A Real Space-Age Institute

A Real Space-Age Institute

Its name hardly begins to describe what BC's Institute for Scientific Research does

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Their work has helped to put space shuttles in orbit and men on the moon, and has contributed to America's defenses.

They pioneered sponsored research at Boston College, and today reap more than $4 million a year in grants.


Institute for Scientific Research Director Leo Power with members of his staff: "We've built up a reputation for being reliable. Our motto has always been, 'Give 'em what they need, when they need it.'" (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

But ask many on the BC campus what the generically named Institute for Scientific Research does, and you'll get a collective scratch of the head.
Director Leo Power tells the story of a custodian who was asked by a visitor what sort of work was done in the institute. "I never see anyone doing anything," the janitor is said to have replied, "but I know it's important."

From offices in St. Clement's Hall, the 43-person Institute for Scientific Research develops mathematical formulae used in analyzing the ionosphere, layers of air beginning 30 miles above the earth where electrical charges affect the flow of radio waves. Other projects include taking infrared readings of stars to update NASA's celestial catalogue, and measuring atmospheric emissions involved in global warming.

Their work is important to satellite communications, aircraft positioning and the maintenance of national defense systems. Last year, the Institute received nearly $4.49 million in research grants, most directly or indirectly from the government.

"We've built up a reputation for being reliable," said Power. "Our motto has always been, 'Give 'em what they need, when they need it.'"

The scope of the ISR is indicated by some of the projects currently engaging the institute's senior research scientists.

Patricia Hagan is working on a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate the effect of the ionosphere on Global Positioning System receivers, devices in planes and many new cars that use satellite signals to pinpoint the location of the vehicle.

Brian Sullivan and his team of astronomers are using newly measured infrared radiometric signals from the stars to update celestial catalogs used by the Air Force and NASA.

Richard Hegblom is studying atmospheric infrared emissions that will assist in defining infrared clutter for Air Force systems and will also provide information related to global warming.

The scientists recalled tracking Kuwaiti oil fires via space shuttle sensor transmissions during the Gulf War in 1991, and the role their research played in the nation's first shuttle launch 10 years earlier. A flag flown aboard the first shuttle, Columbia, hangs on display.

"It's challenging, and always something new," said Sullivan. Said Hegblom: "You're always finding out something that wasn't known before."

What is now the ISR began with research done at Hanscom Field in Bedford in the 1950s by the late Rene Marcou, a professor in the math department at Boston College. He received a $5,000 contract from the Air Force in 1954 to help map the ionosphere and its effect on radio waves, in the first piece of sponsored research funding ever received by a BC faculty member.

Power, who joined the institute as a junior researcher in 1959, fondly recalled the approach of his mentor Marcou in the days before scientific research became a multimillion-dollar affair at Boston College.

"He would come to work after his classes, take off his beret, put his cigar in the chalk tray, pick up the chalk and devise equations till five o'clock," said Power, "at which point he would put down the chalk, put on the beret, pick up his cigar, put the equations in his briefcase, take them home, and continue on them while watching 'Gunsmoke.'"

The little lab at BC reaped dividends after the 1957 Soviet Sputnik satellite launch sparked US investments in the space race. "After Sputnik, the government was looking for anyone or anyplace doing space research," said Power.

During the campus student unrest of the Vietnam War era, a guard was posted outside the door to the institute's office, then in Higgins Hall. Government funding peaked during the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s, with its emphasis on the so-called "Star Wars" defense initiative.

Over the years, the institute has undergone a series of name changes. It was the Ionospheric Research Laboratory in the 1950s, the Space Data Analysis Laboratory in the 1960s and the 1970s, and the Institute for Space Research in the '80s. For the past decade, in a nod to diversification after cuts in Reagan-era "Star Wars" funding, it has been the Institute for Scientific Research.

"Research has gone on during the space program, during the Vietnam War, during the Star Wars era, and now today," when commercial applications have been an increasing focus of the institute's research, said Power.

The need for what the ISR does, he said, remains timeless: "We still do not completely understand the physics and chemistry of the ionosphere."

Through much of the institute's history, Power has been a constant. As an undergraduate at Boston College, the closest Power came to scraping the atmosphere was in launching hook shots from the basketball court. He started on the staff as a young Navy vet in 1959, three years after graduating from BC, taking what he thought at the time was a temporary job crunching numbers.

"How did a kid from Mission Hill end up with his head in the clouds? I came here for five weeks," he said, "and 40 years later, I'm still here."

 

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