Working with Radiation Belt Data: Interview with Drew Turner, Assistant Researcher, University of California, Los Angeles

How would you describe the THEMIS/ARTEMIS mission to a high school student?
The THEMIS mission was a five spacecraft NASA mission. Its primary focus was science, specifically to study the drivers of the aurora, which are known as substorms. Just recently, in 2010, they took two of the THEMIS spacecrafts and they basically got a bonus mission out of those because they had enough fuel to send them from their orbits to the moon. They actually transitioned them into lunar orbit, which now gives us two spacecrafts to study the plasma environment around the moon. [This] has never really been done before, so it’s quite interesting.

Are the three remaining THEMIS satellite still working and providing science?
Yes, yes they are. Those are actually the three that I work primarily with. They’re all working nominally right now, returning a whole bunch of great data. So, they’re working very well.

What is your role in this THEMIS mission?
My area of expertise is energetic particles. I’ve been studying THEMIS observations of Earth’s foreshock and also the radiation belts around the Earth. The key to that is understanding the solid state telescope instruments onboard each of the spacecraft. So I’ve also been working with the instrumentation itself, trying to characterize and calibrate that data set.

What’s the basic process that you use to do your research?
The process consists primarily of data analysis. So, retrieving the data itself – which we have a really nice software toolset built up to do that – and then manipulating it in various ways to try and tease out the science that we’re trying to understand. So that’s basically a lot of work on a computer, processing data through pretty sophisticated software such as either MATLAB or IDL. [Those] are the two big tools that I use. Then just scrubbing that data for various things; you need to take out any kind of anomalous data errors basically. And then process it to a point where you can actually look at it and try and compare with theory for instance. So you’re taking your experimental evidence and comparing with the theory and then producing a lot of plots, which those software tools are really good for.

How will that research impact everyday people in the future?
I think the big one for this is that we’re really developing a better understanding of the space environment. As a society we’ve become extremely dependent on space-based technology. I mean everything from communications to defense to navigation; GPS now is everywhere. Just to use your bank card, that involves [a] satellite signal a lot of times. So, since we are dependent on the space-based technology, we really need to understand the environment that these spacecrafts exist in since we know that it can be quite hazardous and can actually knock spacecraft out. So I think that’s the biggest impact that everyday people should be concerned with, is that we’re basically developing a better understanding of that environment.

So Drew, since so much of your work is focused on radiation belts, could you please elaborate a little more on what those are?
[Listen to Drew’s answer here]

What do you find most exciting about the THEMIS mission?
I think the most exciting thing for me is just this incredible, incredible perspective that it has given us. Since we have five spacecrafts and they’re identically instrumented, it’s basically providing these five pinpoints of data instead of traditionally just one that you would get from a normal mission. [This] allows us to draw such a better picture of the overall system. Because when you think of the size of one of these spacecraft compared to the size of near-Earth space, it’s literally just like putting a pinpoint through a blind or something like that, and trying to peer through it. But when we get more pinpoints with more spacecraft, then we can really get a much better picture of what’s going on.

Could you please describe a challenge you faced in your work and how you overcame it?
Challenges that I face quite regularly are really just concerning teasing that data out and trying to see the big picture, really. And make sure that we’re not biased. That’s important for scientists to do is just make sure that you’re not putting any kind of bias into how you’re interpreting the data. So, the way to get around that is pretty just general, is just to stay open minded and look at it objectively, not subjectively.

On a more personal note, could you describe your educational background?
Sure, yeah. I did my early education actually in Canada and then I moved down to the States in Pittsburg for high school, and then stuck around down here for all of my college education. So I did my undergrad in engineering physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, which is this small school but they had some professors who were really keen on space science and also satellite and space mission design. So that gave me a nice combination of both the physics side as well as the engineering side. With that, I moved on to University of Colorado for my Masters and PhD. There I got to continue the nice combination between the engineering with the instrument work and spacecraft design, and the physics side. So my thesis was physics based, basically trying to understand the radiation belts, and my additional work that my advisor led me to do was instrument based. We actually built up a small spacecraft that’s being launched in August of this year actually. And now I am here at UCLA.

What advice would you give to a high school student who is interested in a career in science, technology, engineering or math?
Of course focus on math and science, that’s critical I think even at the high school level. Get as far up as your school will allow, basically, in math and science. Then pursue that, of course, once you get to your undergraduate career. And try and do so at a good university, but it doesn’t need to be the top of the line, or number one in the world kind of thing. I think Embry-Riddle was a good example for that. You can do good science coming out of a pretty small school. And yeah, just really focus on keeping your grades up, staying well rounded in the areas that you’re interested in, and really I think that the big one is just keeping an open mind, that’s key.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? Any hobbies?
Yeah, so I love to surf first of all, that’s a big one. And hiking, backpacking, getting into the woods and the mountains is key. So of course I'm loving living in California, since it provides great opportunities for all these things. Just hanging out – I’m married, so I love to spend time with my wife and fortunately she likes to do a lot of the things that I do, particularly the hiking and backpacking. Oh, and travel as well. I love to travel, which is a nice perk of the job.

Last but not least: Growing up, was there any one person, moment, or experience that inspired you particularly to follow this career path?
Yeah, I think my parents actually were the most inspirational for me. They continually told my sister and I just to not really worry about money with a career, really just focus on something that you enjoy doing. If you really enjoy it, then you should never have to worry about money because you should succeed pretty well in that career. That’s been great advice because when I was, I don’t know, eight or nine and decided I wanted to be an astronaut, they basically encouraged that, even though it’s a very difficult dream to chase after. But they encouraged it all along, and that’s exactly why I got into space science and engineering.