Maura Hagan - Physicist

Updates: In February 2013 Maura Hagan became Interim Director of NCAR and prior this this, she was was appointed Deputy Director of NCAR In August 2008. 

Combining research and mentoring

Photo of Maura Hagan

Maura Hagan

Carlye Calvin/UCAR

As a graduate student in physics, Maura Hagan found herself frustrated and on the verge of dropping out. "I wanted to quit but the chair of the physics department would not allow me to," she recalls. "He was a profound mentor. He said, 'You may take a leave of absence, but you come back to me in one year.'"

A year of working in a space sciences lab convinced Maura that she indeed wanted a career in science. "I went back to school with passion," she says. After finishing her doctorate, she launched a research career and eventually climbed to the level of senior scientist at NCAR.

The value of a strong mentor was never lost on her. Today, in addition to her long-time position as a researcher in NCAR's High Altitude Observatory, Maura is also director of the organization's Advanced Study Program, where her mission is to encourage the development of postdoctoral fellows and other early-career scientists.

"I love my role as ASP director because I've always enjoyed mentoring students and fellows," Maura says. "I get to meet all these extremely talented young people who come to NCAR, and through them I learn about the science that's happening throughout the organization."

ASP brings scientists who have recently completed doctoral degrees in the atmospheric and related sciences to NCAR for research appointments lasting about two years. The program also supports graduate students and university faculty who spend time in residence at NCAR.

Maura helps guide the fellows through the early years of their careers, whether it be through one-on-one mentoring, workshops on proposal writing, or group discussions of how political mechanisms in Washington, D.C., affect scientific research. As part of the program, the fellows present their research to their ASP peers.    

"We really want to foster people's career development early in their working lives," Maura says.

Maura is also busy with her own research, studying the physics of Earth's upper atmosphere. In particular, she looks at atmospheric tides and their effects throughout the atmosphere.

Atmospheric tides are global-scale variations in wind, temperature, and pressure that primarily occur on a daily or twice-daily basis, driven by the atmosphere's absorption of the Sun's radiation. Scientists observe them with ground instruments and from satellites in space.

"Atmospheric tides are the most persistent and ubiquitous feature of the upper atmosphere, so if you want to understand things like space weather and the effects of climate change on the upper atmosphere, you really need to understand the tides first because they are the underlying characteristic," Maura explains.

Maura traces the tides from their beginnings, studying how molecules in the atmosphere's lower layers absorb the Sun's radiation, causing oscillations that extend into the atmosphere's higher layers. The amplitude, or size, of the waves enlarges in the higher layers due to decreasing air density.

Maura's interest in the tides didn't fully develop until she came to NCAR in 1990 to work with a program called CEDAR, known more formally as Coupling, Energetics, and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions. One of her major accomplishments was helping develop the Global Scale Wave Model, a numerical model of planetary waves and solar tides in Earth's atmosphere. Her contribution entailed improving and extending the model's underlying physics to accurately capture what causes the tides and how they propagate and dissipate.

Although scientists have made great progress in the last 30 years in understanding atmospheric tides, new observations continue to spur new investigations. "It's still an open research topic," Maura says.

Three people looking at a laptop computer

In addition to mentoring postdoctoral fellows, Maura reaches out to younger scientists through SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science), an undergraduate-to-graduate bridge program designed to broaden participation in atmospheric and related sciences. Here, Maura (right) and colleague Hanli Liu from NCAR's High Altitude Observatory advises Alisha Fernandez, a senior at the University of Colorado, on her summer research project.

Carlye Calvin/UCAR

Maura grew up in New Hampshire. As a child, she was fascinated by the Apollo program, NASA's project in the 1960s to land an astronaut on the moon. "My mother and father would become very frustrated with me because I wanted to watch the space mission on the television all the time during the summer when we were vacationing," she recalls.

Maura excelled in math and decided to major in the subject at college—until she realized during her junior year that she found it boring. Her academic advisor suggested switching to physics, but her high school physics class hadn't left a great impression. "I told him, 'But I hate physics!'" she laughs. She followed his advice, however, and soon fell in love with the subject.

After college, Maura found herself with few marketable job skills, a predicament that led her to enroll in a graduate program in physics at Boston College. She soon became disillusioned, however. Having attended all-women's schools for both high school and college, she struggled with culture shock as the only woman in her physics program. In addition, nobody in her family—male or female—had ever pursued a career in science. And watching her friends from college enjoy the lifestyle perks of paid jobs added to the sting of still being a student.

So Maura took a leave of absence and worked in Boston College's Space Data Analysis Laboratory for a year. "I saw what a job as a research scientist could be, and that got me hooked," she says.

After returning to graduate school—with enthusiasm this time—and completing her doctorate, Maura came to NCAR as a visiting scientist in 1990 to work on CEDAR projects for the High Altitude Observatory. Shortly after she became a permanent member of the organization's scientific staff, taking on directorship of ASP in 2005.

A passion for the work, general curiosity toward science, and appreciation of mentoring have kept Maura motivated over the years. "Space physics is the study of a very big, complicated system. In the past we've looked at it piecemeal, but now we're on the frontier of looking at the Sun and Earth as a system. And having talented young people coming into the field with fresh perspectives is very exciting."

by Nicole Gordon
July 2006