Sky’s the Limit for This Yellow Jacket

News Story categories: Alumni Astrophysics Mathematics Physics
A headshot of Hayley Williamson. Her arms are crossed and she is standing in front of white board on which math equations are written in blue and purple ink.

Early December in Kiruna, Sweden is not the time or place to catch a tan. The average temperature is minus-11 degrees Celsius, and locals experience just over an hour of sunlight each day—if they’re lucky. At any rate, winter in the country’s northernmost town offers unparalleled views of the northern lights, something Dr. Hayley Williamson ’13 has paused to appreciate every chance she gets since arriving in Kiruna more than two years ago. 

In fact, Williamson—a researcher at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF)—has a history of braving the cold in pursuit of the stars.

“I remember it getting quite cold at night in Keeble Observatory in January,” she said, reflecting on her semester spent working in the observatory alongside her advisor, Dr. George Spagna, Associate Professor Emeritus of Physics and Director Emeritus of the Keeble Observatory.

As an undergraduate, Williamson—a Math and Physics double-major and Astrophysics minor—completed two summer internships at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, during which she had the opportunity to crunch numbers from a spacecraft that orbited Venus.

“Those internships were my first exposure to planetary science that was different from astronomy,” Williamson said. “Spacecraft data, not telescope data. In situ measurements rather than remote observations. I was hooked.” Following Spagna’s guidance, Williamson went on to earn a Ph.D. in engineering physics from the University of Virginia, where she received a coveted Jefferson Fellowship, the university’s premier graduate fellowship.

Today, Williamson’s current interests involve studying how different atmospheres are affected by solar winds. At IRF she spends her days combing through data collected from Rosetta, the first spacecraft to follow a comet’s orbit around the Sun on a mission that lasted more than 12 years.

“Comets are really interesting to look at to see how the interaction of atmospheres and the Sun changes with the size of the atmosphere,” Williamson explained. “A comet’s atmosphere actually gets bigger the closer it gets to the Sun, and Rosetta offered a chance to see that happen in real time.”

Although she specializes in a field that most sci-fi fans would drool over, Williamson says the research process itself is just as rousing. Data analysis can be a time-consuming process involving “a lot of time spent staring at lines on a screen,” but therein lies the fun.

“It’s more interesting to work on research that can be frustrating,” she said. “For the data analysis that we do, it’s the same type of thrill you get when you start a good puzzle. You approach the data set with a question and then set out to understand all the ways those questions might be answered.”

Just because the data she works with is pulled from the recesses of space doesn’t mean her head is in the clouds. Williamson noted that solar storms play an unseen but active role in life on Earth. The charged particles emitted during solar storms have struck Earth’s atmosphere before to devastating effect: disabling satellites, affecting power grids, and knocking out GPS capabilities, among them. The more researchers like her understand how solar winds interact with Earth’s atmosphere, the better able we can predict disruptions like the one that occurred in 1989, during which large swaths of North America were blacked out for nine hours.

While all that sounds dire, Williamson says there’s one side effect of solar winds that everyone below can appreciate.

“They make for some beautiful auroras,” she said.

When she’s not poring over a draft of her next scholarly paper—she’s already published 9 papers in her short career—Williamson is usually working out new ways to present her findings to others. In normal times, that means traveling to conferences to learn about other scientists’ research. “I’m looking forward to the day when the social aspect of research life will be more common,” she said. Public speaking is a challenge with which Williamson feels quite comfortable, given her four-year tenure on the Franklin Debating Society.

“I was one of the few science majors on the team, and that experience served me well. Turns out scientists need to be comfortable with public speaking and interacting with the public, too.”

Williamson recently won a two-year research grant from the Swedish National Space Agency to continue her comet research. She’s also keeping an eye on an upcoming launch that plans to visit Jupiter’s icy moons. While she’ll have to wait until the 2030s for the spacecraft to reach its destination, that’s the type of professional hazard she’s willing to endure.

“We all get excited about new missions,” she said. “Those are opportunities to be one of the people who decides what kind of science we want to do when the mission gets there.”