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Dr. Mehmet Sarp Yalim, the primary author of a paper on increasing diversity and participation in space weather and space physics, says there are significant national benefits in funneling students into space physics.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Diversity and participation in the space weather and space physics fields can be increased through early science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) exposure and continuing support through summer and other programs, says a research paper that looked at the results of programs offered through The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

The programs at the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and the Department of Space Science (SPA) at UAH have contributed to increasing the field’s diversity, the paper found.

“There is still much needed to be done to increase diversity in the space physics community, but internships such as the summer programs led by UAH CSPAR and SPA have a positive effect towards achieving this goal,” says Dr. Mehmet Sarp Yalim, the paper’s primary author and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program coordinator at UAH.

“I hope our paper sheds a light on the importance of summer programs in retention of students coming from diverse backgrounds in the field of space physics, and draws attention of more and more institutions, national or international, to establish such programs to eventually have a much more diversely represented space physics community,” he says.

“Our summer programs are financially supported by grants awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Any U.S. college or university that can comply with certain requirements can apply for funding to establish their individual summer program.”

REU is a NSF effort that funds research opportunities for undergraduate students.

“Especially as the REU program coordinator, I have observed that doing cutting-edge, hands-on research with esteemed space scientists, being immersed into space physics and its terminology through an intensive scientific lecture program, having the chance to present the outcomes of their research projects and networking during both the internship program, conferences and meetings helps the students decide on going into a STEM career involving space physics,” Dr. Yalim says.

“The most important outcome for us is that each year we have a significant number of students who think that doing research in space physics is a career in which they can see themselves in the future,” he says. “Exposure is an important factor.”

However, previous experience with space physics is not always needed.

“Each year a significant portion of our cohort does not come from a space physics background,” says Dr. Yalim. “A successful STEM career often requires knowledge of multiple disciplines. Our summer program alumni have a number of successful examples that have multidisciplinary STEM careers that involve space physics.”

Retention in the field is higher when students are given the opportunity to learn about and conduct research in the field, he says.

“Exposure to lectures and projects during the 10 weeks that they are here help them decide whether a research career is for them,” Dr. Yalim says.

“But of course, exposure is not always sufficient,” says Dr. Yalim. “There is the job market factor due to which engineering fields indeed seem to get the most attention among the STEM fields, but there are many examples of STEM jobs that bring the exact and applied sciences together.”

He says there are significant national benefits in funneling students into space physics.

“The U.S. has many ground- and space-based technological assets that need to be protected from harmful effects coming from our space environment,” he says.

“To be able to protect these assets, we should understand the scientific background of how our Earth is affected by its surroundings, and even more importantly, how we can monitor these effects. Space physics is at the heart of these two fundamental questions and therefore is a critical field of national interest.”