Written by Katherine MacGilvray


When asked what makes the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) a desirable institution for space physicists, Dr. Ying Zou, Assistant Professor in the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR), points to its world-class Department of Space Science and its close collaboration with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. “Beyond that,” she adds, “what is especially attractive to me is the CPU2AL program.”

Zou’s work focuses on the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and upper atmosphere. “This is my favorite area of space because it’s the part we humans are exposed to, and its variability can cause weather effects that influence our everyday lives.” 

For example, a change in the ionosphere can disrupt radio communication, GPS navigation, and aviation. She explains that, as society continues to be increasingly dependent on those technologies, it is important for scientists to better understand and be able to forecast when, where, and the degree to which the ionosphere varies.

Her research, which is primarily based on observations gathered from radio waves, such as those detected by radar; naturally-occurring emissions of the atmosphere; and in-situ measurements from spacecraft, aims to find practical applications that will make a difference in people’s daily lives. Those potential applications are what excite her about her work. And that excitement is what drew her to the NSF EPSCoR’s CPU2AL program, where she studies low-temperature plasma physics.

One of Zou’s current research projects that is closely tied to the CPU2AL program focuses on the interaction between plasma and neutral particles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The neutral particles are what make low-temperature plasma different from other plasma, she explains. “And the Earth’s upper atmosphere serves as a natural laboratory.” 

Under different solar and magnetospheric conditions, Zou studies the momentum -- the degree of speed and energy -- that is transferred from the plasma to the neutral particles. As the particles gain momentum, their resulting movement is referred to as wind. The wind is similar to what humans experience, except it takes place at an altitude of above 100 kilometers, has a speed of several hundred miles per hour, and is generated from activity that takes place in space.

“The application targeted by the CPU2AL program is an area I have never thought of in the past but cannot wait to further explore,” Zou says. “I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the program.”

Dr. Zou joined the Department of Space Science in the fall of 2019. Prior to coming to UAH, she was a Jack Eddy postdoc fellow at the Center for Space Physics at Boston University.