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NMSU astronomy professor receives CAREER Award to study sun, predict space weather

An astronomer at New Mexico State University will receive $750,000 over the next five years to study the sun thanks to the National Science Foundation. James McAteer, whose research involves how energy is stored and released on the sun, has won a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.

Headshot of James McAteer
James McAteer, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the recipient of the National Science Foundation's CAREER Award. He will receive $750,000 over the next five years to continue his astrophysics research.

"It is a massive career milestone," said McAteer, assistant professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Science funding is getting harder and harder to win, and so this award really sets up the solar physics group to concentrate on research, and builds up the national reputation of our research here at NMSU."

Highly competitive CAREER awards help support junior faculty who integrate research creativity and innovative teaching. McAteer will use the award for graduate and undergraduate science and engineering projects, focusing on atmospheric changes of the sun and the evolution of sunspots. Both of these interdisciplinary projects will involve working closely with NASA.

"We know that magnetism plays a key role in both these projects, but we're not sure exactly how it works," McAteer said. "One of the key goals is the science behind space weather prediction. This looks at how flows of plasma and storms on the sun can impact us on Earth."

Additionally, he plans to give his give his undergraduate students some insight into the challenges of obtaining science funding, and to create a citizen science project using real science data.

"The teaching component of his proposal is very important, as he has proposed to involve not just graduate students, but also undergraduates, in his research," said Jon Holtzman, astronomy department head. "He has already been a leader in the department in working with undergraduates in research, and this proposal should allow him to continue, and perhaps extend, this work."

McAteer, who teaches classes on the solar system, said a solar eclipse in 2001 first sparked his interest into the study of solar physics. His research includes the dynamics of the quiet sun, active region magnetic fields and solar flares, and the initiation and propagation of coronal mass ejections. In his work, he uses spectroscopy, imaging and detailed modeling to analyze data from a vast array of instruments.

He has held fellowships at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where he remains an adjunct lecturer; NASA, where he remains a team member for the Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO spacecraft (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory); and Queen's University in Belfast, where he remains a visiting scholar.

He is a co-investigator on the ROSA (Rapid Oscillations in the Solar Atmosphere) instrument at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory in Ireland and the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter mission.

McAteer is NMSU's third College of Arts and Sciences recipient in recent years to receive the award. Others include Heather Thoop, associate professor of biology, and Karen Mabry, assistant professor of biology.