Dr. Pat Reiff

Rice University

I am a space physicist at Rice University in Texas. I study why the aurora is what it is and how the solar wind changes the Earth's environment.
When I was in middle school, I realized that I would never be able to live on my beauty, so I’d better find something fun and challenging to do with my brains! I loved the outdoors and medicine, so thought about vet medicine, but space has been a lot more fun and a lot more broadening! And as a girl, I saw two great movies: “Hemo the magnificent” and “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays” – two Bell films that sparked my interest in science as a quest.

I started in college as a math major, but signed up for intro astronomy (I’d had a love of that ever since a Brownie father-daughter astronomy class at the planetarium). The first semester of astronomy was basic physics, and I got sold on the usefulness of using math in solving real-world problems – I love to learn how the world works! I got my pragmatism from my mom.

My specialization is Magnetospheric Physics – why the aurora is what it is, how the solar wind changes the earth’s environment, “Space Weather” in general. It is important for us to understand space weather because it can affect satellites in orbit, on which much of our economy depends these days. In addition, astronauts and high-altitude pilots are also sometimes at risk from particle or photon radiation. Finally, radio propagation and power grids are affected by space weather.

What I like most about my job is the fact that when you discover or figure something out, for that time you are the ONLY one in the world who knows that! I was the first one to prove, from simultaneous high- and low-altitude spacecraft data, that the aurora is caused by an electric field aligned along the magnetic field direction. My team is also the first to make a planetarium into a true digital theater, and the first to create and show earth science full dome digital shows in a planetarium!

Balancing work and family isn’t easy – My mom was a medical doctor, and basically gave up her practice to raise kids (for which I am very grateful, because I had the best education that a person can imagine!) I’ve been known to say that I have six half-time jobs…. Mother (of three), researcher, teacher, administrator, volunteer for scouts, volunteer in church. I still get up at 5:30 to get the twins out of bed, and work till 11:30 pm, with only an hour or two per day of “my” time – to read, to watch TV, to decompress. My husband is a wonderful partner – he shares the cooking and shopping duties, does most of the house straightening, and gets the kids up for school when I’m out of town, which, alas, is often.

When one of my students was finishing up her thesis, and was wondering if it was all worth it, I made up this “top ten” list:


10. Most employers don't make you punch a clock
(they don't want to pay you overtime).

9. You get to play with color Macintoshes and other fun computer stuff.

8. You get to travel to neat places to give papers.

7. (corollary): If you ever get time to travel for pleasure, you have friends just about everywhere.

6. Your mom and dad can brag on you, even if they don’t have a clue what you are really doing.

5. You get immortalized by having your name in print all over the world (of course, if you made a mistake, everyone will know forever).

4. The uncertainty about getting your grants renewed adds that special excitement to your day.

3. Although the pay isn't as good as if you were a physician, the malpractice insurance is cheaper.

2. You get to be the first person in the whole world to find out something (who cares if it's not all that earth-shaking).

(and the number one reason is.....)

1. It's better than working for a living!



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