Student’s Ionosphere Research Wins NSF Prize

An investigation of the ionosphere and its interactions with the Earth’s magnetic field netted a UT Dallas graduate student a prize at a competition sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for researchers who study the upper atmosphere.

Angeline Burrell won the Best Poster prize for ionosphere thermosphere research at the 25th annual NSF meeting on Coupling Energetic and Dynamics in Atmospheric Regions (CEDAR), held recently in Boulder, Colo. During the competition, students displayed posters of their research and defended their work with inquiries from professors, post-doctoral researchers and research scientists from government and industry institutions.

“I was surprised at the varied backgrounds of scientists who wanted to know more about what I was doing,” said Burrell, who is pursuing a PhD in physics under the guidance of Dr. Rod Heelis, the Cecil H. and Ida Green Chair in Systems Biology Science and director of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences.  “I got a lot of good suggestions as to what aspects of my work would be of most interest to different parts of the community.”

Burrell hopes to determine how plasma moves along the magnetic field lines in the ionosphere.  This upper layer of the atmosphere, which is made up of ions and electrons, interacts strongly with radio waves and can interfere with satellite signals.  Rather than studying storms or periods of high activity, however, she is focusing on quiet time behavior.  This is important for predictions because accurate specifications of the ambient conditions are necessary when modeling deviations from normal conditions.

“Our goal is to improve our characterization and prediction of ionospheric storms,” Burrell said.  “Since our society relies more and more on satellite communications and GPS, it’s important to be able to predict when storms in the ionosphere could affect our use of technology more than normal.”

A period of increasing solar activity that will peak in less than two years has scientists concerned about potentially catastrophic effects on these space-based communication and navigation systems.  The results of Burrell’s research could play a role in keeping those systems operational.

“Each year the NSF gives U.S. universities the opportunity to showcase the space science research that is being conducted by their students,” Heelis said.  “It is a tribute to the excellence of our program and our students that UT Dallas has been consistently recognized for our achievements in this area.  I am particularly proud of Angeline and all of our students who have taken the initiative to produce such high-quality presentations.”

This is the second year in a row that a UT Dallas student has won this competition.  Edgardo Pacheco, another of Heelis’ students, won last year with a poster titled “Quiet Time Latitudinal Variations of Ion drifts in the Ionosphere at Low and Middle Latitudes.”

“I was surprised when my name was announced,” Burrell said.  “I had joked that I had to win this year in order to keep up Dr. Heelis’ winning streak of student posters, but I certainly didn’t expect to have a chance until I was further along in my research.”

The research may help determine how plasma moves along magnetic field lines in the ionosphere. A graph illustrates how the loss of ions (green) and collisions with neutral particles (blue) can move the plasma along a magnetic field line (orange).

Increasing uses of satellite communications and GPS make it important to predict the impact of storms in the ionosphere, said doctoral physics student Angeline Burrell.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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