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Discovering a Bigger Picture
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Tom Woods

Tom Woods is a planetary scientist who studies the sun. Image Credit: Tom Woods

As a child, Tom Woods loved to build things. If his parents threw away a broken appliance, it became a new project for him. Woods thought that he would grow up to design buildings, but instead he decided to translate that love of creating to science and went to college with plans to be a science major.

"Understanding one's own talents and how best to apply them is a challenge that everyone faces. Trying different things, meeting new people and soliciting suggestions from others (even from your parents) can sometimes provide enlightenment on what career path to pursue next," Woods says.

Woods did precisely that. His parents and teachers at school encouraged him to look at science. Once at Rhodes College, Woods decided to focus on physics. Then Jack Taylor, one of Woods' professors, encouraged him to attend graduate school and study Halley's comet. Woods did not consider this to be very realistic, since it was 1980 and the comet was not scheduled to reappear until 1986. By then, he would have completed school.

However, Woods did attend Johns Hopkins University, as his mentor had suggested. He finished his Ph.D. in 1985, one year shy of the comet's arrival. Luckily, he was invited to do postdoctoral work at the school and was able to study the comet using information gathered from two NASA sounding rocket flights. Today, he focuses his research on the sun.

A colorful image of the sun

This multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun was taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 30, 2010. Image Credit: SDO/AIA

The promise of new discoveries drives Woods' research. "I really enjoy the creative part of research," Woods says. "New data sets are rich with opportunities to discover something new. Even routine observations often present variations that challenge us on how nature actually operates." Woods works on large teams to interpret those data and create new instruments for space missions.

Woods currently is working as the lead scientist on the EVE team. EVE is a sensor on board NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched in 2010. EVE helps study solar irradiance, or the variation in the brightness of the sun over time. Solar irradiance is important because it affects satellites and other equipment in space. Solar irradiance also impacts global warming. Woods and his colleagues are trying to understand the extent to which solar irradiance is affecting climate change.

Woods considers himself mainly an instrument scientist, but he reminds students that there are many ways to work on a NASA project. "It takes lots of people with many different talents to design, build and operate a successful space mission. Very few of those team members are actually astronauts or rocket scientists. Indeed, many are engineers, technicians, programmers, managers, instrument scientists, accountants and so forth." Teamwork is the key to achieving their goals.

Related Resources:
› Solar Dynamics Observatory
› NASA Career Resources
› Space Science Explorers Series

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies