cash is scarce, Dr Smartt hopes his windfall will help him spot at least 30 more progenitor stars by working backwards from data on supernovae.
Dr Smartt is one of four British researchers who have netted a total of £3 million from the Euryi awards. This year, 25 winners were selected from 622 entrants from across Europe.
"These are probably the most attractive awards anywhere in the world for someone at my career stage who wants to start a world-leading research group. It's very difficult to get this sort of funding over five years," Dr Smartt said.
The Euryi scheme is an open competition, now in its third year, funded by national research organisations from 16 European countries. It provides resources so that young scientists can build up research groups. The awards recognise potentially groundbreaking research programmes with a good chance of succeeding and improving the global position of European research.
Matthew Bate, a lecturer at Exeter University's School of Physics, won £19,000 from Euryi to further his work on how planets form. He said: "I knew the competition would be very tough. Each stage after I got through, I thought it would be over. I felt it was a great thing just getting past the first barrier. But when I was shortlisted for the final interview stage, it was hard not to let my hopes run high."
The prize will allow Dr Bate to do less teaching and spend more time modelling planet formation on Exeter's new £750,000 supercomputer. "It will allow me to work full time on research for the next five years and will also allow me to build a team of postdocs and PhDs around me."
The other winners from the UK were Andrei Khlobystov of Nottingham University, for his work on nanostructures, and Dario Alf of University College London, who has pioneered work on understanding the Earth's core.