Getting to know Scott McIntosh

NCAR’s new director of the High Altitude Observatory

As part of a series of interviews with new leaders at NCAR/UCAR, Staff News recently chatted with Scott McIntosh. We asked five questions to learn more about Scott, personally and professionally.

Staff News: Tell us a little about your background.

Scott:  I grew up in the small city of Uddingston, Scotland, which is about 10 miles east of Glasgow. My father was an executive at the Hoover Company in the U.K. The school I attended was built in the late 1890s or something like that.

When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer. My great grandfather was a barrister and administrator in Antigua, branching out of the family firm that still exists in Manhattan. Then I realized that I had to write essays in law school and it would take seven years to finish. English was my worst subject so I changed my mind during my last years of high school and decided to pursue a career in science.

At age 17, I went to Glasgow University, which is one of the oldest universities in the U.K. founded about 600 years ago. I completed my bachelor’s degree in physics with high honors and a first class degree.

After that, I interviewed for jobs in the semiconductor industry. I was also offered a PhD program in medical imaging on cadavers at University of Edinburgh, but I didn’t want to do any work associated with dead bodies. Then I was accepted for a master’s program at the University of Newcastle in medical imaging.

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Scott McIntosh and family members at the Bolder Boulder (Courtesy photo.)

Before entering the master’s program, I got a phone call from a Professor at Glasgow who asked me to come and use similar techniques to study the Sun. That's how I received a Ph.D. in Astrophysics (from Glasgow) when I was 24 years old. I had never done astronomy (or solar physics) work before, but it really sparked my interest.

Phil Judge and Paul Charbonneau were my supervisors when I came out to Boulder to do an internship while a student. I later was accepted as an ASP postdoc here in 1999. After loving my spell in Boulder, I left NCAR in 2001, taking two years as an external fellow of the European Space Agency, stationed in NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, near D.C. That was two and a half years, with a year tagged on as a researcher at the Universities Space Research Association, working on the then-new “Living With A Star” Program and fledgling Solar Dynamics Observatory mission. In 2004, we moved back to Boulder, taking up a position at Southwest Research Institute across town. I was there for about three and half years and learned a great deal. Finally, I came back to NCAR in the fall of 2007 as a long-term visitor and was offered a job as a Project Scientist II in HAO in 2008. I became a ladder track scientist in 2010.

Outside of work, I stay busy as a husband and father to four children. I coach my children’s soccer teams. I love seeing the light go on when the kids discover the passion of playing soccer. My wife of 12 years spends her time writing books and taking care of the children – I simply couldn’t do what I do without her.
Staff News: Do you have any hidden talents? What are they?

Scott:  When I was younger, I was a really good, competitive soccer player and golfer. Golf is still my love, my center. I can de-stress on the golf course. I love the mental challenge and Zen-like state of playing really well. Although, with too many other responsibilities my “links time” is greatly reduced.

Staff News: What is one thing you can't live without?

Scott: I have a 5-wood – a golf club - that I’ve had since I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s my comfort and I can’t get rid of it. It’s got me out of more sticky jams than I can possibly remember.

Staff News: What are your goals for the next six months in your new role?

Scott: I am in the process of forming teams around the science we do, so we can set goals to meet the challenges we face. We are making really good strides. We plan to unveil our strategic plan around HAO’s 75th anniversary event this fall.

This is a little further out than six months, but I feel it is worth mentioning. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity coming up with the total solar eclipse in 2017. It is being called the “Great American Eclipse” and will be visible from Oregon to South Carolina.

This will be the first total solar eclipse in 150 years to transit the continental United States, but there will be a second total solar eclipse coming in 2024 that passes up the spine of the country. It’s like a bus in Glasgow: wait for hours on one and then two come along all at once.

I see these eclipses as unprecedented opportunities to bring public awareness of the Sun-Earth connection - a complex and interesting beast we all depend on. Indeed, we live in its atmosphere. We’re building an exciting project called the Eclipse Megamovie.

Staff News: If you could have a second career, what would it be?

Scott: If I were to retire today, I’d prepare to go play golf in the [PGA] Senior tour (I am not quite old enough for the Seniors yet). I turned down a golf scholarship when I was younger. My sensei at the time told me it was better to be a good amateur than a bad professional. The game changes so much when you do it for a living. Maybe he was right, but I think I’d still love to try.