Fort Lewis College News

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Physics professor Ryan Haaland announced as 2014-15 Featured Scholar

Growing up on a farm in Minnesota might not seem like the obvious beginning of a scientist’s life, but Dr. Ryan Haaland can trace the genesis of his future career path to those early days. Dr. Haaland is a professor of physics and the winner of the 2014-15 FLC Featured Scholar Award.

“I was always breaking and taking things apart on the farm,” he recalls. “So I think that’s where I got my curiosity for science and technological things.”

He also remembers looking into the night sky and seeing the northern lights blaze above him. It was an experience that sparked a drive to find out what’s going on up there.

Although teaching is what he loves most, Dr. Haaland’s research interests are making major impacts on FLC and on the world of science. One example is the Falcon Telescope Network, an international partnership that FLC is now a part of thanks to Dr. Haaland’s connections with the Air Force.

Since the advent of space exploration and satellite technology, the area just above Earth’s atmosphere is turning into something resembling a busy highway in the middle of a junkyard, full of satellites, space junk, dust, and other objects. Knowing what’s flying around our planet and keeping satellites and astronauts out of harm’s way is a critical national security issue.

The Falcon Telescope Network brings together institutions in Colorado and Chile to survey and track objects orbiting the Earth. With the College as part of the network, FLC students and community members will have the opportunity to take part in some remarkable hands-on learning and research.

Dr. Haaland is also one of the leading edge researchers studying the relatively newly discovered phenomenon known as sprites. Sprites are massive electrical discharges, like lightning, but that happen above storm clouds and last only fractions of a second. For three summers now, Dr. Haaland and his colleagues have flown around thunderstorms above the Midwest to try and capture sprites on film for the first time, something they succeeded in doing. Their quest was the subject of the NOVA TV special: “At the Edge of Space.”

“That’s been a dream come true where a geeky scientist guy gets to fly around in an airplane and chase storms,” he says. “It’s pretty wild.”

“We all realize that as a planet we face some really deep challenges. Many of those problems will require a scientist and an engineer to work together to solve them,” he explains. “That’s what gives me (a) my passion for getting up every morning and coming up here to teach students about [physics], and (b) hope that we can figure some of these problems out and take better care of this place in which we live.” 


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