Physics Professor Dr. Jim Schroeder Receives NSF CAREER Award

October 9, 2023

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Jim Schroeder ’09 with a $522,656 five-year grant to continue his research on whistler waves.

Dr. Jim Schroeder Wheaton College IL Physics Professor

The CAREER award funds Schroeder’s ongoing project, “A Laboratory Test of Radiation Belt Electron Acceleration and Diffusion by Whistler Chorus.” The project aims to understand how whistler waves affect the environment of the outer radiation belt, the doughnut-shaped region of highly energetic electrons surrounding the earth. Whistler waves are a type of vibration found in plasma, the substance that results from the overheating of gasses and is the primary make-up of matter in space, including the sun. Schroeder hopes to recreate this interaction between whistler waves and electrons in the laboratory, either verifying or disproving predictions that have been made in space science literature. Schroeder will collaborate with West Virginia University’s Phase Space Mapping experiment as part of the grant.

He is motivated to lay the foundation for better space weather models that protect important infrastructure, such as the thousands of satellites orbiting the earth that may be damaged by radiation. 

“If we have a better model of the essential physics, we can have a better handle of what is happening out there,” said Schroeder. “We can try to have a more sustainable approach to satellites sensitive to that region.”

In keeping with the educational aspect of the grant, Schroeder hopes to develop an early-access pathway into plasma physics research for Wheaton College undergraduates. He will work with current physics students to create a plasma experiment at Wheaton and plans to offer an introductory seminar, open to all physics majors and minors, that will cover essential plasma physics concepts.

According to the NSF’s website, The Faculty Career Development (CAREER) program offers the foundation’s most prestigious awards to early-career faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Schroeder is the first Wheaton College faculty member to receive a NSF CAREER grant. Earlier this year, Schroeder also received an Early Career Award from the American Astronomical Society-Laboratory Astrophysics Division for his work on auroras.

“Ever since I got an indication that this grant was going to be funded, it was equal parts excitement and the weight of responsibility,” said Schroeder. “There is a half a million dollars of taxpayer money coming to Wheaton to do this research, and you feel the responsibility to steward that money well.”

Schroeder also believes the award signifies the quality of the College’s Department of Physics and Engineering.

“We are offering a fantastic physics education,” he said. “This award is a marker that shows Wheaton’s physics department is a place that can support this really serious research. And I am proud of that, not just for my own sake but for the department.”

—Grant Dutro