Liz MacDonald

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Liz MacDonald
Alma materUniversity of New Hampshire University of Washington
Known forAurorasaurus
Scientific career
InstitutionsLos Alamos National Laboratory Goddard Space Flight Center

Elizabeth MacDonald is a space weather scientist who works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a co-investigator on the Helium, Oxygen, Proton, and Electron Spectrometer on the NASA Radiation Belts Storm Probe mission.


Elizabeth MacDonald was born to Walla Wallans Bill and Alice MacDonald.[1] MacDonald received a BSc in Physics from the University of Washington, funded by a NASA Space Grant scholarship, in 1999.[2] Her mentor, Ruth Skoug, encouraged her to remain in research.[3] MacDonald completed her postgraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire, earning her PhD in Physics in 2004.[4]


MacDonald specializes in plasma mass spectrometry, and has 23 years of expertise in instrument development and data analysis/interpretation.

After completing her PhD, MacDonald joined Los Alamos National Laboratory. At LANL she was the Principal Investigator for the Z-Plasma Spectrometer on the Department of Energy Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System geosynchronous payload.[5] She also led the Innovative Research and Integrated Sensing team.[6] She was principal investigator for the Advanced Miniaturized Plasma Spectrometer.[7] She received the Los Alamos Awards Program recognition three times.[8]

Between 2009 and 2011 she led the Department of Energy funded Modular Advanced Space Environment Instrumentation.[2] In 2012 she became a New Mexico Consortium-affiliated researcher, working on the prototype for the Aurorasaurus citizen science project.[9] She has served on scientific review panels for the National Science Foundation and Los Alamos National Laboratory grants.[10] Today MacDonald works in the Goddard Space Flight Center.[11]

In 2018 MacDonald and her team announced the discovery of a new aurora called Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).[12] STEVE is farther from the poles than the aurora is typically seen.[13] The European Space Agency Swam A satellite was used to identify that the charged particles in STEVE were around 6000 °C.[12] It was observed by Canadian aurora enthusiasts in 2015.[14][15] MacDonald attributes the faint purple glow to a subauroral ion drift.[16][17] MacDonald published the finding in Science.[18] She is working with NASA to crowd source sightings of STEVE.[19]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 2018, MacDonald was named as a Walla Walla Public Schools Graduate of Distinction as a "pioneer in citizen science initiatives and mentor for aspiring scientists of all ages".[20]

Public engagement[edit]

In 2016 in the journal Space Weather, MacDonald and co-workers reported that "citizen scientists are regularly able to spot auroras farther south of an area where prediction models indicated".[21][22][23] MacDonald leads an interdisciplinary citizen science project called Aurorasaurus, which uses social media to predict the Northern Lights during the current solar maximum.[24][25][26] To fund the program, she won a $1 million INSPIRE grant from the National Science Foundation together with Andrea Tapia of Pennsylvania State University and Michelle Hall of Science Education Solutions.[27][8][28][29]

After noticing a spike in tweets about an aurora borealis in October 2011, she established Aurorasaurus to track such geolocation information in order to improve forecasting, such as that done by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.[30][31][32]

In 2017 she described the aurora as a glitter bomb on the radio program Science Friday.[33] In August 2017, she spoke at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site about the 2017 solar eclipse.[34] MacDonald regularly speaks to high school students and community groups.[35][36]


  1. ^ Eveland, Annie Charnley. "Of celestial 'glitter bombs' and scientific research". Union Bulletin. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  2. ^ a b "Bio - Dr. ELIZABETH A MACDONALD". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  3. ^ "A Physicist Explains The Shimmering Science Behind Auroras - Science Friday". Science Friday. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  4. ^ "Elizabeth A. MacDonald, CV, 2012" (PDF). LANL. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  5. ^ "archive CSSP Bios Page". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  6. ^ "IRIS, ISR-1". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  7. ^ MacDonald, E. A.; Funsten, H. O.; Dors, E. E.; Thomsen, M. F.; Janzen, P. H.; Skoug, R. M.; Reeves, G. D.; Steinberg, J. T.; Harper, R. (2009-06-01). "New Magnetospheric Ion Composition Measurement Techniques". American Institute of Physics Conference Series. 1144 (1): 168–172. Bibcode:2009AIPC.1144..168M. doi:10.1063/1.3169283.
  8. ^ a b "Elizabeth MacDonald, AGU Elections" (PDF). American Geophysical Union. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  9. ^ Talus, Carrie. "Dr. MacDonald's Aurora Research Featured | News". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  10. ^ "IRIS, ISR-1". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  11. ^ "SMD Education :: Profile :: Elizabeth MacDonald". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  12. ^ a b "There's a new aurora in subpolar skies. Its name is Steve". Science | AAAS. 2018-03-14. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  13. ^ "Meet 'Steve,' the Aurora-Like Mystery Scientists Are Beginning to Unravel". Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  14. ^ Garner, Rob (2018-03-14). "Mystery of Purple Lights in Sky Solved With Citizen Scientists' Help". NASA. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  15. ^ Meyer, Robinson. "Canadian Amateurs Discovered a New Type of Aurora. It's Named Steve". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  16. ^ Mandelbaum, Ryan F. "Citizen Scientists Discover New Feature of the Aurora Borealis". Gizmodo. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  17. ^ "Meet 'Steve,' a Totally New Kind of Aurora". 2018-03-14. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  18. ^ MacDonald, Elizabeth A.; Donovan, Eric; Nishimura, Yukitoshi; Case, Nathan A.; Gillies, D. Megan; Gallardo-Lacourt, Bea; Archer, William E.; Spanswick, Emma L.; Bourassa, Notanee (2018-03-01). "New science in plain sight: Citizen scientists lead to the discovery of optical structure in the upper atmosphere". Science Advances. 4 (3): eaaq0030. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaq0030. ISSN 2375-2548. PMC 5851661. PMID 29546244.
  19. ^ Garner, Rob (2018-03-14). "NASA Needs Your Help to Find Steve and Here's How". NASA. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  20. ^ "Press Release for 2018 Graduates of Distinction".
  21. ^ "Dr. Liz MacDonald Archives - Weatherboy". Weatherboy. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  22. ^ Report, Science World (2016-01-26). "Dr. Liz MacDonald Talks Aurora, Space Weather, And Her Citizen-Science Project, Aurorasaurus [SCIENCE WORLD REPORT EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]". Science World Report. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  23. ^ Garner, Rob (2016-03-07). "Citizen Scientists Help NASA Understand Auroras". NASA. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  24. ^ "Aurorasaurus - Reporting Auroras from the Ground Up". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  25. ^ Boyer, Jason. "NASA scientists watch eclipse at PARI". WLOS. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  26. ^ MacDonald, E. A.; Case, N. A.; Clayton, J. H.; Hall, M. K.; Heavner, M.; Lalone, N.; Patel, K. G.; Tapia, A. (2015-09-01). "Aurorasaurus: A citizen science platform for viewing and reporting the aurora". Space Weather. 13 (9): 2015SW001214. doi:10.1002/2015sw001214. ISSN 1542-7390.
  27. ^ "NSF Award Search: Award#1344296 - INSPIRE Track 1: Aurorasaurus - Citizen Scientists Experiencing the Extremes of Space Weather". Retrieved 2018-10-13.
  28. ^ "Case Study: Aurorasaurus". Crowd Consortium. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  29. ^ Depra, Dianne (2016-03-09). "Aurorasaurus: Citizens Share Real-Time Aurora Observations, Help NASA Researchers Better Understand The Phenomenon". Tech Times. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  30. ^ "The Aurora Hunters Who Spend All Year Chasing the Lights". Atlas Obscura. 2015-09-08. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  31. ^ Daley, Jason. "With Breathtaking Pictures, Citizen Scientists Help Map Auroras". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  32. ^ "Citizen science meets the aurora | Geophysical Institute". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  33. ^ "What Happens When 'The Sun Throws A Glitter Bomb' - Science Friday". Science Friday. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  34. ^ "Event (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  35. ^ Mundhenk, Andrew. "Space physicist details eclipse for Early College students". Hendersonville Times. Retrieved 2018-02-15.
  36. ^ "Science Experiments for the Public during the Solar Eclipse - SciStarter Blog". SciStarter Blog. 2017-08-16. Retrieved 2018-02-15.