Up in the Stratosphere


Something otherworldly seems to be going on with the College’s associate executive deans lately. Lisa Pratt, the previous incumbent, recently accepted a new position as NASA’s planetary protection officer. And her successor, Jim Musser, a physics professor, is the principal investigator on the CREST Project, which sends a room-size detector into the stratosphere over Antarctica to study the particles produced by supernovas. The detector is borne skyward by balloons that are 100 meters in diameter when they are fully inflated. The last trip was in 2012; the next one, called HELIX, will take place in 2020.

Going to extremes

Musser, who visited Antarctica for the 2012 effort, sees similarities between working in the South Pole and in an IU lab: “In a sense both environments are 100 percent driven by science,” he explains. “In the College, you can be completely immersed in academic activities. Every day there are things you could do that are intellectually stimulating. The opportunities way outstrip any one person’s ability to capitalize on them.”

Musser also conducts research at Fermilab, a national accelerator laboratory near Chicago (a city whose temperatures, some would contend, rival those in the Antarctic). Musser works with massive equipment in Chicago, too: an accelerator the size of a football field produces neutrinos, mysterious particles with almost no mass. “Millions of neutrinos are passing through your body every second” Musser says. “You don’t know it because they just pass through, without interacting with the atoms in your body.” Musser is a member of a large group of scientists who are trying to learn more about these elusive particles.

Even the hardest of hard-core science disciplines is people-driven.

Musser got an early start on science (and skiing) growing up in Twin Falls, in Idaho’s Magic Valley. Though the town was small, Norman Herrett, a local jewelry store owner and former high school teacher, established a planetarium and a museum and staffed them with student lecturers like Musser. Kids would come in buses from around the state to hear the lectures. (The Herrett Center is now part of the College of Southern Idaho.) “It was a fantastic environment,” Musser says, “because not only did you learn about astronomy and giving lectures, but the telescopes were quite large and you could spend the night at the observatory.”

Musser entered the University of Arizona as an astronomy student, but when he learned how few opportunities existed in the field, he switched to physics. He wound up working with an atmospheric physicist and spending summers measuring and mapping the electric field at Cape Canaveral, so NASA could avoid lightning strikes when launching rockets.

He went on to earn his graduate degree at Berkeley, where he worked with scientists who developed the badges that measure radiation exposure. These badges are now routinely worn by people who work around X-ray equipment, like nurses and doctors.

Jim Musser at a desk
Jim Musser, professor of physics and associate executive dean of the College

Bearing the torch

As he talks about the physicists he worked with as a student, Musser says that the key is to “find fascinating people and latch on to them.” He believes that IU’s undergraduate programs offer just such mentorship opportunities. And he’s very excited by one of the College’s new academic initiatives that launches next fall called Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience, or ASURE.

“The ASURE program is intended to give students a chance to see how real-life scientific and scholarly research is conducted very early in their undergraduate careers,” Musser explains. After taking a one-semester course in research methods, ASURE students in the sciences and the humanities will be able to work in labs or conduct academic research alongside faculty and graduate students as early as the second semester of their freshman year.

“Faculty are very sensitive to the fact that undergraduates benefit significantly from that kind of hands-on experience,” Musser says. “My hope is that ASURE will provide opportunities for more students to benefit directly from the amazing research taking place in the College.”

On the other hand, Musser cautions, “you can be the smartest guy on the block and if you don’t know how to work with others, you’ll fail.” That’s why he considers a broad liberal arts education so important. “Even the hardest of hard-core science disciplines is people-driven. And so, being able to collaborate with others is critical. And people skills are developed by getting out of the lab and having life experiences.”