I’m from New Hampshire originally and attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, receiving a bachelor’s degree in physics. After that, I studied space plasma physics at the Earth and Space Sciences Department at UCLA, receiving my Ph.D. in 2012. I'm currently an NSF-AGS postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences Department. I study Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) plasma waves in the near-Earth space environment. These waves often occur in the same area as the radiation belts, a region of high energy electrons and ions. Understanding these waves is important, because they can create "killer electrons" by accelerating radiation belt electrons to energies that are high enough to seriously damage satellites. These electrons could potentially disrupt communications that rely on satellites, interrupting everything from ATM transactions to cell phone calls to GPS devices.
ULF waves are one aspect of the interaction between our Sun and the plasma in the near-Earth space environment. There are many other aspects, collectively studied in the field known as heliophysics. Shown at right is an artist’s conception (not to scale! – credit: NASA SDO website) of an eruption of plasma from the Sun’s surface, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), and its subsequent arrival at the Earth. Blue lines indicate the Earth’s magnetic field which is stretched and distorted by the plasma flowing out from the Sun, or the solar wind. CMEs lead to a number of different phenomena in the near Earth space, including ULF waves.
Killer electrons aren’t the only reason to study heliophysics. There is an emerging field called “space weather” that is closely linked with heliophysics. Space weather deals with changing conditions in the near Earth space environment. Many heliophysics phenomena, like CMEs and ULF waves, cause space weather. Why study space weather? There are many good reasons: preventing the exposure of astronauts and transpolar flights to excessive radiation exposure, mitigating damage to communications satellites during geomagnetic storms, prolonging the lifetime of satellites in low Earth orbit, preventing damage and disruption to the power grid…the list goes on (the figure on the left has a few more examples of how space weather affects our technology - credit: NASA). Read more here, and check out the current space weather.