By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

A former Montana State University graduate student in solar physics has just won the highest award the U.S. government gives to science and engineering professionals who are in the early stages of their independent research careers.

The White House announced Sept. 26 that Jonathan Cirtain, now at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). He was one of 94 winners this year and one of four recipients nominated by NASA. The PECASE awards will be presented Oct. 14 in Washington, D.C.

Cirtain, who earned his doctoral degree at MSU in 2005 with thesis adviser Piet Martens, is the third current or former member of the MSU Solar Physics Group to receive the PECASE award. He is the fourth recipient associated with the MSU physics department.

Previous winners were Dana Longcope and Charles Kankelborg, both in the Department of Physics; and Joe Shaw, professor of electrical and computer engineering, affiliate professor of physics and director of MSU’s Optical Technology Center. Kankelborg received his award in 2008. Longcope received his award in 2000. Shaw received his award in 1999 when he worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

“We are seeing the results of a dedicated group of solar physicists who have grown the solar physics program over the past 18 years to what it is today,” said Richard Smith, head of the MSU physics department. “The early hires recognized the importance of recruiting strong academic faculty as well as strong research faculty who in turn could educate and train graduate students to be successful after leaving MSU.”

Martens said, “Having four PECASE winners in one department is really exceptional, and three from one research group even more so, given that we have had a thousand or so in all scientific fields since 1996.”

The PECASE awards were established by President Clinton in 1996.

President Barack Obama said when he announced the PECASE winners that “It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers – careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding, but also invaluable to the nation. That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens.”

Cirtain’s PECASE award recognized him for outstanding research on basic physical processes observed in solar and space plasmas through innovative engineering instrument designs. Before the PECASE award, he won the 2007 “Young Scientist Award” of the International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy/International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. He now heads the Solar Physics Group at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. He is project scientist for the Hinode mission, which is a NASA/Japanese Space Agency solar observatory that involves several MSU scientists. Cirtain also heads several NASA rocket experiments that test new innovative space instrumentation.

Cirtain continues to work with MSU on several space missions. Those include Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the SDO Feature Finding Team, and proposals for two new missions, one jointly with the Russians, and Solar-C, a follow-up mission for Hinode, with Japan.

Cirtain said last year that he came to MSU for his doctorate, in part because he would have the opportunity to remotely operate the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer, an opportunity he didn’t think he would have at other graduate schools in astronomy.

“The Solar Physics Group [at MSU] is one of the best in the world,” he added. “Having been a part of it, it opened up a number of opportunities for me.”

The PECASE awards are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. 16 federal departments and agencies nominate scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the agencies’ missions. Awardees are selected for pursuing innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community served as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

Cirtain’s PECASE award is the latest in a string of major awards and accomplishments for MSU solar physics faculty, students and graduates.

Earlier this year, Andres Munoz-Jaramillo, who earned his doctorate in 2010, won a Jack Eddy Postdoctoral Fellowship from NASA’s Living with a Star program and the 2011 Fred L. Scarf Award from the Space Physics and Aeronomy Section of the American Geophysical Union.

Previous awards for MSU’s solar physicists have included two Karen Harvey Awards from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society, the Hale Prize from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society, and many more.