New Millennium Program


Dr. James Slavin—Space Technology 5, Project Scientist

A Magnetic Field of Science

When Jim Slavin was nine years old he saw on TV the Mariner 4 pictures of the Martian surface being received in real time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It was then that he decided that he had to be a NASA scientist and "see" the solar system. He wrote to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) asking for information on becoming an astronomer and was mailed a pamphlet on how to do that. To his dismay he soon discovered that astronomers had to get very good grades in school, take lots of math courses, and go to college for many years. In spite of the daunting task ahead, Jim was determined.

"Much to the surprise of my friends and family, I faithfully followed the directions in the AAS career pamphlet for the next 19 years," Jim muses. "By the end of that time I was a staff scientist at JPL."

This was quite an accomplishment since Jim's family moved every other year. His father worked as an air traffic controller and was frequently transferred to different airports. Jim and his younger sister, and a few cousins, were the first members of their extended family to earn college degrees. His parents hailed from working class neighborhoods in New Martinsville, West Virginia (mother) and Brooklyn, New York City (father).

Not satisfied with a college degree, Jim went on to earn a doctorate in Space Physics from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1982. At that time he was a member of the Pioneer Venus Orbiter Magnetometer Team based at UCLA. Upon completion of his PhD, he went to JPL, first as a post-doctoral fellow, and then as a staff scientist. Not only did he graduate with a degree that led him to fulfilling his childhood dream——to become Dr. James Slavin——he got to begin his career at the very place that inspired him!

Dr. Jim Slavin
Space Technology 5's Dr. Jim Slavin.

In 1988 Slavin spent a year at NASA Headquarters as the Discipline Scientist for Magnetospheric Physics. He has been an active contributor to several missions: the Distant Tail and P/Giacobini-Zinner phases of the ISEE-3 Mission, Mars Aeronomy Observer Mission, Solar Terrestrial Probes, Dynamics Explorer-1/2, IMP-8, WIND, Cluster, POLAR, Mercury Orbiter, and the MESSENGER mission to Mercury that will launch later this summer. He is currently the Head of the Electrodynamics Branch at GFSC's Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics and has authored or co-authored over 230 scientific articles.

For NMP's ST5, Slavin is directing the experiments that will be conducted during the mission's validation flight into the tumultuous region that acts as the Earth's "suit of armor," the magnetosphere. There, ST5 will map the intensity and direction of magnetic fields over the Earth's polar regions. In addition to telling us more about the causes of the beautiful auroral borealis, studying this region may yield important information about disruptive space weather (storms and substorms).

"While the magnetosphere deflects most solar plasma and energetic particle radiation, large amounts of electrical energy may enter," he explains. "When this happens, the energy is sometimes stored in the magnetic tail and builds up over time until it is spontaneously released in the form of a substorm. On other occasions the energy can directly go into the ring current surrounding the Earth and the result is a storm."

Happy with his career choices, Dr. Slavin feels fortunate to have been part of space science communities that have made discoveries of significant interest. Slavin says that he's "stumbled" into so many great research opportunities that he really would not want to go back and "roll the dice again." However, when asked to consider what alternative career he might be happy in, he declared, "Psychology. Next to space plasmas, I find people's minds the most puzzling objects in the universe."

When he's not studying magnetic fields, Slavin relaxes by playing tennis and reading mysteries and science fiction. Intriqued with his work and happy at play, Slavin's wish is that everyone could get many, many chances to realize his or her highly individualized life's goals. "I'd like an optimistic, exciting, win-win future in which the so-called "creative class" expands to encompass most of the human population."

Written by Sandi Beck.

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