Jordan, a 9th grade student from Calgary, won the Rideau Park Science Fair (in 2018) with her poster on the new STEVE phenomena. Jordan told Aurorasaurus more about her project and interest in aurora in this Q&A article. Read through to the end for some questions she asked Dr. Liz MacDonald, Aurorasaurus founder, also!
Dr. MacDonald: What is your favorite subject in school and why does it inspire you?
Jordan: Science. Life is science, science is all around us. Without science we wouldn’t have square watermelons. My twin sister has a green thumb. She can grow anything in the garden. Without science we wouldn’t have landed on the moon.
Dr. Liz: When did you first see aurora?
Jordan: I saw the aurora when I was 4 years old in one of my favorite movies: Pocahontas. I loved the pretty colours dancing in the sky as Pocahontas was singing. The scene was so beautiful. Pocahontas is so beautiful and so strong.
Dr. Liz: How often do you see aurora? Can you see it from your house?
Jordan: I can see a faint ribbon of light with the naked eye in a particular direction when it’s a clear sky. However I can see a stronger image when I go with my dad, when he drives far away from the city lights, about 1-2 hours away.
Dr. Liz: Did you know beforehand that STEVE was a new phenomenon?
Jordan: I did not know that it was new. I thought all auroras were the same. I didn’t know that you could differentiate the types of auroras based on the colour, emissions, gases and latitude.
Dr. Liz: What made you decide on this project for the Science Fair?
Jordan: Well basically the categories and the topics that we were allowed to choose from were your standard science fair topics. I wanted to do something different – something exciting. My Dad suggested STEVE and the aurora, and my teacher thought it was a great idea to present a new scientific discovery. I was also amazed how there are still new discoveries in the realm of science today.
Dr. Liz: What was the most difficult part of the project?
Jordan: The most difficult part was gathering the information because it was still in the initial phases of the STEVE aurora discovery. I read the research and asked my dad to explain it to me in simple terms so then I could present to my classmates in a way they could understand. I also had to make it exciting enough so that my classmates would realize how big this new discovery is.
Dr Liz: How did it all come together?
Jordan: There were two main factors – the convenience of using digital cameras and the existence of the aurora chasers group, which my dad is a member of. Also the students at the University of Calgary researching the aurora phenomenon as well as the invention of the 3D printer. It would have been difficult to study the STEVE aurora without the spectrograph which was printed and made at the UofC. The UofC thought if we could identify the gases that made the purple colour in the STEVE aurora spectrum it would be important, because specific colours relate to specific gases or combinations of gases. I didn’t take aurora photographs or use the spectrograph on my own. I’ve looked through the spectrograph and saw the different gradations of colours. The view from the spectrograph showed the different colours of a prism.
Dr. Liz: What was the most surprising part of the project?
Jordan and her award-winning science fair poster on STEVE.
Jordan: The most surprising part was how excited my teachers and classmates were about this discovery. Even the parents of my classmates were really curious. They all asked me a lot of different questions. Some of the questions I could answer, some I couldn’t.
Dr. Liz: What did you learn that made you want to learn more?
Jordan: I learned that this natural phenomenon has been occurring for a long time and it has not been identified and named as a unique aurora phenomenon. I also learned that in nature that there are unique phenomena happening all the time that have not been categorized, identified or named. There’s so much happening in nature and science all the time. We don’t have enough time in the day to discover everything.
Dr. Liz: If you could go anywhere in the world to see aurora where would you go?
Jordan: I would definitely travel to Iceland to see the aurora borealis – the Northern Lights. It must be spectacular to watch it in Iceland.
Jordan: Did you always like science as a subject in school?
Dr. MacDonald: Yes, but not necessarily more than other subjects. I had a great high school physics teacher who made it really fun.
Jordan: Which teacher encouraged you the most to go into the science industry?
Dr. Liz: Actually it was a research mentor at my first internship in college. I did not like freshman physics classes but she showed me that real-life physics was fun and interesting, then she encouraged me to take just one more class, and one more after that…and here I am!
Jordan: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Dr. Liz: Oooh, I didn’t really know. Maybe an archeologist. I had never really met any scientists or people with PhDs (except one archeologist) so I didn’t even know what that was about. When I entered college I was thinking engineering but I really didn’t know.
Jordan: How do you like working for NASA?
Dr. Liz: I like being challenged and having the freedom to pursue research. It is tough sometimes, but NASA is an inspiring place to work.
Jordan: What was the interview process like to get into NASA?
Dr. Liz: Not too bad as I was recruited from a previous job at a national lab in New Mexico.
Jordan: What’s the best part of your job?
Dr. Liz: In general, launches are some of the most exciting times. I have built hardware that is flying in space and it is really gratifying moment. But honestly, the STEVE discovery has been an absolute high point, due to the generosity of the citizen scientists involved and the deeper emotional connections to the work. When we started Aurorasaurus, we knew there were some mysteries at mid-latitudes that hadn’t been well studied, but we had no idea how awesome and innovative a discovery like STEVE would turn out to be. It is really gratifying to have built Aurorasaurus as a first and very unique bridge between the public and the research communities and there have always been more follow-ons possible than we have had time for.
Jordan: What’s the funniest thing that happened while working at NASA?
Dr. Liz: Haha, gosh, I’m not sure. I’ll have to think more about that. Possibly it was getting to do science comedy with my NASA colleague, Aurorasaurus team member, and all-around awesome person, Kasha Patel. Science comedy is her thing, but we got to do a fun skit together, making jokes about space weather and such.
–this post edited by Ashley Balzer, UND student and Goddard intern