TAEM interview with Dr. Michael Summers of GMU

TAEM-  We recently toured George Mason University in Northern Virginia and was graciously guided by Harold Geller who is the Associate Dean and Director of the Telescope Observatory there. Dean Geller has introduced Professor Michael Summers to us to shed some light on the great work that the University does.

 Professor Summers is a planetary scientist who specializes in the study of structure and evolution of planetary atmospheres. Professor, please tell our readers about the subject of your work.

MS- My research concerns the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres.  I’m particularly interested in how planetary atmospheres develop, evolve over time, and in the case of the Earth how humans impact the atmosphere. I’ve had the good fortune to work with several robotic space missions in my career, including the Pluto New Horizons mission which is now on it’s way to a 2015 encounter with Pluto and its system of moons.  I’ve also worked on the possibly of using atmospheric trace gases as biomarkers of life. On Mars there is evidence of methane in the atmosphere, which could provide indirect evidence of life below its surface. That would be quite an astounding discovery. I’m also working with several of my students on the structure of atmospheres around a small group of recently discovered extra-solar planets.

TAEM- Please tell us about some of the distant worlds that you have studied and the importance that they have in understanding our universe.

MS- For Pluto, we know it has an atmosphere of nitrogen and methane which major undergoes seasonal changes.  It sublimates when Pluto is close to the sun, but condenses when Pluto is moving away from the sun.  Pluto also has a very exotic extended atmosphere, perhaps extending further out than the orbit of its moon Charon.  There’s nothing else like than in our solar system.

In the case of Mars, I think the most compelling issues is whether Mars has life underground or had life at some time in its history. We know the subsurface is habitable to certain types of bacteria we find on Earth.  And we know Mars was once much warmer and wetting than it is now. So life could have developed early in its history.  Finding evidence of current or extinct life would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time.

TAEM- We understand that your studies include research on earth’s own atmosphere. How does this work give us insight on our changing climate?

MS-  Humans are impacting the Earth in many ways.  The emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is just one of the most commonly discussed issues.  But there are others. Methane is also being released.  We now know with virtual certainty that the Earth’s temperature is rising near the surface. This is commonly known as global warming. But less well known is that this surface warming is accompanied by upper atmosphere cooling.  This cooling is manifested by increasing abundances of high altitude clouds called noctilucent clouds that occur near 82 km altitude above the Earth’s surface in the coldest part of the Earth’s atmosphere.  This increasing abundance of noctilucent clouds is a clear, but indirect, indicator of human influence.

TAEM- The University has a SPACS program. What does this title stand for?

MS-  At George Mason University we have a School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences (SPACS) that brings together all four pillars of modern scientific enquiry: observations/experiment, theory, model simulation, and Big Data exploration.  With these four pillars present in our hugely interdisciplinary program, it makes a wonderfully exciting place to work for both the faculty and students.   We are tackling some of the most fundamental questions in all of science.

TAEM- Please describe the program in length for us.

MS-  We have a strong program in astronomy and astrophysics, which includes observational studies of galaxies, the interstellar medium, space weather, black hold accretion disks, as well as planetary science.  We have a strong program in computational simulation that, for example, models the flow of blood in cerebral hemorrhages.  We have one group looking a brain seizures in neuroscience.  We have a very strong emphasis in Big Data science where we are training students to deal with the unbelievably vast data bases that are now routinely available to all the sciences (and non-sciences domains as well).  The large data sets we now deal with are basically virtual universes that we must explore with new computational techniques.  We have faculty members and students working in particle physics at CERN.  We also have a very strong materials science program looking at properties of novel materials.  We also have a group working in quantum optics with applications for quantum computing.  This is not complete by any means.  But I think you get the sense we are very broad and interdisciplinary.

TAEM- Tell us of the importance that the program’s research has uncovered.

MS-  Just to pick a couple of examples, we are learning about the role of massive black holes in the evolution of galaxies.  We have also learned how blood flow is impacted by aneurisms. As I mentioned, we are studying the evolution of planets and their atmosphere, in particular how humans impact the atmosphere of the Earth.

TAEM- We understand that research in this area has produced some very stunning awards for those students and scientists who work on it. Please tell our readers about some of the recognitions that were received as a result of these studies.

MS-  One student recently discovered a massive black hole in a nearby galaxy.  Another undergraduate student worked with me a few years ago to predict the possibility of methane on Mars.  We also have several faculty members who have won the prestigious NSF Early Career Awards, as well and Presidential Young Investigators award given by the president.  Many of our students have won outstanding and best presentations at conferences.

TAEM- What future plans does this program have for research in the near future and where can students apply for this at GMU?

MS-  We are advancing in several key areas.  We are completely revamping our course offerings to include frontier research activities. We are also moving to require all of our undergraduates to become involved in original research under the mentorship of senior faculty members.  On the research side, we are moving strongly into Space Weather and support the commercialization of space research and education missions.  Frankly, I have a hard time keeping up with it all myself.

For our SPACS program, go to our web site: http://spacs.gmu.edu/

TAEM- Professor Summers, I would like to thank you and Professor Geller for introducing our magazine to your school and this fine program. The Arts and Entertainment magazine and The Eerie Digest has always devoted themselves to the advancement of student learning. We would like to explore more of George Mason University’s science programs as well as the many other areas of higher learning that your school offers. We hope that you can introduce us to them so that our world-wide readership can share in the college’s success story.


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