Ex-PAHS pupil reaches for the stars

ROB KNOWLES

FORMER Port Alfred High School pupil Glynn Hulley, who went to the USA on a tennis scholarship 14 years ago, is now a research scientist at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in California.

TotT caught up with Hulley to find out more about his career path and how he ended up at Nasa.

AN ATMOSPHERE OF UNDERSTANDING: Former Port Alfred High School pupil, Glynn Hulley, is now an atmospheric physicist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California Picture: SUPPLIED

TotT: How did you get a tennis scholarship, and to which university?

Hulley: I played in the junior tennis circuit in South Africa from eight to 18 years old, and with a lot of hard work and support from my mom (Anne, who was PAHS school secretary) and dad (Peter, who was a teacher at the school and Hulley’s only practice partner and coach), I was able to play enough tournaments to stay consistently ranked in the top 20 in singles and doubles, in addition to earning my provincial colours for EP and Border.

In my matric year a Johannesburg agent helped us draft a profile of my tennis and academic achievements that we circulated among literally hundreds of universities in the US I ended up choosing Francis Marion University (FMU) in South Carolina, where I was awarded a full scholarship.

There also happened to be several South Africans already on the tennis and golf teams which made the daunting adjustment a litter easier, not to mention the coach was a really cool Zimbabwean guy, Garth Thompson.

TotT: Why atmospheric physics? (Incidentally, what is atmospheric physics?), and where did you study this?

Hulley: At FMU I double-majored in physics and mathematics (BSc). I’ve always been more drawn to the sciences and a strong science/math background at PAHS (thanks, Mrs Flanagan) helped me to be placed in more advanced classes earlier than other Americans.

An internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre during my final year helped me get my foot in the door at one of the leading atmospheric physics universities in the US, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), in Baltimore, where I received my Masters and PhD in atmospheric physics in 2004 and 2007 respectively.

Atmospheric physics in a nutshell is the study of the Earth’s atmosphere (and other planets’ atmospheres, eg Mars) in terms of energy transfer processes, radiative balance, and fluid dynamics. For example, what are the physical reasons that cyclones spin in opposite directions in the southern and northern hemispheres? We are often confused with meteorologists, who use atmospheric data to predict weather, however we like to think we are more specialised in that we provide that data by means of satellite retrievals and/or modelling various atmospheric phenomena.

TotT: Who do you work for now, and where do you live?

Hulley: I’m currently a research scientist in the Earth Surface Science group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where I use satellite measurements of the Earth’s thermal infrared emission to calculate the land surface temperature and emissivity, which we then use for inferring climate change signals, in drought management, monitoring of snow and glacier melt, and urban heat island effects, to name a few applications.

I myself live in the Los Angeles area, in a very trendy little neighbourhood called Silverlake just east of Hollywood.

TotT: I believe you sat in the auditorium for the Curiosity landing on Mars. Tell us about that.

Hulley: I hate to disappoint but because it was such a high profile mission, only the MSL team and media were allowed in the lab that weekend. They did however give limited tickets to employees who could watch the final entry, descent and landing unfold in an auditorium at Caltech University.

I managed to go with some colleagues and it was a heart-stopping, extremely tense last few minutes as the data was relayed back via the Odyssey satellite during the final stages, and a huge celebration as you can imagine after the successful landing!

Out of interest I played in a baseball league last year with the now very famous “Mohawk Guy” (Bob Ferdowski), who was part of mission ops on the MSL team. These guys are being treated like rock-stars in the lab at the moment! Such brilliant and innovative minds.

Incidentally the Curiosity rover was assembled in a building right next to mine, so it was very interesting watching its progress, and setbacks, over the last few five years or so.

TotT: Any chance you’ll be coming back to South Africa, or is America now your home?

Hulley: Much to the disappointment of family, I think the US will be my adopted home for the foreseeable future, at least until I get a green card and citizenship, which I’m currently working on.

After getting my PhD I did seriously consider taking a position at the climate research group at UCT, but in the end had to choose JPL for various political reasons at the time in South Africa (and with no regrets I’ll add).

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