A Canadian first
In January, Kathryn McWilliams, PhD, became the first Canadian to receive an honorary fellowship in geophysics from the U.K.-based Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Dr. McWilliams is the Principal Investigator and founder of the ISM CREATE program.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all; it was very surprising and humbling,” says McWilliams, a professor of physics and engineering physics at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
The RAS represents scientists in disciplines including astronomy, geophysics and space science. Its coveted fellowships recognize scientists outside the U.K. who have made significant contributions in their fields.
“What I do is commonly called ‘space science’ — the science of the space between the Earth and the sun. We’re trying to understand Earth’s space environment, so it’s kind of a study of weather and how conditions in space created by the sun’s activity affect us,” explains McWilliams.
McWilliams directs SuperDARN Canada, part of an international effort that uses radar to learn more about the Earth’s upper atmosphere. As a summer student in 1992, McWilliams helped build the first radar site, and today, she chairs the International SuperDARN Collaboration, which involves researchers from 10 countries.
“It works like a police speed radar trap: we send out a signal into the atmosphere up about 250 kilometers, just below the space station. The moving electrically-charged particles up there modify our signal, and we get an echo back. Then, we can look at how the signal changes to determine how fast those particles are moving.”
“Our laboratory is practically the size of the solar system, and we work with people all over the world, because no one group could have enough funding or enough money to have all the instruments needed to answer these questions. I love that it’s a collaborative type of research field.