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Countdown to Blastoff

Chances are, when you were young, you dreamed about outer space. Young and old alike look at the heavens with wonder and amazement. Amy Winebarger took the dream a step further. She is a senior astrophysicist in the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“I’ve known since high school that I wanted to be a physicist. I had a great high school Physics teacher, Mrs. Wagner to whom I dedicated my Ph.D. thesis,” said Winebarger. “While at King College one summer, I went with Dr. Burke to Arizona to an observatory to do nighttime observations. A couple summers later, I got into a program at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO).” The SAO and the Harvard College Observatory combine to make up the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics located in Cambridge, Mass.

During her summer at the SAO, “I was assigned to Dr. Ed DeLuca, who is a solar physicist. That summer changed my life and led me to the decision to focus on solar physics. Dr. DeLuca became a very important person in my life. He helped me go to graduate school, which for me was amazing as I am a first-generation college graduate. Dr. Ray Bloomer from King College also helped me immensely.”

The Kingsport, Tenn., native graduated from King College, now King University, in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Physics. She went on to receive her master’s degree and a doctorate in Physics from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She also completed post-doctoral work in Solar Physics at both the SAO and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

At NASA, Winebarger serves as the principal investigator for several projects as well as support for numerous other projects. “I help design, build, and launch scientific instruments on sounding rockets. NASA is really the best place to work. It is this amazing place where people solve problems. We are like MacGyver’s in many ways; it’s like physics in real time, and I love it!”

In her work as a senior astrophysicist, Winebarger is looking to the stars. She says many observations can happen from the ground. “There are observatories on the ground that are designed and built to observe the sun and stars. Sometimes we have to go above the earth’s atmosphere to take those measurements because the earth’s atmosphere actually absorbs the light in which we are interested. So, if we are looking at the x-rays, extreme ultraviolet light, or even the far ultraviolet light, our atmosphere absorbs those wavelengths so we can’t observe it from the ground; we have to go above the atmosphere. There are several satellites that are built and are already flying around the earth right now, taking observations. Examples include NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

“The way NASA utilizes the sounding rocket platform is to test the new instruments. We want to make the next generation of instruments before they are flown on a satellite. Satellites take many years to make and are highly expensive. The sounding rockets are used to test the next-gen instrumentation. This allows us to ensure the instrumentation will work before sending the satellites into space.”

When thinking of being a scientist, most do not think about how much writing is involved. “For me, approximately 90% of my job is writing. I am writing papers and proposals, reviewing proposals, writing notes for NASA constantly. One of the positives of going to King was having a broad experience with writing. That helped me tremendously and made a big impact.”

Winebarger says for her everything has come full circle from the summer she spent with Dr. DeLuca in the summer research program. “Now, in addition to my work at NASA, I help run a summer program, the Heliophysics Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Now I get to be the Ed DeLuca – the one that introduces students to this kind of science. I’ve actually recruited a couple of people who have come back and are now my graduate students. I started as a student; now, I am the mentor.”

Winebarger encourages any student interested in Physics, to apply to her summer program, the Heliophysics Research Experience for Undergraduates program. The advice she gives to those who are in the midst of determining what career path they will follow is to “go to all the summer programs you can. It will help you determine what you like and don’t like. Figure out what you are passionate about and make your work be the most fun it can be. Pursue a career that you love.”