Sara and her science journey

Hi and Happy New Year to all the readers of this wonderful blog. I am Sara Gasparini, PhD student at the University of Bergen in Norway and with great enthusiasm and gratitude I recently became co-chair of the IAGA Education and Outreach committee. I am from the Italian alps, and I attained my Master’s degree in Physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. I wrote my Master’s thesis in Svalbard about the first SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Network) radar’s results. Living in Svalbard was a lifetime experience and a great opportunity to improve both my scientific and life skills. I received a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Turin and my thesis showed different approaches for solving the Schrödinger’s equation for molecules far more complex than the hydrogen atom. I am very passionate about life and science and my curiosity has brought me to always learn about different topics. Outreach and education have always been two of my major interests besides science. What I love about outreach is the ability to amaze young minds and people not in the field. It challenges you to think about why we are doing what we do. What motivates our passion and quest for knowledge? What I love about education is that a good mentor and great teachings is all you need to feed your enthusiasm and not let it go to waste. Bright minds are motivated with new challenges and inspiring environments that great mentors know how to provide. And I would love to be that great mentor one day for young students. Passion and charisma is what warms the hearts of us human beings.

This is the SuperDARN radar in Svalbard just before it fell in 2018. This radar is part of a network of more than 30 coherent scatter radars and the radar I used for my Master Thesis to deepen the knowledge on ionospheric electrodynamics. 

My PhD research focuses on the study of the auroral oval, trying to identify the physical processes that give the auroral oval the shape it has. At high latitudes in each hemisphere there is an almost constantly present ring of aurora, known as the auroral oval. The auroral oval is sensitive to conditions in the solar wind—in particular the solar wind’s embedded “interplanetary magnetic field.” Changes in the interplanetary magnetic field have an effect on the rate of magnetic reconnection on the Earth’s dayside and ultimately leads to changes in the auroral oval morphology/topology. Understanding these changes allows for the study of the physical processes and time scales that dictate the shape and dynamics of the large-scale auroral oval. My PhD thesis seeks to understand the mechanisms which are responsible for the growth and contraction of the auroral oval, determining its shape and its changes over time.

My PhD work in the Dynamics of the Asymmetric Geospace group at the University of Bergen currently consists of working with data assimilation. In particular I work with IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global exploration) satellite images. Satellite images are a good tool to study large scale dynamics of the auroral oval because they continuously show the global response of the ionosphere to particle precipitation, usually the cause of visible aurora and they enable us to follow the shape of the aurora. Precipitating charged particles—protons and electrons with energies varying from approximately 100 eV to 20 keV—travel along the magnetic field lines from the magnetosphere into the upper-atmosphere and their collisions with the ionospheric neutrals cause auroral emissions. This not only creates beautiful patterns in the sky, which have astonished humans since we looked up the skies, but also gives us a tool for keeping track of the precipitating particles and studying their collective behavior in the
ionosphere. Satellite images are also a tool to derive ionospheric conductances which are fundamental when assimilating data using the basic ionospheric physics equations such as the ionospheric Ohm’s law. In my research I combine images from IMAGE with SuperDARN data and ground-based magnetometers data to globally quantify ionospheric convection. Ionospheric convection measurements together with the images allow me to understand the shape and the temporal evolution of the auroral oval. Moreover, they are fundamental quantities to calculate reconnection electric fields. Reconnection electric fields are the key parameters we use to understand the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s magnetosphere. Hence, my work is devoted to interpreting reconnection electric fields and their associated uncertainties to infer new knowledge.

Here I am preparing the KHO Svalbard auroral cameras to make them ready for the auroral season. In the background is the EISCAT Svalbard incoherent scatter radar.

In my private life I do a lot of meditation. A calm mind is a temple for great ideas. I enjoy discovering new places and being in nature. When I am not hiking or in the middle of outdoor activities, I enjoy swimming at the pool as I generally enjoy water activities very much. I swim in the ocean all year round, even when the fjord temperatures are close to zero in the winter. In general, I like every kind of sport. Skiing is one of my favorite winter sports along with ice climbing, and every week I practice ballet. Determination and perseverance is what I train during my ballet classes. By doing a lot of sports I also strengthen the idea that our mind is our friend if we are healthy and in a healthy environment. As the latins used to say, “Mens sana in corpore sano”. From time to time I like to read about philosophy. Marcus Aurelius is one of my favorite philosophers. I am also passionate about learning new languages and other cultures. As I am a very curious person, I like to try new things, therefore new hobbies are always on the list!

Here I give you a quote from Marcus Aurelius. I like to remind myself of this everyday as we are here to enjoy life and be passionate about what we do. It is also a reminder to practice loving kindness towards ourselves and every being. If you would like to connect and share your experiences feel free to reach out, and if you would like to read one of my outreach articles follow the link below.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”


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