The Northern Lights above Poker Flat Research Range.


Northern Lights illuminate alum’s path to career as physicist

Rebecca Holmes ’07 stared up and out through a plastic observation dome into the dark March sky above the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska. Early into her career as a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, this was Holmes’s first project as the principal investigator — a big step in a scientist’s evolution — and there had been little, if any, time to take it all in.

Hopefully, the auroras Holmes had come to study would soon appear. But she was on their timeline now. With all instruments in place, there was nothing to do but wait for something to happen.

She had been here once before, 14 years earlier, staring out through this same dome, an NCSSM senior with the same sense of wonder; then, as now, a crystalline spring snow on the ground and a nip in the air.

The dome

Holmes’s father, now retired, flew F-15 fighter jets from Air Force bases around the country. The family moved a lot. From fifth grade to 10th grade Holmes changed schools every year. She wound up at Eastern Wayne High School as a sophomore, her father stationed nearby at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. It was here that she learned of NCSSM, applied, and was accepted.

“To me, it was just really incredible to get to finish out high school in the same place for both years, and it was somewhere that had all the academics that I had always wanted,” she says. “I felt like it was my reward for having to bounce around between a bunch of different schools. I finally got to take challenging classes and I was so lucky to be able to do that.”

Holmes’s early interests were in biology. Though a Research in Biology course with NCSSM instructor Amy Sheck set her up for future success in the classroom — “It was amazing; I learned so many good research skills from her” — she soon realized that biology wasn’t her strength.

Physics seemed a better fit. The courses she took in that field with instructors John Kolena and Jackie Bondell confirmed it.

It was with Bondell that Holmes first travelled to the Poker Flat Research Range lab as part of a special academic opportunity at NCSSM called Mini-Term. In Alaska, she and five classmates went dog sledding and visited museums and science laboratories, including Poker Flat, which was closed for the day. The students had the facility mostly to themselves.

Holmes (far left) with classmates at Poker Flat Research Range in 2007.

“I remember so clearly being fascinated by everything, even the building itself,” Holmes recalls of the after-hours tour. “This was a real lab where real scientists were working. Even their lunchroom fascinated me. I thought, ‘This is so cool; they’re here working all night and they have to make their meals here.’”

But it was the dome, the portal to the night sky, that truly awed her. When it was her turn, she climbed the 10-foot ladder to the observation deck above. Six feet further up, the dome. Beyond that, the universe. She was between two worlds.

Now, in 2021, she was back in the same spot, surrounded by her own instrumentation, closing a loop she hadn’t even realized she was beginning.

“It’s funny remembering it now,” she says. “It almost feels like something from a dream.” 

Exospheric tele-medicine

This keeps happening to Holmes: she returns to points plotted on the graph of her life years later from a different trajectory. So it is, too, with her job at Los Alamos.

While pursuing her undergraduate degree in physics from UNC-Chapel Hill, Holmes spent part of a summer working on a research project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The landscape stunned her. “It was like some place I would go on vacation,” she recalls thinking.

Years later, when looking for postdoc opportunities after earning her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, her first thought was Los Alamos. And not just because of the area’s natural beauty. Los Alamos National Laboratory, as Holmes describes it, is a “mythical” place, long known as the de facto birthplace of the nuclear age. In the 75-ish years since, the lab has expanded far beyond its origins. Whatever your field of study, Holmes says, there’s probably someone else at Los Alamos working in the same field.

Holmes landed the coveted postdoc. A full-time staff position at the laboratory followed. She is now two years into her career as a fully-fledged researcher. 

A small part of her work at the moment is built around developing ways to perform diagnostics from Earth on space-based particle accelerators. It involves understanding the behavior of both naturally-occurring auroras (hence the research in Fairbanks) and artificial ones, such as those created when particle accelerators orbiting earth fire electrons toward the earth’s atmosphere. These auroras can illuminate more than the night sky.

Whether natural or artificial, embedded within these shimmering waves of light are layers of information that scientists continue to discover as technologies improve. Holmes’s hypothesis is that the characteristics of accelerator-born auroras can reveal hints about the accelerators’ health and well-being. Evaluations of this data could possibly allow scientists and technicians on earth to tweak or repair accelerators orbiting above without ever leaving the office. Think of it as exospheric tele-medicine. 

The data Holmes collected recently will form a baseline of understanding for a future return to Alaska to study an artificial aurora from a spaced-based particle accelerator. The end game of all the research is to have a better handle on how similar light particles hurled toward our atmosphere from space (during a solar storm, for instance) may impact complicated communication systems on earth that facilitate everything from maintaining our nation’s defense to following directions on your phone to the nearest take-out.

Holmes back at Poker Flat in 2021, cold and blurry.

Somewhere in a dream

While much had changed for Holmes since her first visit to Poker Flat in 2007  as a 17 year-old, on her return the lab appeared pretty much the same as it had years before. The paint on the walls seemed familiar. So, too, did the framed institutional photos hanging on them. Even the breakroom where Holmes had once imagined “real” scientists dining looked as it had, but now she was the one making coffee there.

Faint and fleeting, the auroras had failed to cooperate in 2007. Not much happened during the first half of the two-week trip this past March, either. Auroras are as unpredictable as they are beautiful, choosing to appear when they are ready. On top of that, clear night skies are necessary to see them. All the planning in the world cannot guarantee good timing and even better luck.

Holmes had both for three nights of the research trip. As she perched in the darkness just beneath the dome, the auroras began to wash the sky in rolling, flickering waves of shifting green and red and yellow and purple. Some parts of the sky seemed boldy lit by celestial clouds; others were brightened by coy but brilliant flashes of color.

It was worth the 14-year wait. “A lot of people describe the auroras as dancing light, and I can totally see why,” Holmes says. “It was like I was back somewhere I had only been in a dream. I felt lucky that my life had allowed that moment to be possible.”

Luck. Fate. Reward. However it’s counted, Holmes turns to NCSSM as the starting point for it all.

“It’s hard to reflect on the meaning of an experience when you’re trying to get finicky equipment to work, but for me, those times often mean the most,” she wrote in an Instagram post soon after completing her recent research trip. “NCSSM prepared me for success as a scientist in so many ways, and I’m especially grateful for teachers like [Jackie Bondell] who travelled to Alaska for a week with six teenagers.”

Holmes will be back in Alaska next year, observing and collecting data from an artificial aurora. Though that data will be collected from a point farther north than Fairbanks, she is sure that thoughts of her first trip to the frozen north as an NCSSM senior will return, and with it the recent feelings of nostalgia and appreciation, like a favorite recurring dream.