Skip to main content

Explore the Heliophysics Summer School

Designed for advanced graduate students and first- or second-year postdoctoral fellows, the NASA Heliophysics Summer School is an interdisciplinary exploration of the physical processes connecting the Sun, solar system planets and interplanetary space. Over eight days, students examine topics ranging from the solar dynamo to the heliosphere’s interaction with the interstellar medium. Space weather impacts and observational technologies are also studied. 

Are you curious how your own area of research integrates into heliophysics? Do you want to connect with other young researchers and explore professional development opportunities in this exciting field? Here's what one student had to say about his Summer School experience.

Origin of the Summer School

Graphic of magnetic reconnection

Visualization of magnetic reconnection. The blue lines surrounding Earth represent the magnetic field lines of the magnetosphere and the bright point indicates the moment of reconnection. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The Heliophysics Summer School is the brainchild of Dr. Madhulika Guhathakurta, lead program scientist of NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) program. In 2005, a key LWS goal was the integration of solar, heliospheric and space physics as one connected science. Dr. Guhathakurta realized that a solution lay in educating early-career scientists; but heliophysics students needed heliophysics textbooks, and none existed. 

No one had the range of expertise to write such books, Dr. Guhathakurta thought. But one could synthesize them out of lectures given by experts in each subdiscipline. The idea of a seminar-style summer school set in Boulder, Colorado, where she had spent her postdoctoral years, was born. 

A partnership was created between NASA LWS and UCAR’s Cooperative Programs for the Advancement of Earth System Science (CPAESS) to establish a school. The first Summer School was held in 2007; the first textbook was published in 2009. Since then, the Summer School has produced five textbooks, which serve as the framework for today’s Summer School learning experience. In 2019, these textbooks were condensed into a single online volume, Principles of Heliophysics.

What Heliophysics Summer School is like

Students of class 2017

Students at the 2017 Summer School. Credit: UCAR/CPAESS

The Summer School program consists of lectures, interactive labs, professional development opportunities and social activities. See a sample schedule.

Each Summer School has a specific theme around which lectures are tailored. These lectures provide the knowledge needed to give students a broader perspective, so they can understand exactly how heliophysics encompasses their own research and that of their fellow classmates. It’s an eye-opener for these students, who tend to be isolated in their individual fields.

Lectures and related activities reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the program. Former student and lecturer - Dr. Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo remembers a typical exercise designed to emphasize the interconnectivity of the Sun-Earth system: 

Labs are integral to the Summer School program. Working together, students run simulations using the space weather models hosted by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center. These simulations help students visualize events like a coronal mass ejection hitting Earth’s magnetic field. They also let them experiment with event conditions, such as the solar wind’s speed or the Sun’s brightness, to see how that affects the result. Doing these labs helps build intuitive understanding of the system and real-world skills. 

[The labs are] core to the whole thing… Students learn a lot by doing these labs, and they actually get to work together so this cohort of people just entering the field will know each other from [participating in] labs at the Summer School. Groups of 4-5 students cluster around a computer, looking at the kind of data that heliophysics researchers look at all the time.

Dana Longcope

Solar physicist and dean of the Heliophysics Summer School

However, Dr. Nick Gross is quick to add that Summer School isn’t all academics. Rounding out the experience are talks by astronauts, former Jack Eddy Fellows and other guest speakers; career panels featuring scientists employed inside and outside academia; and occasional tours of facilities like NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory laboratories.

Certain activities allow students to improve their skills in everything from using computational modeling tools to presenting research. Summer School alumna Dr. Erika Palmerio appreciated the opportunity for all students to present their own work to other students and faculty.

Summer School students spend free time with each other, hiking, dining, and investigating all that summertime Boulder has to offer.

How this Summer School is unique

Boulder Flatirons

Boulder, Colorado, is a wonderful summer destination and the home to several institutions making key contributions to heliophysics. Credit: ©UCAR

Many well-respected summer schools in solar, heliospheric and space physics exist worldwide. What makes the Heliophysics Summer School different? 

The school distinguishes itself in providing an organized opportunity for students to learn material from outside their own heliophysics subdiscipline. Dr. Guhathakurta points to this scope as a key differentiator.

The distinctive interdisciplinary spirit of heliophysics is evidenced in the classroom, where deans encourage instructors and students to look continuously for relationships. 

What’s good about the Summer School is… having experienced people who have taught at a variety of different levels and are not afraid of interrupting an instructor and saying, “Think about this. How does that relate to this?” That’s really important.

Fran Bagenal

Planetary scientist and former dean of the Heliophysics Summer School 

Also unique is that the program follows a curriculum, the one articulated in the heliophysics textbooks. Certain lectures grounded in the textbook chapters are always given to Summer School students.

Even the school’s setting in Boulder is an advantage. Besides being a wonderful summer destination in the foothills of the Rockies, Boulder is home to several institutions doing significant work in heliophysics, including NCAR, the High Altitude Observatory, the National Solar Observatory, and the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

Finally, the program attracts a great variety of faculty and students. This diversity is immediately noticeable.

I really enjoyed the experience. I was struck by the diversity of speakers: multiple women, multiple people of color, faculty members, industry employees, civil servants. That's the first time that I've seen so many women and people of color on the schedule to purely talk science.

A former Heliophysics Summer School student

Impact of the Summer School

Computer simulated image of magnetic reconnection at the edge of the solar system

Computer simulated image of magnetic reconnection at the edge of the solar system, where the Sun’s sectored magnetic field breaks up into a sea of nested "magnetic bubbles”. Credit: NASA/J.F. Drake, M. Swisdak, M. Opher

More than 600 students have completed the Summer School since 2007. They leave with new knowledge that can influence their research. Some students use the experience to refine their choice of field. 

[Before Summer School] I changed fields, from exoplanets to solar physics… Heliophysics Summer School gave me a breadth of background that boosted my confidence and prepared me for this field I’m entering… It also helped me solidify the specific sub-field I’m interested in, coronal mass ejections.

Maurice Wilson

Former Heliophysics Summer School student

Often, attending Summer School inspires students to help grow the science at their home institutions. One student from Nigeria started a project upon her return to build simple magnetometers, which led to Nigerian universities offering courses in space weather for the first time. Some alumni go on to create heliophysics courses themselves, and use the school’s materials to build customized curricula.

The Summer School experience has also impacted its instructors and the experts visiting from Boulder-based institutions like LASP. Former dean Schrijver notes that the entire heliophysics community benefits from the increased communication at all levels. 

If you want to see how your work fits into the greater realm of this exciting science and join a community of early-career researchers like yourself, we invite you to join us at the 2024 Heliophysics Summer School!

How to apply

Back to overview