Cattell looks back on career

College of Science and Engineering Distinguished Professor Cynthia Cattell will retire from teaching  at the School  this year after 28 years on the faculty. Cattell is a space plasma physicist whose work has focused on understanding the physics of the conversion of energy stored in magnetic fields to particle kinetic energy, and how charged particles in the naturally occurring plasmas in our solar system are accelerated and generate waves.

Cattell grew up in Colorado at an altitude of 8500 feet. She attended a girls’ school during junior and senior high school, and became interested in physics when her high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to apply for a National Science Foundation summer program in physics. After her freshman year in the first class at Hampshire College, an experimental college in Amherst, MA, she took a climbing trip to Brooks Range in Alaska. At the Fairbanks airport she saw the Northern Lights (aurora) for the first time, and became interested in the phenomenon and the physics behind it. For her junior year “abroad,” she attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She worked with glaciologists and volcanologists at the Geophysical Institute, where she was able to sit in on seminars about the physics of the aurora. 

Cattell went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley intending to study particle physics,  but she switched to space physics after meeting Forest Mozer, who had developed the techniques for measuring electric fields to study the processes that produce the aurora and that couple the solar wind to the Earth’s magnetic ‘bubble’, the magnetosphere. Her Ph.D. research used data from  S3-3, an Air Force satellite, which provided the first measurements of the electric fields that accelerate electrons downward to produce the auroral light and ions upward from the ionosphere.  Her research used magnetic field measurements to determine the currents that flow along the Earth’s magnetic field, and their association with energized ions and electrons, and waves.

Mozer asked her to give the invited presentation on the S3-3 results, which was a big opportunity for her. Her work on the S3-3 data and other spacecraft enabled her to obtain one of the first ‘Senior Fellow’ positions at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab, so that she could be a principal investigator without being on the faculty.  After S3-3, she got involved in satellite projects studying a broad range of topics in space plasma physics. This included the Japanese GEOTAIL mission, which gave her the opportunity to visit Japan and learn how they ran their satellite program and the follow-on to S3-3, called FAST (FastAuroralSnapshoT) which was NASA’s first small explorer mission, launched in August, 1996. One of the most exciting missions is the current Parker Solar Probe, which has already made surprising new discoveries as it gets closer to the Sun than any other satellite.

Cattell first came to Minnesota with her family on a month-long trip to the Boundary Waters when she was 14. “I already had a positive view of Minnesota when I heard that Minnesota was looking at hiring physics couples.” This was an unusual and effective solution, and Cattell and Wygant both obtained tenure track positions in 1994.

As part of the FAST mission, she organized a conference at Two Harbors in Northern Minnesota during a time when the sun was active, which gathered auroral experts from around the world  to present their research, and also see the aurora. Cattell said that some of the most intense aurora she has seen were during that conference, and that one of the great things about Minnesota is that many people have seen the aurora and are curious about it.

While her research has been a vital part of the space physics program at Minnesota, Cattell’s teaching and advising has been equally important to the school. She held the position of Associate Head and has mentored many undergraduates in research, a large number of whom were able to publish their first paper with her. She was a part of Physics Force, the School’s long-standing and successful outreach program and said she still loves to meet with students to talk about physics.