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An interview with Michael Thompson, HAO’s new director

Michael Thompson is no stranger to NCAR—he’s been visiting regularly ever since completing a postdoctoral appointment with HAO in 1988–89. He recently left the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield, where he headed the School of Mathematics and Statistics and was a professor of applied math and solar physics, to take the helm of HAO. He replaces Michael Knölker, who held the position since 1994.

Michael Thompson

Michael, who has been an NCAR affiliate scientist since 2003, uses mathematical concepts to study the physics, evolution, and internal structures of the Sun and other stars. He holds a doctorate from Cambridge University in helioseismology (the study of the Sun’s oscillations).

His résumé also includes postdoctoral stints at Denmark’s Aarhus University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a lecturer at the University of London and professor at Imperial College London, and has long been involved in projects such as SOHO (the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and GONG (the Global Oscillation Network Group).

Staff Notes caught up with Michael to talk about HAO, his own research, and life in Boulder.

Staff Notes: What attracted you to the director position?  

Michael: First of all, I’m really enjoying working with the fantastic staff in HAO. I’ve found everybody to be extremely welcoming and supportive, and strongly committed to HAO.

I think that HAO has done and continues to do great science. The observatory is very dynamic, with a broad research program in all aspects of solar and upper-atmospheric physics.

Boulder is probably the best place in the world to be involved in solar physics research, with HAO, CU-Boulder, CoRA [Colorado Research Associates], and SwRI [Southwest Research Institute]. It’s an attractor that brings many solar physicists into town, so you get to interact with leading researchers. The director position was a rare opportunity.

Staff Notes: What are your plans as director?

Michael: I see opportunities for greater interaction between HAO and the rest of NCAR. The Sun is the main driver for everything that happens in the Earth system, so understanding the Sun and its impacts on Earth is quite rightly a significant element of the NCAR program.

In addition to making stronger ties with the rest of NCAR, I’m looking to strengthen our outreach and our support for the university community. HAO already does a lot in terms of contributing to community models and with the facilities that it provides at Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, but I don’t think we necessarily always make enough noise about it.

We have important contributions to make in terms of education and training for early-career researchers in solar physics, solar-terrestrial physics, and instrumentation. Linked to that, one of the greatest strengths of HAO over the years has been its visitor program, which is one of the best at NCAR. I want to make sure we preserve its strength.

Staff Notes: Are you going to continue your own research while you are director?

Michael: I am indeed. I’m involved in the Solar Dynamics Observatory [SDO], a NASA mission that was launched earlier this year. I’m a co-investigator on SDO’s Helioseismic Magnetic Imager, which is gathering new data on the Sun’s oscillations and magnetic field.

I’m also involved in the Kepler satellite, which is looking to detect Earth-sized extrasolar planets. My involvement is analyzing oscillations of the stars to study the properties of Sun-like stars, including those whose mass and age differ from our own Sun.

Staff Notes: You moved here from England for this job. Any thoughts on life in Boulder?

Michael: We’re living up in the foothills, near Walker Ranch, and greatly enjoying observing the wildlife. We’ve already been visited by a bobcat and wild turkeys and are looking forward to seeing our first bears and mountain lions up there. I’m really enjoying life and work in Boulder.