This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
Late one night last March, the icy peak of Mount Redoubt in south central Alaska erupted, sending thick plumes of ash and steam more than 10,000 meters into the air. It was a nightmare for local residents and pilots but a dream come true for Ronald Thomas.
Thomas, an electrical engineering professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, studies lightning, particularly the lightning that accompanies volcanic eruptions. Mount Redoubt had started rumbling two months earlier, and just two days after the first shudder, Thomas, one of his graduate students, and a colleague were on a plane to Anchorage. Trudging through swirling snow, they set up four sensing stations around the mountain that would help them create 3-D pictures of the lightning inside the volcano’s ash plumes.
For Thomas, the trip was a heady rush. “Alaska is always fun, even in the winter,” he insists. “That’s when tourists aren’t around.”
Lightning is, of course, the sudden release of a massive buildup of electrical charge in the atmosphere. But that simple description glosses over many unsolved mysteries: why, for instance, only some storms produce lightning; why some lightning discharges up from clouds rather than down; and why certain types of volcanoes—but not all—give off spectacular bursts of lightning. Getting to the heart of such questions is Thomas’s quest.
He first got hooked on lightning as an 8-year-old: His father, a high school science teacher, had “a machine that you cranked and it made sparks like lightning,” he recalls. He spent many happy hours cranking that machine. By high school, he knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer.
In 1961, he entered an engineering co-op program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. During a nine-month stint at a naval communications station in the Philippines, Thomas tracked transit satellites, the forerunners of GPS satellites, by measuring the Doppler shift in their radio signals. Later he followed sounding rockets at NASA’s Wallops Island facility off the coast of Virginia.