By Daniel Bates
W&J-educated physicists, neuroscientists, and even business administrators are making a significant impact on the country’s resurging space exploration – and life on Earth.
Somewhere roughly 265 miles out in space and traveling more than 17,000 miles per hour, the International Space Station (ISS) is passing once again over the earth. Alongside the astronauts inside are advanced scientific instruments and experiments that measure the earth’s health and future—and some with Washington & Jefferson College roots.
Physicist Charles Hill ’97, Ph.D., is co-principal of the NASA research team that developed one of the instruments on board: a human-sized device that measures aerosols, water vapor and other gases within the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere. Hill is proud, if a bit understated, of the device and its successes to date in space.
“There’s something not unsatisfying about seeing your hard work installed on the International Space Station,” he once told a group of scientists at a 2018 colloquium, according to a NASA newsletter.
Hill is one of several W&J graduates who have contributed substantially to a four-generation research program at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration called SAGE, or Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment. He also has given other W&J students their own unique opportunities to contribute space science.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is to have interesting problems to solve,” Hill says of his NASA projects. “It’s all an interesting environment [in space], and we learn something new every day.”
Hill stands among a growing class of W&J grads who, thanks in part to notable alumni before them, have leveraged their liberal arts educations to launch careers in space exploration at a time when space visionaries in the government and private sector are bringing the prospects of space travel to the moon, Mars and beyond back to life.
Today, W&J alumni are working to restore the earth’s ozone. They’re helping astronauts preserve their health as they travel into space. And they’re even supporting plans to map at least 300 different galaxies in search of the origins of the earth and life itself.
Physics as the “business of reality”
Hill found his way to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in 1994, several years before graduating from W&J. As a dual major in physics and mathematics, he landed a prestigious and highly competitive internship in the lab of Patrick McCormick ’62, Ph.D., who at the time was principal investigator of the atmospheric research program.
McCormick, a now-retired NASA physicist, helped pioneer the measurement of aerosols and ozone from space using LiDAR (light detection and ranging with rotating lasers) and later, a technique called solar and lunar occultation.
Hill learned during his internship with McCormick that the stratospheric ozone, which protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, had been shrinking due to the human production of chlorofluorocarbons (greenhouse gases often released from refrigerants, aerosols and cleaning products), smoke from forest fires, and heightened volcanic activity.
“I loved anything about foundational physics,” Hill says. “It’s about the basic business of reality – understanding life, the universe, and everything.”
A revolutionary mentor
McCormick, a Canonsburg, Pa., native, joined NASA in 1967 after earning his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary. At the time of Hill’s internship, McCormick and his team of scientists and engineers were building on the success of the past two and a half decades developing NASA’s SAGE program, along with four generations of instruments that could measure and track particles and ozone layer in the stratosphere from space.
The first iteration of the instrument – called SAM, for stratospheric aerosol measurement – had been carried into space in 1975 as part of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, in which American and Russian spacecraft docked together briefly in space.
“They had four orbits around the earth and made measurements for us,” McCormick says of the American spacecraft and the astronauts who made the historic flight. “We were elated. I was riding high. It was fantastic.”
The team then deployed SAM II on a research satellite called Nimbus 7, which was launched in October 1978. The newer instrument would measure ozone activity via polar stratospheric clouds over the arctic and Antarctic regions of the earth, which McCormick says other researchers eventually referred to as “Pat’s clouds.” The research led to a troubling discovery.
“All of a sudden, between winter in the Antarctic and spring, half of the ozone was gone,” says McCormick.
In October 1984, McCormick’s team sent its SAGE II ozone-measurement device into space aboard the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite. McCormick says the data collected led to the 1987 creation of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international agreement to reduce the use of man-made ozone-depleting particles. SAGE II continued to operate through 2005.
McCormick built an international reputation as a pioneer and leader in ozone measurement research and published more than 450 scientific papers over the years on his research efforts.
Carrying on the SAGE legacy
With guidance from his long-time mentor, Hill went on to work with NASA as co-principal investigator of the SAGE III, which made its way to the International Space Station aboard a Space X Dragon spacecraft in February 2017. Hill says the latest iteration, called SAGE IV, exponentially improves the instrument’s capabilities while reducing it from “the size of a human being to the size of a shoebox.”
While he’s an atmospheric physicist, Hill also has grown to become an instrument scientist, engineering electronics, optics and other instrumentation.
“Instrument science is important because if it’s not working, you’re not going to get data, and the mission is a failure,” Hill says. “The project we make is a data product, and we think of scientists out there as our customers.”
Mentoring the next generation
While McCormick is proud of his SAGE legacy, he also takes pride in setting the stage for the next generation of scientists. When he retired in 1996 after 30 years with NASA, he became an endowed professor and co-director of Hampton’s Center for Atmospheric Sciences, where he helped create a graduate program in atmospheric sciences. His professional relationship with Hill continued when the Hill became one of McCormick’s students, earning his Ph.D. in physics from Hampton University in 2009.
McCormick counts at least four W&J alumni among the Ph.D. students he has worked with over the years, including Kevin Leavor ’07, and Hill’s own brother, Michael Hill ’96, Ph.D., who currently serves as a research faculty member of Hampton University.
Meanwhile, Hill strives to carry on the mentoring legacy, bringing W&J students into the lab at Langley over the last several years. This summer, Thomas Nicewicz ’22 joined the ranks of students from M.I.T., Purdue, the University of Colorado and others as an intern in Hill’s research program. Nicewicz was one of only six students chosen for the program from more than a thousand applicants.
“NASA internships, fellowships and scholarships are considered one of the most prestigious science internship programs in the country,” Hill says. “We plunge them right into a professional level. As the science progresses, liberal arts majors seem to progress better because of their problem-solving, writing and better people skills.”
Radiation, rats, and keeping astronauts safe
Several hours away from Hill and the Langley Research Center, neuroscientist Katie Davis-Takacs ’04, Ph.D., conducts research for NASA that could ultimately allow NASA to protect future astronauts – particularly those who might eventually fly to the moon and Mars – from the potentially debilitating effects of low-dose, ionizing radiation exposure.
Davis-Takacs, who came to W&J from Charleroi, Pa., runs a new NASA-funded research program at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Bethesda, Md.-based Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (UHUHS) within the school’s Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Therapeutics. She also teaches pharmacology and neuroscience courses at the university.
“The majority of my work is focused on exposures in the context of space travel,” she says.
To do so, she studies the radiation sensitivities in rats that have been exposed to controlled levels of different types of low-level radiation – the kind that comes from galactic cosmic rays – to see how the exposures affect brain activity.
“I look at brain mechanisms – deficits in attention and memory. Solar particle events – we’re worried about that because we don’t have really good models to study such effects on brain behavior,” she says.
Davis-Takacs started this work at Johns-Hopkins University serving as a post-doc from 2009 to 2014 before becoming an assistant professor. This past year, she accepted the research and teaching position at USUHS and was able to transfer her NASA-funded research in support of the Defense Department’s new U.S. Space Force.
Aiming for the moon and Mars
Many questions remain as Davis-Takacs’s research continues, she says. The study seeks to gain a larger understanding of how the brain and central nervous system respond to radiation exposure.
Davis-Takacs is intrigued by the ramifications of her work to better understand low-dose radiation exposure, particularly as she considers variables such as differences in sex. The ultimate goal of her studies, she says, is to design personalized countermeasures.
“We’re on that track now, trying to find a compound that erases all the deficits and literally have a solution,” she says. “Our data are considered a deliverable because it helps inform a solution.”
NASA, she says, hopes to have astronauts back on the moon by 2024, and on Mars in 2034.
“There are going to be a lot more people in space,” Davis-Takacs says. “Our work is helping to inform their policies and helping them to understand the risks in the mission and what’s going to happen.”
Paying it forward
Like Hill and McCormick, Davis-Takacs takes an interest in mentoring W&J students. For the past two years, Julia Schaffer ’21 worked in the lab at Johns-Hopkins with Davis-Takacs as an intern, both in person and virtually. Schaffer collected and interpreted the data that emerged from the cognitive studies on the radiated rats, work which gave her an opportunity to present her findings at NASA conferences not once, but twice.
Schaffer, a neuroscience and Spanish major from Ebensburg, Pa., originally considered joining the Peace Corps after graduation, but was able to parlay her internship experience into a post-graduation, gap-year job as Davis-Takacs’ first paid research assistant at her new lab. As a Pre-Health student at W&J, Schaffer never previously considered the space industry but started her third stint of NASA-related work May 1.
“I didn’t really think about what impact space travel might have on my field,” Schaffer says. “It has opened my eyes to see that the brain and space aren’t mutually exclusive subjects. Katie was a trailblazer.”
Long-term, Schaffer still plans to become a doctor – possibly a neurologist, but the space research experience has made consider her path to get there. She currently is considering joining the U.S. Air Force as she pursues a medical degree.
Moon, Mars, and money
As Angela Watson ’08 discovered, one doesn’t have to graduate with a science or medical degree to make an impact on space research. As a business administration major at W&J, she originally envisioned a career immersed in budgets and big business, not deep space and the mysteries of the universe.
“I expected to work in a white-collar, corporate, business management career,” says Watson, a Claysville, Pa., native. “I never thought I’d be working in the space industry.”
Watson moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation to accept a position working for a government contractor – her first small step away from business. She then landed a position with a government contractor in Fairmont, W.Va., that managed a research facility connected to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Eventually, she made her way across the country to Los Angeles, where she ultimately took a job as a project resource analyst at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, managed by CalTech on behalf of NASA. There, she helps manage the budget for a sizable NASA space research mission.
More specifically, she is one of at least ten analysts supporting SphereX, a research project with plans to launch an orbiter satellite into space in 2024. The payload will include a spectro-photometer designed to map the entire sky.
The mission expects to collect data on more than 300 million galaxies and 100 million stars.
Its goals for the duration of the two-year mission include studying the potential origins of the earth, looking for water in the Milky Way galaxy, looking at light from 10 billion years ago, and searching for potential life afar in the universe.
Becoming an indoctrinated “space buff”
Watson and the other project resource analysts, meanwhile, manage the research spending.
“Right now, we’re at about $242 million – pretty large,” Watson says of the project’s budget. “We create a baseline budget, identify unexpected costs, and we have to make sure estimates are accurate. Then we keep all stakeholders, including project managers and scientists, informed.”
Watson acknowledges that she no longer sees herself working for big business.
“It’s very collaborative. Everyone is just so passionate about the mission,” Watson says of working with the team of scientists and engineers. “I have this whole new fascination with space and the science behind it. Now, I’m a total space buff.”
The Ozone According to Charles Hill
Years of studying the ozone from space and bringing global attention to the world’s ozone challenges have paid off, according to NASA physicist Charles Hill, Ph.D. ’97.
As an expert in atmospheric science, Hill has devoted his career to studying the effects of aerosols, both natural and man-made, on the ozone layer of the atmosphere.
“The ozone problem isn’t 100 percent resolved,” Hill says, “but the ozone decline has stopped, as far as we can tell, and possibly will recover by mid-century.”
He attributes much of the recovery to efforts such as the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which outlawed the production of chlorofluorocarbons following the alarming findings of a research project led by now-retired NASA physicist Patrick McCormick ’62.
However, Hill reminds people that natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions can blast enough sulfur dioxide particulates into the stratosphere to damage the ozone and effect weather and temperature changes.
“And don’t discount forest fires,” he says.
Still, Hill says he works hard to stay out of the politics of ozone and climate change.
“Despite the politics,” he says, “our goal is just to do science the way it ought to be done.”