Duke Engineer Honored by National Academy of Engineering

Steven A. Cummer, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, has been selected to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) ninth annual Frontiers of Engineering Symposium.

Cummer is one of 83 engineers between the ages of 30-45 selected from a field of 170 nominees across the nation to take part in the symposium, to be held Sept. 18-20 at the National Academies’ Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, Calif. Symposium participants are nominated from the engineering ranks of industry, academia and government by fellow engineers and organizations.

The purpose of the symposium is to provide leading young engineers opportunities early in their careers to learn about cutting-edge development in fields other than their own. Long-term, these opportunities lead to collaborative work and transfer of new approaches and techniques across fields.
“Being invited to this meeting is an honor. The breadth of the participants’ experience and interests makes this meeting especially unique,” said Cummer. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with researchers in areas broadly related to my work but whom I wouldn’t ordinarily meet at more focused scientific meetings.”

Cummer’s research focuses on the development and application of new techniques for geophysical and space remote sensing. For example, Cummer studies sprites–— bright, short-lived flashes that have only recently been discovered and which occur high above thunderstorms in response to certain kinds of big lightning discharges. Sprites may be evidence of significant lightning-driven chemical changes in the upper atmosphere, and he is using measurements and simulations of the electromagnetic radiation from lightning to help determine why certain lightning discharges create sprites and consequently what happens inside them.

Another research project uses the same natural electromagnetic radiation from lightning to probe the inaccessible and consequently poorly measured part of Earth’s upper atmosphere between 40 and 100 miles altitude. For this work, Cummer was awarded in 2001 a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from the White House. His other research efforts include using controlled radio transmissions between satellites to probe the outermost reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere, where processes that create the aurora but also damage communication satellites occur.