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Going for the Glow

Cecilia Gaposchkin
Janie Scull '09 (left) and Kristina Lynch build circuit boards for rockets. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Janie Scull '09 has discovered that rocket science is nothing like she expected.

"Things have to be taken one step at a time," she says. "There's so much detail. It surprised me to learn that the rocket isn't scheduled to be launched until at least next winter, but now I understand why we've started so much earlier than that."

Scull works with Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kristina Lynch on researching the Northern Lights, the auroral glow that sometimes appears in the night sky. That glow comes from the activity of electrons hitting the air in the atmosphere. The lights, especially visible in Alaska, Norway, Canada, and Russia, also have a southern hemisphere equivalent.

"We're learning about the auroral environment," says Lynch. "We build rockets equipped with sensors that we launch into the aurora to measure electrons and ions, and capture information about the electrical and magnetic fields."

It's part of the effort to understand how the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere interact with the lower reaches of the plasma environment of space. This has implications for understanding the near-earth space environment, where satellites roam, and, according to Lynch, it's a beautiful locale to learn about plasma physics.

Scull joined Lynch's laboratory as an intern with the Women in Science Project (WISP), a program established in 1990 to address the underrepresentation of women in science, mathematics, and engineering.

"It seemed like a great opportunity to get first-hand experience not only working there myself but also making connections with people who work there for a living," she says.

Lynch likes the fact that first-year students gain exposure to science as a profession. She says it's a good way to introduce them to the research process very early in their college careers.

"The students in the lab keep us moving by asking questions and making us explain what we're doing. Often this provides a great deal of insight as I talk about why I do what I do," says Lynch.

"I've been in charge of organizing and ordering the parts that will be needed to put together the electrical boards for the rocket," says Scull. "I've already experienced and learned many things that I couldn't have gotten in a classroom setting. I've just recently finished putting together my first two boards, and I think it's neat to be able to hold in my hand the product of my work this semester."

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 5/30/08