Now Launching: Budding Scientists

A ham radio enthusiast involves his students in work for NASA and the National Science Foundation.

From left: Nathaniel Frissell, Ph.D., Veronica Romanek and Simal Sami in the new ham radio station on campus.
From left: Nathaniel Frissell, Ph.D., Veronica Romanek and Simal Sami in the new ham radio station on campus.

Heard at Inauguration

Scranton physics and electrical engineering professor Nathaniel Frissell, Ph.D., first became enamored with ham radio on a Boy Scout trip in middle school. Now he’s using that same type of radio communication to study space weather in the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Ham is an informal name for an amateur radio operator, who uses radio frequencies — rather than the internet or cell phones — to communicate with others. Ham radio is used in emergency communications and has been around as a hobby for nearly a century. The “hams” can use their radios to talk with others and make connections all over the world.

“There was a guy who had a ham radio set up in this cabin in the woods (on the Boy Scout trip), and it was the first time I ever heard about it. I heard him talking to these faraway places, and it just captured my interest,” said Frissell, who later earned a ham radio operator license and spent summers during his college years teaching radio at a Boy Scout camp. “Back then I was teaching people about my hobby and my interest and how the science behind it worked. And now I do the same thing but with the purpose of answering scientific questions along with it.”

Radio frequencies transmit by going into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and then bend back toward Earth, where a ham radio operator might reach a fellow ham and be able to start a conversation. Unfortunately, because of space weather, this is not always possible. Variations in the upper atmosphere can prevent the radio signal from getting where it needs to go.

“We want to understand what’s actually happening in the upper atmosphere,” said Frissell. “So we turn the problem around. Instead of saying, ‘How do I talk from one place to another (on my ham radio)?’ You say, ‘What can I learn about the path my radio signal is traveling through? How can we use that to better understand what is happening in space?’”

Much of the communications infrastructure that people rely on every day is impacted by space weather, so it is important to learn as much as possible about it, according to Frissell. Space weather can affect GPS systems, such as Google Maps and systems that are used to land airplanes, as well as other technologies that use satellite communications, including certain phone and TV signals.

A Project in Space

Frissell has received multiple grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support his work, and student researchers are integral to these research efforts. Veronica Romanek, a junior from Union Township, New Jersey, is Frissell’s research assistant and decided to major in physics only after enjoying his introductory physics course. After office hours one day, he invited her to help him set up research equipment.

“Next thing you know, a few years later, I’m still involved in helping him with his research,” said Romanek. “I think it is a testament to Dr. Frissell and all the professors at Scranton, how welcoming they are in their office hours. I don’t know that if I went to another school that just having a conversation one day during office hours would have led to the research experience I’m in right now.”

The experience she’s getting includes building an atmospheric sensing device as part of a NASA program for students called the RockOn Workshop. The device that Romanek built was chosen by NASA and launched into space — 73 miles into the atmosphere — on June 24, 2021.

“I worked with two other Scranton students, Kevin Phiefer and Ryan Lebron, to assemble an atmospheric sensing device, which is a device that contains different sensors that can measure pressure, temperature, humidity, speed and orientation, and there’s some radiation detectors on there,” she said. “Now we have the data from the launch, and we’re working on analyzing it. Dr. Frissell made the opportunity available to us and was super supportive throughout the whole process.”

Frissell and Romanek also started a ham radio club at Scranton, which has student and alumni members and welcomes guest speakers in the field. The club also hosted a physics summer camp for high school students during the summer of 2021.

Broadening Horizons

Simal Sami isn’t a physics or engineering major, but the sophomore from Jessup spent the summer working with Frissell full time, studying disturbances in the part of the Earth’s atmosphere where radio waves travel, hoping to learn more about where those disturbances come from. Sami is part of Scranton’s Magis Honors Program in STEM, which culminates in a senior thesis project, and the head of that program recommended that she connect with Frissell.

“Coming into this, I knew nothing about space physics or engineering. I’m a computer science major, so at first I wondered, ‘How am I going to be able to help with this?’” Sami said. “But Dr. Frissell said they could use a computer science student, and I’ve found that a lot of fields involve (computer) programming. He’s broadened my horizons and now I feel less restricted in my major.”

Sami plans to continue on Frissell’s research team and use her work as part of the Honors Program senior thesis, while Romanek is hoping to study astrophysics in graduate school after Scranton.

“Many of the skills the students learn when they work with me aren’t simply space weather skills. Yes, they are going to learn a lot about space weather, but they’re also learning many other skills about how to work, how to use computers, how to do data analysis, how to read scientific papers, how to present,” Frissell said. “I’m also very transparent with my students about how the grants work and the administration of all this work. I really try to set them up so that they could continue in this field or go into a separate field and have transferrable skills.”

"There was a guy who had a ham radio set up in this cabin in the woods (on the Boy Scout trip), and it was the first time I ever heard about it. I heard him talking to these faraway places, and it just captured my interest."

- Nathaniel Frissell, Ph.D.

Frissell collaborates with fellow amateur ham radio operators and research scientists at other institutions, so the Scranton students who work with him are exposed to mentors across the fields of physics, engineering and programming.

“I don’t work in a vacuum, and I think I’ve been successful because I’m a very collaborative person,” Frissell said.

His family is also part of the collaboration — his wife, Rachel Frissell, also teaches physics at Scranton and his two-year-old son Anthony is an “honorary member of the ham radio club,” said founder Romanek.

“Outside of research, Dr. Frissell is really kind to his students, always willing to answer our questions. He does a lot to instill the same love of ham radio to the community around him,” Romanek said. “There have been several times where he’s invited students to his house for different radio club events. His wife, Professor Frissell, makes delicious brownies and his whole family is very inviting and just a great group of people. We are very fortunate to have someone like Dr. Frissell at the University.”

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