Elizabeth McDonald in a wool cap standing beside a mountain stream.

Elizabeth MacDonald

Space Physicist | NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


University of Washington: B.S. in Physics

University of New Hampshire: M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics

Tell us about your job and your citizen science project. What do you do?

I study how auroras are born and evolve, using both traditional and nontraditional sources of data. In the past, I’ve worked on studying the aurora with sounding rockets that measure the particles that rain down and cause the aurora. I did my Ph.D. research on data collected from sounding rockets launched from Alaska. Then I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I used satellite instruments to measure particles that cause the aurora farther out in space in the magnetosphere.

During my time at Los Alamos, there was a significant aurora event in 2011, and I had noticed that there were loads of posts on Twitter from people who’d seen it. I was able to build a map of where it was visible using the locations from the Twitter posts. Inspired by this, I founded the Aurorasaurus citizen science project in 2012 to tap into the impressive real-time data that amateur aurora chasers collect and aggregate these observations from people around the globe. It’s very exciting to work with people who love the aurora so much and are so skilled at capturing images of it all around the world.

I came to NASA to continue working on both avenues of investigation: with scientific instruments and via collaboration with citizen scientists. My research group works with citizen scientists in a number of ways. Our goal is to find out when and where auroras are visible, then match those observations up with data from other sources, like satellites, to develop a model that helps predict where auroras might be seen in the future. We invite people to use our website to submit their observations directly to us. We’ve also built algorithms that gather publicly posted observations from Twitter, and we do outreach to existing groups of aurora chasers and photographers to invite them to participate. We’ve found these communities are generally keen to share their observations and like to learn more of the science behind auroras. To that end, since 2015 we’ve been blogging about aurora-related topics.

Citizen science has become a big part of what I do at NASA. I now serve as the Heliophysics Division Lead for citizen science. That role has me helping advance opportunities for citizen science across heliophysics - not just related to auroras but also other phenomena like sprites and radio waves. There’s growing appreciation among my colleagues for what a citizen-science approach can accomplish and how it complements other research. It’s still new, and there are still some misconceptions among scientists about citizen science, but more and more of my colleagues are turning to citizen scientists for their help in filling important observational gaps or to handle the vast quantities of data that NASA instruments collect.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

It was a research internship that I did as part of my Space Grant scholarship in college. I was interested in engineering and struggling to appreciate physics. A mentor in the aurora world helped me see that physics is about asking the question, “Why?,” and that there are beautiful topics to explore like the dancing aurora. That really motivated me.

The learning-by-doing part of that internship caused a light to go on and motivated me even further. On the very first day, we wound a wire around a frame in order to put current on the wire and create a magnetic field that would cancel the Earth’s and allow us to calibrate an instrument to measure the (weaker) magnetic field in space. It wasn’t until I physically did that and saw the real-world application of physical laws that a light went on for me.

What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Well, I would say to keep an open mind and learn the history of the field well so that you can really tell what is a new idea when it comes along. People have different ideas and styles; therefore, we always need new people and their ideas.

What is the most exciting discovery you have made through citizen science?

The discovery of STEVE is the most exciting thing by far.

To be more accurate, we didn’t discover the phenomenon so much as we discovered an underlying connection to another phenomenon: the subauroral ion drift, or SAID. We were able to connect extremely strong SAIDs, which satellites have observed for decades but scientists did not know were visible to the human eye from Earth, with STEVE. STEVE was documented by citizen scientists way before scientists recognized its significance. STEVE as a visual phenomenon was also known to scientists decades ago – Carl Størmer documented and photographed it 100 years ago – but that knowledge had been lost from the modern record until citizen scientist and amateur historian Michael Hunnekuhl rediscovered it.

STEVE, by the way, is a “backronym.” Citizen scientists in Canada started calling this unusual phenomena “Steve,” referencing the animated movie “Over the Hedge,” in which the animal characters name a hedge “Steve” because they had no other word to describe it. I thought this was great, and when it came time to give the phenomena a more scientific name, another scientist came up with an appropriate “backronym” that would spell out STEVE: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

Scientifically, STEVE is an east-west flow of particles, visible at significantly lower latitudes than typical auroras. The mechanism causing the light differs from typical auroras. Typical auroras are made of the light given off when plasma from the Sun is caught in the Earth's magnetic field, flows past the planet, then rockets back toward the poles, ricocheting off gas atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. Essentially, particles from the magnetosphere rain down onto the atmosphere and hit molecules along the way, which get excited and then emit light. (For a more complete explanation, see a talk I gave in the Science for Alaska series put on by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.) STEVE is caused by an east-west flow of particles in the ionosphere – the upper level of our atmosphere – that similarly collide with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, causing them to emit light.

Who inspires you?

So many citizen scientists have inspired me! In general, aurora citizen scientists are so passionate about auroras and are such great observers and photographers.

I’ll call out Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm. These two polar explorers formed a partnership they call Hearts in the Ice. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they have dedicated their lives to raising awareness of climate change and participating in citizen science while overwintering in a remote cabin on Svalbard, an island off the northwest coast of Norway. Because of their location and their skill and commitment, they were able to collect some really unusual auroral observations to complement professional observations made during a rocket-induced artificial aurora. They’ve contributed to so many projects from their remote location at Bamsebu – they’ve really impressed me. They were so open, flexible, and willing to figure things out as they arose. They are a model for how to do this “extreme” citizen science in the future. They’ve inspired so many people with their ethics and attitude.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

Aurorasaurus, of course! The breadth of citizen science encompasses so much more than traditional science, and that is very rewarding to me personally.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a solar minimum, meaning there has been much less activity in the aurora. This has given my team and me time to focus on educational initiatives. We’ve developed resources to help undergraduate students and citizen scientists learn more about the science of auroras to empower them to make new observations. One benefit we aim for is more people getting into this very technical and jargon-heavy world; students and citizen scientists frequently have insightful questions. Stay tuned to our blog as we continue to release these educational materials in the very near future.

Where do you want to go next?

One of the next areas is opening up equitable, accessible, safe spaces for outdoor astronomical viewing. Not everyone has equal access to the night sky, nor the leisure time to pursue their interests through citizen science. We’re listening and learning from the lead of anti-racist groups, like the Black scientists of BlackAFinSTEM. The events of 2020 have caused many to pause amid starkly illuminated differences in privilege that apply across NASA as well. I am hopeful that the momentum will continue to change as we rebuild and am personally committed to making changes that serve to increase equity in our field. You can learn more in our blog post here.