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Michael Shay, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, has been named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union
Michael Shay, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, has been named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, which recognized him especially for his breakthrough contributions and sustained impact in understanding magnetic reconnection in space.

Prof. Michael Shay named American Geophysical Union Fellow

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Plasma physicist recognized for ‘breakthroughs and sustained impact’

It’s a great thing to make breakthrough discoveries in science, providing new insight into how the world works and why. To be recognized for “sustained impact” is a whole ’nother level of scientific prowess.

The American Geophysical Union, the largest Earth and space sciences association in the world, has recognized University of Delaware Professor Michael Shay with such an honor, naming him as a fellow of the AGU. AGU has selected less than 0.1% of its membership as new fellows annually since 1962.

Shay, who studies plasma physics, was cited “for major breakthroughs and sustained impact in understanding magnetic reconnection in space.”

In addition to such research excellence, fellows are chosen because they “embody AGU’s vision of a thriving, sustainable, and equitable future powered by discovery, innovation and action.” The AGU notes that each fellow is recognized for their integrity, respect and collaboration while creating deep engagement in education, diversity and outreach. 

Shay will be formally recognized in San Francisco this week during the AGU’s annual meeting, which is expected to draw more than 25,000 people from 100 countries.

“I am honored and frankly somewhat overwhelmed to receive this recognition,” Shay said. “I feel very lucky to have so many great scientists as both colleagues and friends. They have been and continue to be an inspiration to me.”

Shay’s research

Shay, who joined UD’s faculty in 2005, is an expert in plasma physics, using analytical and computational methods in his research. Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is a special kind of ionized gas that exists alongside solids, liquids and gases. It is composed of particles with positive, negative and sometimes no charge. Ninety-nine percent of the observable universe is plasma.

Shay’s focus is on the physics of space plasma, looking especially at how plasmas get hot without the friction or particle collisions that produce heat in so many other systems.

“We still don’t understand how things heat in a plasma,” Shay said. “If you rub the table with your hand and make friction, your hand heats up. If you have a wind tunnel and there’s turbulence in that tunnel, it dissipates and that’s heat. Those systems require a lot of collisions between particles.”

But how do plasmas heat up when there are no such collisions? A major question of space physics is how the solar wind that emerges from the sun remains hot long after it leaves the sun’s direct influence.

Shay has worked on this question with Tai Phan, senior fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also an AGU Fellow. Phan reported evidence of collisionless heating in a 2018 Nature publication.

“Pretty much all of the plasmas we study in space have very low collisionality — very infrequent,” Shay said. “But something is heating it. And in the Earth’s magnetosphere there are regions that are hotter than we would expect.”

One heating mechanism in space is magnetic reconnection, the phenomenon that occurs when magnetic field lines cross, releasing intense magnetic energy and sending high-speed jets of electrons out.

This phenomenon has been observed by NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a project launched in 2015 that sent four spacecraft into the Earth’s magnetic environment to gather information. Shay and UD colleague William Matthaeus, Unidel Professor of Physics and Astronomy, are among the scientists participating in that mission.

The MMS mission also has gathered a great deal of data on turbulence, which is a focus of Matthaeus’ research.

Matthaeus, who is also an AGU Fellow and director of the Delaware Space Grant Consortium, first met Shay at his poster during the AGU’s 2003 meeting.

“I was uncommonly impressed by his discussion of the exciting science he was presenting,” Matthaeus said. “But he was a ‘reconnection’ guy, and I was a ‘turbulence’ guy — two very different fields — so we did not automatically see eye to eye about everything. Even our vocabularies were rather different. But I really liked the way he dealt with these differences and this exchange began what is now a two-decade collegial relationship punctuated by numerous collaborations. Along the way we successfully recruited Mike for a physics faculty position at Delaware. This was a great choice and Mike continues to be a great colleague after all these years.”

Matthaeus said their collaboration would “catch fire” in 2007, when their postdocs Paul Cassak and Sergio Servidio sat next to each other in a big office in Sharp Lab. With the guidance of Shay and Matthaeus, they merged the ideas of plasma reconnection and turbulence. That work started a hybridized subject, sometimes known as “reconnection-in-turbulence” that continues to attract international attention, Matthaeus said.

“There are aspects of reconnection and turbulence that we still don’t understand,” Shay said, “yet they are still very important in space weather. We need to understand these things to be able to predict space weather and protect satellites, astronauts and power grids, for example.”

Originally slated as a three-year mission and launched in 2015, MMS continues to collect an enormous amount of data from the regions it has traveled through.

“What I didn’t anticipate was how intense it would be,” Shay said. “All of a sudden you have all of this unprecedented data and you’re trying to do something with it very quickly. And even after these missions are finished, the data are still there and you can go look at it a different way.”

Matthaeus said Shay’s techniques, based on plasma simulation, are very different from what turbulence theorists usually use.

“Our early work gave rise to an effort, frequently collaborative, in computer simulation of turbulence in plasma,” Matthaeus said. “Originally involving Mike’s Ph.D. student Tulasi Parashar, this line of work is now the focus of attention of numerous postdocs, students and senior faculty at many institutions and major laboratories. The applications of such research to plasma dynamics in the sun, in interplanetary space and in astrophysics are widespread and nearly universal.”

And such excellence is only part of the Shay story, Matthaeus said.

“He is a terrific colleague with a great sense of humor who really cares about the people he works with,” he said. “In some ways he is quite a character. For years he has been the emcee and center of entertainment at the Department Christmas party. I love the fact that he carries a stack of index cards in his pocket to remind him what he needs to do every day.

“He gives freely of his time in mentoring and inspiring local high school students.  He also contributes more service and outreach as an Associate Director of the Delaware NASA Space Grant.

“But maybe the most impressive thing about Mike has been how good a family man he is, spending lots of time with his two daughters and his lovely spouse, cooking meals, going camping and generally being a great dad.”

About the researcher

Professor Michael Shay of the University of Delaware studies space plasma physics as a member of the faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Grinnell College and his doctorate at the University of Maryland, then did research at the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics at the University of Maryland before coming to UD in 2005.

Among his many awards are a 2007 National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, a 2008 Francis Alison Society Young Scholar Award (a UD honor now called the Gerard J. Mangone Award) and a 2011 Excellence in Scholarship Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2015 he was named a fellow of the American Physical Society, which recognized him for “pioneering contributions to understanding magnetic reconnection.” 

About the AGU

AGU is a global community supporting more than half a million advocates and professionals in the Earth and space sciences. Through broad and inclusive partnerships, AGU aims to advance discovery and solution science that accelerate knowledge and create solutions that are ethical, unbiased and respectful of communities and their values. The AGU’s programs include serving as a scholarly publisher, including its flagship publication — the Journal of Geophysical Research — as well as convening virtual and in-person events and providing career support.

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