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Dana Longcope

Dana Longcope: Solar Physics' Rising Star

Dana Longcope's study of the star that makes life on Earth possible has contributed to his own rising stardom in the close-knit community of solar physicists.

That recognition has come in many forms, including the receipt of two prestigious awards - a Faculty Early Career Development grant from the National Science Foundation in 1997, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which he received at a ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House in October 2000.

At Montana State University-Bozeman, where he is an assistant professor of physics and finds himself at the theoretical end of the university's renowned solar physics group, Longcope is admired for more than just his research prowess.

John Hermanson, head of the physics department, cites Longcope's organizational, fund-raising, publishing and teaching abilities as among the young professor's greatest strengths.

"He is a great colleague," Hermanson says. "You might expect a person like I've described to be stuck in his own cubicle doing his research, but he is a sociable guy with a good sense of humor, who participates in faculty discussions in a very unselfish way. He's obviously having a good time."

Longcope, 38, agrees that he is having fun. He loves teaching, and enjoys working with graduate students who are "going from student to scientist" - that is, coming out of the classroom for the first time to do hands-on research.

He enjoys the university environment, where "it's a lot of fun to experience the breadth of interests in a department like this."

And, of course, he enjoys his research, saying that he can't keep up with answering the number of interesting questions that he finds.

"The great thing about being a scientist is doing what you love every day," says Longcope whose outside interests include skiing, backpacking and playing squash and ice hockey.

Longcope compares himself to the scientists of a century ago who tried to figure out how air moved. Their groundwork contributed to the modern understanding that help today's meteorologists predict hurricanes.

Instead of studying wind, Longcope studies the inner workings of the sun and the magnetic fields it generates. He hopes that his research, combined with data gathered by scientists over the past 100 years, will contribute to man's ability to predict solar activity that can wreak havoc with satellites and with communication and power distribution systems here on earth.

"I want to understand enough to start making predictions," Longcope says, but adds that "someone further down the line will turn that into a real prediction."

Longcope, a native of Massachusetts, says he was interested in all science as a child. He studied physics in high school, then majored in physics at Cornell University, where he earned his undergraduate and doctorate degrees. He did post-doctoral work at New York University, then was a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley before he came to MSU in 1996.

His interest in solar physics grew out of his study of plasma physics, the study of gases made of ionized particles.

Longcope says he was attracted to the solar physics group in Bozeman because its range of expertise fit with his interests. He also appreciated the opportunity to teach, which wouldn't have been available to him had he remained a researcher at Berkeley.

Hermanson says Longcope also was a good fit for the program, and an excellent choice to fill the first tenured position in the solar physics group. Longcope is being evaluated for tenure now.

"In terms of his standing in the field, what stood out is the accomplishments he had already made in the field," Hermanson says.

On another level, he adds, "When he was here for his interview, we could tell from the way he interacted with the other solar physics people that he would be a marvelous colleague. It was important to have someone who would help build the group and the solidarity of the group, not just achieve good things by himself."

Longcope's people skills also make him a good teacher, Hermanson says. Despite being a theorist, he is able to break down complex mathematical and theoretical concepts so that even a layperson can grasp them.

"He doesn't just put the stuff up on the blackboard and let the students accept it if they can," Hermanson says. "He works very hard to understand where the difficulties for the students are conceptually and works on them deliberately."

In turn, Longcope says he has benefited from teaching basic physics principles to others because it has helped him understand them on a deeper level.

"I like being able to communicate the interest I have in science and physics to others," Longcope says simply.

Hermanson says that since joining MSU's solar physics group, Longcope has published more than 20 papers in major journals, graduated two Ph.D. students who have gone on to accept prominent post-doctoral positions, and been appointed by federal agencies to committees that decide on future topics for research - all highly unusual accomplishments for someone in such a short time.

"What do we expect of a young faculty member?" Hermanson says. "It's actually more than we could expect. I really set it in my goals to do everything I can to support his career, because I'm sure he will get job offers from other institutions. MSU should feel fortunate to be able to recruit and retain somebody of this caliber."

Diana Setterberg

Young Scientist Draws Attention of Federal Agencies

Dana Longcope receives his Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in a Washington, D.C. ceremony
Only 59 people were given the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2000, and MSU's Dana Longcope was one of only six recipients selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to Kathie Olsen, formerly the agency's chief science advisor and now with the office of Science and Technology Policy.

Longcope's research is highly valued by NASA, and the award carried with it a half-million dollar, five-year research grant.

In addition to wanting to add to the body of basic scientific knowledge about the sun and to learn more about the solar system and origins of life, "NASA has a very practical interest in what's going on in the sun, so we can either predict when the sort of bad, disrupting events will happen, or design systems so they aren't affected," said Todd Hoeksema, a NASA scientist who has known Longcope since he was at the University of California, Berkeley.

The relevance of Longcope's research has helped him garner more than $4 million in research funding so far from such agencies as NASA, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation, says John Hermanson, head of MSU's physics department.

"It's an embarrassment of riches, and a major challenge for him to figure out how to actually spend all that money productively," Hermanson said.

Hoeksema added that Longcope is widely respected within the scientific community, not only for his research but also for his advocacy and sensitivity for how to accomplish things. After he received the Early Career Presidential Award in 2000, NASA appointed Longcope to its Mission Operations Working Group (MOWG), which is an advisory body that provides advice from the scientific community to NASA headquarters.

"He was really very effective in bringing together a broad group of people of varying backgrounds to make decisions and set priorities," Hoeksema said.

Hermanson added that Longcope's appointment to MOWG and other such committees is very important and very unusual, because the committees are expected to lay the groundwork and define the research programs for the future in those agencies.

"If you're a young faculty member just starting out, no one would expect you to be totally objective, because you might ask the agency to emphasize your field," Hermanson said. "It must be that some individual leaders in the field trust Dana's judgment and fair-mindedness for them to put him on a committee at such a young age." vLongcope's accomplishments and contributions are part of the reason NASA holds such high regard for MSU's solar physics program, said Olsen.

"NASA recognizes that Montana State is a leader in this area of science," she said. "As a result, they're hiring the best young people in the nation, and it's shown up by this individual getting this award."

Diana Setterberg

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Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards
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