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March 2000

A visit with NCAR's new director

Tim Killeen. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

"There are two reasons people make these sorts of transitions," says Tim Killeen, appointed last month as NCAR director. "One is because they're not happy where they are, and the other is because they're offered a tempting prospect. This is definitely the latter."

On 1 July, Tim succeeds Bob Serafin, who has held the director's post for 11 years. Tim joins NCAR after more than 20 years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (UM), where he has been a leader on several research and education fronts.

Tim is the first person from outside the institution to lead NCAR since Wilmot Hess arrived in 1980, and the first to arrive directly from a university since Francis Bretherton in 1973. A native of Cardiff, Wales, Tim earned his bachelor's degree in physics and, in 1975, a doctorate in atomic and molecular physics, both from University College, London. He is president of the Space Physics and Aeronomy Section of the American Geophysical Union.

Tim calls himself a "reluctant leaver" of the university setting. "I've thrived in it, been completely committed to it." He's no stranger to Boulder, though: he first came to NCAR in 1976 and has spent four summers here as a visiting scientist. His first visits involved atmospheric chemistry; more recently, Tim has collaborated with Ray Roble's group in HAO on high-resolution modeling of the upper atmosphere's global circulation. Tim spent several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an HAO affiliate scientist, visiting Boulder often.

"So I have some background with NCAR, but I'm coming from the perspective of a university professor--teaching undergrads, running a research group, collaborating with NCAR from the outside, living through the various transitions as NCAR upgraded [computers and models]. Plus I've been involved in a lot of review activities."

Balancing classroom and laboratory

Tim's résumé includes an unusually strong blend of teaching, research,and administration. At Michigan, he is a professor in the Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences Department and serves as associate vice-president for research. Tim leads a group of 15 scientists and engineers who are using a combination of theoretical and experimental techniques to investigate the upper atmospheres of Earth and other planets. He also directs the UM Global Change Laboratory and is past director of its Space Physics Research Laboratory. As an administrator, he's worked to increase UM's capabilities in computing, environmental science, geographic information systems, materials science, transportation research, and undergraduate education. Tim has been honored with both the Excellence in Teaching and the Excellence in Research awards from UM, along with two NASA achievement awards.

Tim leads the university's Aeronomical Observatory Program, which includes five remotely operated optical observatories from Chile to the Arctic's Resolute Bay; some sites have been on line since the late 1980s, encompassing a full solar cycle. Each site has spectrometers, all-sky cameras, and Fabry-Perot interferometers, whose development originally brought Tim to Michigan as a postdoctoral scholar. (Fabry-Perot inteferometry involves differences in the number of pairs of reflections made by wave paths along a single dimension, as when reflected by facing mirrors.) Tim's group recently built a miniature spaceborne version of the Fabry-Perot instrument for a NASA mission to be launched later this year.

Tim and colleagues in Ann Arbor brought HAO's Thermosphere-Ionosphere General Circulation Model to campus workstations and then modified the model to allow for diagnostic calculations and nested grids. Tim expects to continue collaborating with scientists at HAO, UM, and elsewhere from his new professional home on the fifth floor of the Mesa Lab.

"I'm certainly not ready to give up my research interests," he says. "I think NCAR will fare well with a director who is an active researcher. I think it's an important aspect that will help me maintain a peer relationship with other scientists. Of course, I recognize that my first responsibility will be to direct the institution. That's going to be my prime role."

Tim recently became editor in chief of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics after serving as chief North American editor since 1994. "I think that function will help keep me abreast of the literature," he says.

Better ways to teach undergrads

Improving college-level teaching is a keen interest of Tim's. He is chief scientist for Institution-Wide Reform of Undergraduate Education, an NSF-funded program at UM, and is the founding director of NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Tim serves as director of Ann Arbor's campus-wide sequence of introductory courses in global change.

"I think integrating research and education at all levels is critically important for informed decision-making and a literate populace. Universities play a major role in that," says Tim. "About half of all U.S. kids go to postsecondary institutions. I'd love to see NCAR play a leadership role in these reform efforts--helping to build more active learning strategies.

"A lot of reforms are done on a 'hero' or 'heroine' basis. The sustainability of such reforms becomes problematic when someone goes on sabbatical or when somebody retires from an instructional team that's been working together. I think it's important to have some infrastructural underpinnings."

In particular, says Tim, giving undergraduates a chance to carry out research is vital. "They become more confident, they can solve logistical problems, they feel they're participating in the life of the institution. One-on-one research experiences are clearly powerful."

NCAR's present and potential role in university education was one of the biggest drawing cards in Tim's decision, he says. "I see it as an important part of the NCAR mission and one that's already very exciting--there's a lot going on. The fact that NCAR's a national center with a dot edu on the tag is particularly important to me. I'd like to see NCAR step up the pace of its interactions with the university community, not just in research but also in education. I believe that the universities will respond--they'll recognize and be thankful for any help they can get."

Making the transition

Before starting his new job, Tim will attend several meetings of the UCAR President's Council and participate this June in the annual NCAR scientific retreat. "I think it's important for me to interact heavily with scientific staff and with the UCAR Board of Trustees to hit the ground running."

Already Tim says he has some sense of what he'd like to build on as director. Global change is a natural for expanded collaborations, he says. "Industry has gone through a sea change in terms of the recognition of some of the problems. There could be some exciting partnerships forged between academia, industry, and NCAR. I think NCAR can provide a lot of the muscle that would make these partnerships worthwhile. Of course, NCAR should undertake these sorts of things with the recognition that its prime mission is basic research--to perform cutting-edge research in breadth and in depth."

As a long-time user of NCAR computing resources, Tim has high hopes in this realm as well. "I think there's an interesting future of interfaces with the public domain, academia, industry, and other institutions." In this environment, he says, "the role of a national center can really be thought of in broader terms: to facilitate, to explore, to access data stored in lots of different areas--inhomogeneous data, visualizations, high-performance computing." The mix, he says, makes for "a potent set of tools. NCAR's [already] been a leader in all of that. It's going to be very exciting."

Tim says that he; his wife, Roberta Johnson (see sidebar); and their three kids (ages nine, six, and two) are excited about their move west. "Boulder is definitely a great attractor. The intellectual milieu, the human capital of UCAR/NCAR and other institutions, make it very much a crossroads. In many ways Boulder is similar to Ann Arbor in that it's a university town with a lot of flux of people and ideas." For NCAR and UCAR, he adds, "I think one of the challenges is not to become too inward looking when you're in such a magnificent environment."

Tim says he wasn't at all sure he'd be selected as the next NCAR director. The hiring was "clearly a very thoughtful, deliberate process. The committee certainly had an opportunity to hear what was on my mind--we had a great exchange of views." As the process continued, he adds, "things got very intense." According to UCAR president Rick Anthes, "Tim impressed me and the search committee with his perceptive answers to questions about NCAR's future, including challenges and opportunities. He showed vision and the interest to lead necessary and positive changes in NCAR in order to continue its leadership position in the nation and the world."

Tim Killeen (center) chats with outgoing NCAR director Bob Serafin and UCAR president Rick Anthes at the UCAR/NCAR Management Committee meeting on 24 February.

Tim's appointment is being received with clear enthusiasm in Boulder and at NSF, says Rick. "Tim has shown a deep understanding, desire, and excitement to lead [NCAR] into the future." According to Cliff Jacobs, the NCAR program officer at NSF, "For years Tim has helped both the atmospheric sciences [division] and geosciences [directorate] formulate some of their plans. We're really pleased because he has true leadership quality as well as being an outstanding researcher. We believe his continued contributions to research and management will be significant."

Tim sums up, "My basic position is that NCAR is a superb organization. Let's take it from where it is now and move it to the next level. Let's take advantage of the opportunities that are coming down the pike." He adds, "I told the selection committee that I thought any incoming director should take the Hippocratic oath: 'First, do no harm.' " •BH

Another UM scientist heading to Boulder: Roberta Johnson

Roberta Johnson.

Tim Killeen is not the only newcomer who will arrive in July with interests in the upper atmosphere and education reform. Roberta Johnson, Tim's wife, will join NCAR and UCAR in a dual position: half time as an HAO scientist and half time as UCAR's first director of education and outreach.

Currently an associate research scientist at UM's Space Physics Research Laboratory, Roberta is director of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, which involves 10 universities and more than 120 projects. She is also the principal investigator of UM's Windows to the Universe, a primarily NASA-funded project to develop an educational Web browser on earth and space sciences for the general public. The Web site has won over 50 awards and is used extensively by precollege students and undergraduates.

"Roberta has a very strong leadership record in education," says UCAR president Rick Anthes, "and UCAR has been considering for some time the need to create a position to lead and coordinate education activities across the organization, including NCAR and UOP."

Roberta earned her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in geophysics and space physics in 1980, 1984, and 1987 at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her science specialty is in the dynamics of the lower thermosphere; she combines modeling results with measurements from ground-based and satellite instruments. Roberta coordinates the Lower Thermospheric Coupling Study, a component of NSF's Coupling Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions program, and has authored or coauthored over 30 refereed papers.

Roberta's hybrid UCAR position will be "very similar to what I have been doing for the past five years," she says. "I enjoy the combination of science research and education work, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to continue with this joint focus in the UCAR/NCAR environment." •BH

Staff Notes Monthly will follow up on Roberta's appointment later this year.


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