Institute Receives National Acclaim For Science Research
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 22:10
Huge photographs of Earth, maps of earthquake fault lines, and pictures of NASA explorations line the walls. Computer screens light up on a desk in the hall, which track signals from satellites in real time, collected from locations abroad, from Africa to South America. The Headquarters for the Institute for Scientific Research (ISR), located in Kenny Cottle Hall on Newton Campus, is vibrating with activity and excitement all day, yet many students are unaware of its existence.
The ISR was established in 1954 when professor Rene Marcou of the mathematics department was awarded a $5,000 contract from the Air Force to map the ionosphere and its effects on radio waves. This was the first government-sponsored research grant awarded to Boston College. More grants were given following the professor’s initial work in the ’50s, and the Institute was involved in analyzing satellite measurements from Sputnik and the U.S. Explorer satellites. Today, the Institute is the largest sponsored research center at BC.
The ISR employs a highly skilled team of over 50 scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and research associates who work on projects that involve space physics, space chemistry, solar-terrestrial research, space weather, and seismic studies. Some ISR scientists also support the space chemistry and plasma chemistry laboratories at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.
Over the last few years, the ISR has been granted between $6 and $7 million dollars annually for research endeavors and projects. Its main sponsors include the Air Force Research Laboratory, Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA, among many others.
Director of the Institute Patricia Doherty noted how current research is pertinent to people’s everyday lives. Technological systems like GPS, which were launched in the 1990s, are crucial in the lives of many.
“A lot of our research is centered on space weather. We study both the development and behavior of space weather and the applications that are affected by it,” Doherty said. “We do this by characterizing what goes on in the space environment and how it affects satellites, satellite signals, and the many technologies dependent on them. By knowing more about what’s going on with space weather, we can work to design protective measures.”
In simplified terms, Doherty explained that space weather refers to “the variable conditions on the Sun and in the space environment that can affect the performance of space-based and ground-based technological systems, as well as endanger life or health,” she said. “For example, space weather can significantly impact the electric power industry, aviation, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) applications, communication systems, satellites, and space flight.”
While a lot of its research is conducted in front of a computer screen and involves analyzing data, research is also hands-on. Currently, Doherty noted, the ISR has 28 contracts and grants from various sponsors.
The ISR at BC is nationally and internationally renowned as a research institution dedicated to space and earth-based scientific exploration.
Senior physicist Cesar Valladares is currently working on a project to design and deploy a network of ground-based scientific sensors across South America. Additionally, Doherty, Endawoke Yizengaw, and Keith Groves are collaborating with African universities to provide training in the use of satellite navigation for scientific exploration and for practical applications. Doherty noted that GPS is not only used to guide, but can also be used for purposes that are beneficial to society, such as for precision farming, mapping and surveying, and emergency location services.
Doherty was invited to the G8 convention for science, in which she had the opportunity to listen to people from underdeveloped nations talk about problems with education and science in their countries. “I was sitting there wondering what I could do for them,” Doherty said. After chatting with colleagues, she decided they could benefit from knowledge about GPS—something she and her coworkers had gotten to know intimately. “The point of the outreach program is to make them more knowledgeable so they can utilize that space infrastructure themselves,” Doherty explained. The ISR and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics collaborated to host a workshop on Satellite Navigation Science and Technology for Africa.
Doherty understands that historically, the ISR has been set apart from the university. When she took over as director, she was affected by the fact that the ISR had very little access to students and the academic world at BC. In the last few years, Doherty and the ISR have been consciously trying to change that. This past spring, the ISR moved its headquarters to Kenny Cottle Hall on Newton. This move has helped to centralize its operations and to augment its presence in the BC community. It currently employs three undergraduate students who are trained and help with research projects. Additionally, two Ph.D. candidates from the physics department joined the ISR to perform their thesis research.
“We felt that we were all so dependent on space satellite signals, that particularly the younger generation needs to know it is there. If your cell phones dies, why might that be happening?” she said. “Space weather is a new science and it only really became a science when we became so dependent on satellite-based technology. Humankind has embraced and been dependent on technology for many years. However, now that much of our technology is dependent on space infrastructure, such as the GPS satellite system, we are more concerned with space weather effects on our technologies.”