Sun struck

Name: Kandace Kiefer
Major: Atmospheric science
Year: Junior
Hometown: Decatur, Indiana

Intrigued by nothingness: Sunspots—the cool, dark places where nothing is happening on the surface of the sun—have captured Kandace’s imagination. She has been studying what they’re about and in what ways they affect weather on Earth. The smallest sunspots are about the size of the Earth.

A history-making finding: Kandace’s research has contradicted a long-held scientific belief about solar wind—the stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the sun. Her findings show that a ratio that helps define the solar wind’s temperature is variable, rather than constant, as long believed. Her finding will likely send other scientists back to the drawing board. “Their belief has been used as a given in other research, so my finding is significant,” she says.

The sun’s influence: Kandace’s fascination with sunspots and solar wind is fundamentally practical. “We need to get an understanding of these things because we have satellites and spacecraft going into space, and we need to know how the sun’s activity affects them.”

An Ivy League thing: During the summer of 2010, Kandace was in Massachusetts after winning a Harvard REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). “I was writing computer programs to analyze data on properties of the solar wind.” After getting her bachelor’s degree, she plans to attend graduate school.

A mentor who matters: Grateful for the influence and guidance of her faculty advisor, Ernest Agee, professor of atmospheric science, Kandace says if not for him she might still be trying to figure out what kind of research to pursue. “He really makes a point of getting to know students. He’s engaging and personable, and has incredible confidence in me.”

By Amy Raley