With NSF support, Colleges of Sciences and Engineering will collaborate to hire a researcher focused on solar-terrestrial science and space weather.

Georgia Tech’s Colleges of Engineering and Sciences have been chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to hire a new faculty member focused on solar-terrestrial science and space weather research. The NSF is prioritizing a national need in geospace physics and selected Georgia Tech from a pool of national universities.

“Space weather has many societal implications, including dangers to the power grid, the aviation sector, satellite lifetimes, communications, and navigation,” said Morris Cohen, professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and the grant’s co-principal investigator. “However, the number of qualified graduating students interested in this area is not sufficient to meet the future demand. This is especially true as the generation of professionals trained during the space race of the 1960s and ‘70s continues to retire.”

NSF will fund the position for five years and $1.5 million. The grant is led by Susan Lozier, dean of the College of Sciences and Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair. She and Cohen are joined by Raheem Beyah, dean of the College of Engineering and Southern Company Chair, and Glenn Lightsey, the John W. Young Chair in the Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering (AE)

The two Colleges relied heavily on their strength in space research and Georgia Tech’s culture of multidisciplinary collaborations in the NSF application. These traits will allow Georgia Tech to conduct a unique search process. Instead of one unit making the hire as is typical in higher education, leaders from four schools will team up with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) for the search process. It’s an approach that addresses a nationwide problem in the field. 

“Decades ago, space physics largely fell within electrical engineering,” Beyah said. “These days, it’s highly interdisciplinary and typically has no true home — faculty are often scattered across aerospace engineering, applied physics, and earth sciences.”

Beyah said that a few universities have a large cluster of space physics faculty as a result. Many others have none. He said this limits the pipeline of future space science professionals because a substantial fraction of students has little or no exposure to the field. 

Georgia Tech is right in the middle, with a presence in solar-terrestrial science and space weather research but not a large cluster of faculty members. The new hire will allow Tech to reach more students interested in the field. Georgia Tech also pointed to its Vertically Integrated Projects program as a mechanism to get many new students involved in the new hire’s research. 

According to Loziersolar-terrestrial science and space weather encompass at least four buckets: advanced theory and simulations that span the extremes of physics; big data and machine learning; innovative tools to collect new types of measurements; and operational needs in industry and defense, which motivate translation of research into real-world practice. 

“This breadth has hampered faculty growth in this area, as it has other interdisciplinary research fields like quantum computing and neuroscience,” Lozier said. “These areas straddle pure science and engineering, which often are separate in university hierarchy. We believe these interdisciplinary aspects of geospace science should be celebrated. More importantly, we believe they can be turned into a strength.”

Representatives from AE, ECE, GTRI, the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and the School of Physics will form the hiring committee. The hire will complement Georgia Tech’s February announcement of a new Space Research Initiative. Once the NSF-funded position is filled, the Colleges will collectively fund and search for a second faculty member in the field.