Pioneering Solar Physicist Wins 2015 Research Excellence Prize

Solar physicist Haimin Wang wins the 2015 Excellence in Research Medal from the NJIT Board of Overseers.

Haimin Wang, a distinguished professor of physics and leading authority on space weather, was awarded the Excellence in Research Prize and Medal by the NJIT Board of Overseers in a ceremony on campus this week attended by a wide and admiring swath of the university community.

John Seazholtz ’59, chair of the Board of Overseers, was among them. In presenting Wang the medal along with NJIT President Joel S. Bloom, he noted his pride as an alumnus at the university’s growing international reputation, “which is enhanced by the brilliance of researchers such as Professor Wang.”

The chief scientist of NJIT’s Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) and director of the Space Weather Research Lab at the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, Wang has contributed unique and valuable insights into the fluctuations of the Sun’s powerful magnetic field that give rise to solar flares and space weather.

Recently, he and his colleagues produced the first high-resolution images of the flaring magnetic structures known as solar flux ropes at their point of origin in the Sun’s chromosphere, allowing scientists to distinguish between mild twists and those severe enough to cause space weather. These observations provide an unprecedented glimpse into the complex dynamics of the Sun’s multi-layered atmosphere, as well as insights into the massive eruptions on the star’s surface.

In his acceptance remarks at the ceremony, Wang focused almost entirely on others. He warmly thanked mentors, colleagues, students and family for their career advocacy and their friendship. “I’m proud to be a part of this and appreciate the support I have received,” he remarked. “The most important thing is people.” 

He began a list of acknowledgements with his “collaboration and friendship of 30 years” with Dale Gary, also a distinguished professor of physics at NJIT, whom he first met at Caltech when he was a graduate student there and Gary a post-doctorate fellow.

“He helped me write my first grant proposal,” he said, calling Gary a mentor and a role model for years to come.

Wang went on to play a crucial role in NJIT’s acquisition of BBSO from Caltech in 1997 and its subsequent research efforts.

Over the course of his career, he has secured more than 60 federal grants worth more than $25 million in total as either a principal or co-principal investigator and has been funded as a Guest Investigator for all of NASA’s recent major solar-related missions. In 2013, he was appointed by NASA to lead the flare focus team within Living with a Star, the agency’s program focused on space weather conditions that affect the Earth, its atmosphere and the interplanetary medium. He also heads an international network composed of nine observatories around the world that constantly monitors the Sun.

Wang has served as a referee for funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NASA, for major journals such as Nature, The Astrophysical Journal and the Journal of Geophysical Research, and on the science advisory committees for some of the world’s most powerful solar telescopes. He has authored some 250 peer-reviewed journal articles with more than 6,000 citations.

In introductory remarks at the ceremony, Atam Dhawan, NJIT’s vice provost for research, pointed to another critical aspect of Wang’s legacy – his substantial impact on the careers of others, and, through them, on the larger scientific community.

“He has mentored more than 20 Ph.D. students and trained more than 20 post-doctoral researchers, 10 of whom have obtained tenure-track faculty positions at universities around the world,” Dhawan noted, adding, “Four of his students have won the prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to support their research.”

Tracey Regan