National Academy of Sciences elects Dr. Gary Zank as member


Dr. Gary P. Zank is director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and chair of the Department of Space Science.

Michael Mercier | UAH

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has elected as a member Dr. Gary P. Zank, director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and the chair of UAH's Department of Space Science.

Also a UAH eminent scholar and distinguished professor, Dr. Zank becomes the only current member of the University of Alabama System to be a member of NAS.

"Dr. Gary Zank is an academic leader at UAH," says Dr. Christine Curtis, UAH provost. "Not only is he a highly accomplished researcher and an exceptional research leader in the field of space science, but he is also an outstanding educator who led the development and establishment of the Space Science Department and of highly competitive master's and Ph.D. programs in Space Science. His work in space science provides tremendous opportunity for current and future students at UAH to work with a leading scientist and be at the forefront of scientific discoveries in space science."

Membership in the academy is the highest honor a scientist can receive, says Dr. Ray Vaughn, UAH vice president for research and economic development.

I cannot see myself ever slowing down and I would like to find more time to fit in more research.

Dr. Gary P. Zank
Director, CSPAR
Chair, Department of Space Science

"UAH is very fortunate to have a faculty member such as Dr. Zank, with his record of accomplishment, his contribution to science and his leadership of one of the very few Space Science programs in the country, as well as his leadership of the highly successful Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research," Dr. Vaughn says. "I have been privileged to work with someone of his caliber and to consider him a valued partner in our research enterprise. This honor speaks highly of Dr. Zank, as well as UAH."

Dr. Zank says receiving the news was a surreal experience.

"It has not yet sunk in. I had some idea that I had been nominated, but election to the National Academy of Sciences is an arcane and complicated process that takes several years to materialize," Dr. Zank says. "Many people have been nominated and almost as many are not elected. I received a phone call in the morning from a close colleague who is a member of the NAS to tell me that I had been elected and then another call from another close colleague at the NAS annual meeting who then passed the phone around to many of those present.

"It's difficult to both express one's feelings about being elected - it's not something that one works to or aspires to, it simply happens - while wanting to thank everyone for supporting my candidacy. It was a powerful moment, perhaps more because I recognize that this truly represents an honor that is shared by all the people I have been fortunate to work with, the people who have been with me in my life, especially Adele Corona, who have encouraged and supported my work and ideas and ambitions," he says. "It is not and never can be simply a reflection on me but it reflects the wonderful people I have been fortunate enough to share my life and career with. So in many respects, yes, it's a powerful moment, but more especially a humbling moment because this is not a journey that I took by myself. I have no idea how to express my profound thanks to everyone who has been part of my life and career but, somehow, I would like to reach across and recognize them all and thank them all."

The academy elected 84 new members and 21 foreign associates from 14 countries in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Those elected bring the total number of active members to 2,291 and the total number of foreign associates to 465. Foreign associates are nonvoting members of the academy, with citizenship outside the United States.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and - with the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Medicine - provides science, technology and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

In June, Dr. Zank received the AOGS Axford Medal, the highest honor given by the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (AOGS), an organization equivalent to the American Geophysical Union (AGU), at the society's annual general assembly. The medal acknowledges an individual for outstanding achievements in geosciences, including planetary and solar system science, as well as unselfish cooperation and leadership in Asia and Oceania. Oceania refers to the broader Pacific Ocean region excluding the Asian region.

Among numerous other research endeavors, Dr. Zank and UAH post-doctoral student Xiaocan Li are currently developing a theoretical computational model to investigate the results of NASA experiments on a new kind of long-distance solar space propulsion system called the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System Electric Sail (HERTS E-Sail). The models will extend that laboratory simulation to conditions appropriate to the solar wind and be developed into an engineering tool that will aid in cost-effective mission design. His most recent graduate student, Laxman Adhikari, received the College of Science outstanding graduate researcher award for his doctoral thesis.

He keeps at the research because it's a pleasure to him rather than work, Dr. Zank says.

"I would almost always rather go home and work on my research than watch TV or movies. So my typical routine is to do the research after work, generally five nights or more a week and typically until 1a.m. or later. I get far too little time to spend on research at work since I have two administrative jobs during the day," he says. "While important, especially from the perspective of building up CSPAR and building a brand new Space Science academic program, both these jobs are time consuming and correspond to 'work.' By contrast, research is something that I do for pleasure and so an evening working on an interesting problem is as pleasurable as just about anything else that I can think of.

"There is an enormous pleasure to be derived from understanding something about nature that has not been understood, and it stems as much from an inner creativity as an ability to formulate problems mathematically and solve them," says Dr. Zank. "Many of my colleagues feel much the same. So the drive to do research is something that is deeply innate, and it never feels like work, and the drive to do it comes from the pleasure of understanding. Perhaps there is also a sense of contributing to the creation of knowledge and the broadening of culture that somehow renders one's purpose on Earth meaningful. I cannot see myself ever slowing down and I would like to find more time to fit in more research."

Joining UAH and CSPAR was "a wonderful further catalyst" for the NAS membership, Dr. Zank says.

"I have been blessed to work with outstanding vice presidents of research at UAH, and Dr. Vaughn has been one of CSPAR's and my greatest supporters. The guidance and encouragement from Dr. Vaughn and his predecessors has truly allowed CPSAR to flourish and for me to work in an environment that contributed to my being elected to the NAS," he says. "I was fortunate, too, in that the foresight of both the previous and current presidents led to the creation of an environment that allowed for the development and flourishing of a great research group in space physics. President Williams had the foresight to make a bold move in offering me both a position and six faculty lines to build and develop space science at UAH. President Altenkirch took this further in his equally bold move in creating the new Department of Space Science.

"Both these steps and the support of the VPRs, and their willingness to tie CSPAR and the academic Department of Space Science together closely, have contributed enormously to creating what is becoming one of the top - if not the top - group in the world in terms of theoretical space physics," he says. "So I applaud both presidents and all the VPRs for their meaningful, far-sighted and positive goals in creating a world-class group of scientists. All of these actions have contributed greatly to my being elected to the NAS."



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