Q&A with physics professor Mary Hudson

by Nalini Ramanathan | 8/18/17 2:30am

Professor Mary Hudson is a physics professor who served as chair of the physics and astronomy department for eight years. For her recent research on space radiation, Hudson was awarded the Fleming Medal by the American Geophysical Union, given annually to one honoree in recognition for “original research and technical leadership in geomagnetism, atmospheric electricity, aeronomy, space physics and/or related sciences.” She is currently working in Boulder, Colorado.

When you were young, how did you initially become interested in physics and astronomy?

MH: When I was a youngster, we didn’t have PBS, NOVA or Neil deGrasse Tyson, but Walt Disney had a weekly show on Sunday nights that had a science segment that was wonderful. The show had a book that came along with it that described the whole evolution of astronomy and chemistry going back to the Age of Exploration. I loved the show, and my parents got me the book that got me hooked on science at around age eight. I then became an amateur astronomer as a kid. I’m going to take my childhood telescope up to Wyoming next week, the very one I had throughout elementary and middle school. That was the start and I just stayed on that track forever. That was also the beginning of the Space Age and the astronauts going to the Moon, and all of that just furthered my interest in the near space environment, which is why I designed labs focusing on that.

Your work mainly focuses on “space weather,” or the Earth’s magnetosphere and atmospheric electricity. Why and how did you pick this focus?

MH: Coming from a background in physics, I was and still am interested in natural phenomena, in the near space environment and in the fact that I did my Ph.D. on it. When I was a postdoctoral student, I went up to the University of California Berkeley. They had just launched an Aurora satellite at that time, which studied the Aurora Borealis and studied the intergenic particles that caused the Aurora, and so I focused on that while I was at Berkeley because they had all of this wonderful data. And then after I came to Dartmouth, NASA and the Air Force were preparing to launch a satellite to study the radiation belt environment, and I got involved with that studying the dynamics of it and how solar activity affects the radiation belt. So there are big weather aspects of all of those topics, anything that affects communication, satellites in space. I’m working on that because I am interested in the natural phenomena that has a practical side to it.

Most of your studies were at the University of California Los Angeles. Why did you choose to work at Dartmouth?

MH: I was always interested in teaching and I taught a couple of classes at Berkeley while being a research assistant during the summer. I then had the opportunity to teach at a women’s college in Oakland and I really enjoyed that. So when my department at Dartmouth was searching for someone in my general research area, it was an opportunity to join the faculty.

Can you talk a little about your most recent work?

MH: I am involved with two different instruments on the Van Allen probes in August 2012, which involves a new generation of satellites. We’ve done a lot research on the pair of satellites basically chasing each other, but everything is newer — the information, the satellites and the computers are bigger. With my students, we have been modeling the evolution of the radiant belts in the current era as part of the climbing phase. What we want to do long-term is to better predict that the radiation is there. I was involved for the past 10 years with the Center for Integrated Space and Modeling, and I coordinated people.

You recently were awarded the Fleming Medal. How did it feel to be honored for your work?

MH: It was a great honor to receive the medal, which means people in other fields are weighing in on who gets the award. I’ve been in the American Geophysical Union since graduate school, which was a long time ago, so it’s nice at this point in my career to get the award because it’s recognition by my colleagues who are also working hard, and I appreciate the efforts they put into writing letters and nominating me for the award.

I know that physics and astronomy are typically male-dominated fields. How did you deal with that at the beginning? What role do you think that played in your career?

MH: When I was a freshman, I was the only woman in my class at UCLA. And then finally when I was a junior, a woman transferred in from Long Island Community College, so then there were two of us. And then when I was a graduate student, I was back to being the only woman in the class again. But times have changed, and I’m really very appreciative of my colleagues at Dartmouth and the support for hiring more women. Over eight years, we’ve hired several women. We now have four of us, if I’m counting right: myself, Robyn Millan, Lorenza Viola and Kristina Lynch. And in a department our size, it’s been about that number for at least 15 years now. At that time, when we started hiring more women in my department, much larger physics departments around the country didn’t have more than that. And so our percentage was substantially higher. I think it’s had an impact on the percentage of undergraduate students in our department, and I hope it’s had some impact on our percentage of majors. We’re still not up there with the Thayer School of Engineering that managed to graduate more women A.B. engineering majors than men — that’s really remarkable. But it’s certainly changed. I think it’s always been a little better in space physics and astronomy than it has been in some laboratory physics. Historically, there have been women astronomers going back a long time. And I just think that for some reason, observational science tends to attract more women. And that could be one aspect of it, or the patience that it takes to observe the same kind of phenomenon night after night after night. And then now, with the growing rates of computational modeling, which is what I did in my career, there’s always been a pretty strong presence of women in math, more so than in physics. And so I think that again, the computational modeling side of things has attracted more women than maybe just some of the laboratory area specifics.

So, what kind of role do you try to play as a professor at Dartmouth? I know you don’t teach anymore, but like you were talking about earlier, you’re still involved with graduate students. Can you give me an overview of how you’d describe that role?

MH: Currently, I have my post-doc, and she was my grad student. In terms of mentoring students, you know what I have now? I have grandchildren. I have biological grandchildren, and I’ve had some wonderful students that I have interacted with who are the students of my former students. And so the fact that I get to continue to interact with them outside the Dartmouth community, that’s been an amazing thing I’ve really enjoyed.

Where do you see your career going in a few years? Is there anything you’d like to study next, or any impacts you’d like to have?

MH: Well, I’m really enjoying the time that I’m spending at the High Altitude Observatory at NCAR — that’s the National Center for Atmospheric Research here in Boulder, Colorado. And it’s a very vibrant community in my field. I’ve sent a number of former students here, who have established a research group here in Boulder. A couple over at the university, and others at NOAA — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And so I was just looking to continue interacting with the people here, and oversee the grad students I currently have completing their Ph.D.s. And I’ll be involved in the Van Allen probe project, which should end probably in 2020, I’m guessing. And so I just do what I do everyday, and I haven’t really thought about particularly stopping. I have no plans to stop what I do because I enjoy it, and I think that’s the kind of career everybody hopes for.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MH: I’ve tremendously enjoyed the opportunity to teach Dartmouth students. I realized that I was there longer than anywhere. My husband and I realized I was there for a third of a century. I’m grateful for having had that opportunity, and then also having to be back out West again most of the time, which is where I’m from.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.