A NASA Postdoctoral Participant Experience: Former Trucker Takes Express Lane to the Cosmos!


Ryan Milligan: My name is Dr. Ryan Milligan and I’m a solar physicist at Goddard Space Flight Center. I guess I first started getting interested in Astronomy as a young boy growing up in Ireland.

Living in the countryside, the clear skies at night were perfect for star gazing and I remember seeing Haley’s comet come around when I was about eight years old and that definitely started me interested. After high school, I had decided to take a couple of years out and I tried on a few different jobs.

And then I ended up driving trucks for a couple of years //and pretty much a full time job weekends and nights, in between classes and put myself through my education.

When I first visited Goddard as a summer intern as part of my graduate education, I was pretty blown away with the place and getting to work at NASA.

So after conducting a lot of my PhD research here at Goddard and under the tuition of Dr. Brian Dennis, he advised me to apply for the NASA Postdoctoral Program which is administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Brian Dennis: He came out with flying colors and was fortunate enough to get the position that was available in the RHESSI program at that time.

That’s why NASA funds this program, is to encourage the best and the brightest students to work at Goddard and the best of them develop into the leaders of the space program here at Goddard in the future.

[Background: Ryan and colleague talking about solar images on computer screen]

Ryan Milligan: Part of my duties here as a post doctoral research fellow was that I had to monitor daily solar activity and send out e-mail alerts to the solar physics community in response to whatever the sun happened to be doing that day.

[Background: Ryan presenting research to colleagues]

Ryan Milligan: One of the most exciting opportunities I had during the program was to present my research, not only to my fellow scientists here at Goddard but at astronomy conferences all over the world. It was a great opportunity to get myself out there and to have my work recognized.

[Background: Brian talking to Ryan as they look over research on laptop]

Ryan Milligan: Another great benefit to the program is to work very closely with some established scientists here at NASA and my own mentor Brian Dennis has been a great influence throughout the two years of the program and I’ve learned a great deal from him


Brian Dennis: I’ve been here at Goddard since 1967, and I came in actually on the post-doc program as it was then, And I think then that program was quite a prestigious program.

ORAU has maintained that prestige and that legacy, during the time that they’ve been running the program, and so now it’s still quite a prestigious position to get one of these fellowships.

Ryan Milligan: The research that I carried out during my post-doctoral fellowship here involved the study of solar flares and I’ve stayed on in that field now that I’ve become a research assistant on the RHESSI mission.

When you look at the sun with the telescopes that we have in space, what you’re seeing is the actually solar atmosphere and you see these large loop structures extending across the surface and these are the sun’s magnetic fields. And this magnetic field becomes stressed and strained over a time and when it snaps and relaxes back, that’s when we get these violent releases of energy that are solar flares.

We rely so heavily on telecommunications satellites, power grids, high altitude aircrafts, GPS all of these systems are susceptible to solar activity.

Being able to continue my work here at Goddard is a tremendous privilege and the NASA post doctoral program certainly had a huge role in making this happen.