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An unexpected path to discovery

When Alec Neu arrived at West Virginia University as a journalism major in 2013, he never expected to end up at NASA. 

Alec Neu
Alec Neu

Now, with a degree in journalism and work experience in Greece under his belt, Neu has his sights set on the sky as he returns to WVU for a second degree.

Neu, a physics major, spent the summer at NASA conducting heliophysics research, which is all about how the sun affects the solar system. He was part of a team developing a new method for predicting coronal mass ejections’ effects on Earth, or large blasting events on the sun that release light and energy.

“Whenever you leave the Earth’s magnetic field, high energy particles and solar eruptions become dangerous to satellites, electrical grids, astronauts and spaceships. We want to be able to better predict them,” said Neu, a Hurricane native. “The more you understand the science behind why it happens, it’s easier to predict. If something is hit with a coronal mass ejection and it’s not protected, it will be fried.”

While at NASA, Neu created a code to analyze solar wind parameters from decades of satellite data and populate comparisons of different events on the sun.

“Understanding how to predict these coronal mass ejections is vital to protecting our satellites in orbit, future space missions and the astronauts involved in NASA's moon to Mars mission,” Neu said. “Interaction with any of the high energy particles from the sun could lead to catastrophic technical or health related issues if we can’t predict them in time.”  

Adam Kobelski
Adam Kobelski

His work will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December in San Francisco.

“Alec has always been a driven student,” said Teaching Assistant Professor of Physics Adam Kobelski , Neu’s research mentor. “His drive and background in communications makes him a uniquely skilled and talented person to work with.”

Neu, an award-winning film producer, shared how his experience with creating music and films helped him get the hang of coding.

“At first, learning to code was daunting,” Neu said. “But, I like puzzles. You’re using the creative aspect of your mind with hard logic. It’s the perfect balance for me as a film and music producer turned scientist.  

Neu encourages fellow physics majors to contact their academic advisers about similar internship opportunities at NASA.

“This internship has greatly helped me improve my Python coding skills and has given me great connections that can bring me back to NASA for continued summer projects and future jobs,” Neu said.

Photo credit: NASA