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Space physics grad ready for career as researcher, mentor

Betsey Mitchell
Betsey Mitchell has worked in Ramon Lopez's visualization lab, where she supervised undergrad students and learned how to manage a lab

Elizabeth (Betsey) Mitchell's interests lie far into space, but her main goal involves having a positive impact on others right here on Earth. Mitchell graduated from UT Arlington in May with a doctoral degree in physics and applied physics. She is a member of physics professor Ramon Lopez's space physics research group and will start a postdoctoral research position with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on September 1.

Her research at UT Arlington involved the study of solar winds, the magnetic fields of the sun and the Earth and their relation to each other, dawn-dusk orbits, and the effects of all these on things such as power grids, radar and satellites.

Mitchell, 31, is grateful for the strong support from faculty she received during her years as a student. That's why her long-term goals include research in space physics as well as teaching and serving as a mentor to students.

"My biggest goal is to continue to mentor students, especially young women, and to keep doing research in the space community," Mitchell said. "I want to teach and help students learn. Teaching is a relationship between teacher and student. We need more teachers that encourage students, as I had here at UTA."

Among those who had a major impact on Mitchell during her time at UT Arlington is Lopez, who was Mitchell's faculty advisor and whose research group focuses on visualization techniques involving the magnetosphere, the region of space controlled mainly by Earth's magnetic field.

"The gifts Dr. Lopez has given me have been a major blessing," Mitchell said. "His lab is set up so that each grad student has two to five undergrad students to supervise, so I learned how to mentor and the basics of running a lab. That's an incredible gift to a grad student."

For his part, Lopez is sad to see Mitchell go, but proud of all she has accomplished and excited about what lies ahead for her.

"Betsey is an excellent, hard-working student, and willing to go the extra mile to support other students in the group," Lopez said. "She will leave a big hole in the group since I depended on her for so much, especially mentoring undergrads. But that is how it goes. Students develop to the point that they are very valuable, then they move on - and they need to move on. She was always a good student, but now she has gone beyond that to be a creative thinker. She will do well in the research world, especially working with students."

Other faculty members whom Mitchell cites as having a profound influence on her include physics professors Zdzislaw Musielak and Ali Koymen; assistant physics professors Yue Deng and Yi-Jiun Su; and the late physics professor and former department chair James Horwitz, who died in January 2009.

"Betsey is a brilliant and hard-working student who has a wealth of ideas and is unafraid to tackle even the most complicated problems," Musielak said. "With her Ph.D. from UTA and a post-doc position at Goddard, Betsey is on her way to become an outstanding space physicist. I'm looking forward to reading her papers!"

Mitchell credits Lopez and Horwitz with pushing her to get involved in activities outside of research. She was the driving force behind the creation of the Physics Graduate Student Council, an informal student support group.

"Jim Horwitz was a big fan of getting lots of input from everyone in the department," she said. "He wanted everyone to feel like they had ownership of the department. Dr. Musielak showed a love for his students; he demands the best of them but gives them his full support. Dr. Koymen has a desire for students to get a strong physics background, and he has high expectations of his students. Dr. Su and Dr. Deng were very supportive. It was good to have women like them in the department and in the field. They provided a standard that I aimed for."

Said Deng, "Betsey is a natural teacher, an excellent researcher and a very pleasant person." Mitchell's original career course was not space but medicine. She was born in the Washington D.C. area and grew up in Alexandria, Va., the middle of five children (she has three sisters and one brother).

"I was always fascinated by nature, and most of my science interest growing up was in biology," she said. "I was home-schooled in high school, and my mom got me a dissection kit. I loved math, too - my family said that math was my first language, and I still don"t know English."

She worked as a paramedic from ages 16-24, and had her sights set on a degree in chemistry and medical school. But once she enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso, she met Lopez, who was then on UTEP's faculty. He encouraged her to major in physics instead, and go to medical school after that. She took a job in his lab at UTEP, fell in love with physics, and went on to get a B.S. in physics in 2005. At that point, she was aiming squarely for the stars, and medical school was out.

She earned a master's degree in space physics from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., in 2007, then came to Arlington and joined Lopez's lab while working toward her Ph.D. She completed her dissertation - titled "The Role of the Y-Component of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field in Transpolar Saturation and Ring Current Response as found in Data and Simulation" - and graduated in May. Mitchell became involved with NASA while she was a graduate student in Florida. She applied to become part of NASA's Graduate Student Research Program, which provides students with funding for tuition and travel expenses. Mitchell received grants from the program for the past two academic years, which essentially paid for her school.

She spent three weeks at the Goddard Space Flight Center as part of the graduate program, and was encouraged to apply for the postdoctoral research program by James Slavin, her technical advisor at Goddard. Under the guidance of advisor Mei-Ching Fok, Mitchell wrote a proposal which was reviewed and accepted. She's wrapping up her research in Lopez's lab this summer and getting ready for the move to Maryland.

"It's a phenomenal environment there," she said of the Goddard center. "There are a couple hundred scientists, all doing research similar to what I'm doing. There's a family atmosphere there, and it's really an ideal place for young scientists to be."

She plans to do several years of research for NASA, and eventually would like to work as a professor at a small liberal arts school, teach and help inspire students the way she was inspired. While at Goddard, she hopes to establish a relationship with the Physics Department at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md., and possibly travel to Salisbury a couple times a month to work with undergraduate students on research.

"I think it's important to not just present the material to students, but to really make an investment in them and show that you care about them as people," Mitchell said. "I'm really looking forward to doing research, but I also want to pass on the wonderful gifts I've received as a student."