We made this together.

Reporting and writing: Melanie M. Sidwell
Design and multimedia: Anne Duquennois
Photography: Glenn Asakawa, Isaiah Downing and Cyrus McCrimmon
Web development: Kevin Reynen and Kelly McCormack
Audience strategy: Nicole Combs, Caroline Fetterolf, Meg Kinney, Katie Princo and Matt Roush
Project editor: Tim Skillern

Additional images courtesy of:
Diana Albhor, Hazel Bain, Colfax Ave Business Improvement District, Headstrong, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, Vincent Ledvina, NASA, Willow Reed, Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs

A graphic illustration collage of a young woman, a sun, a map of the stars in the sky, and two students building a project together

We’re in this together

Teaching tomorrow’s scientists and researchers to ask the big questions

Audio plays during this story.

A fiery love affair

Every long-distance relationship, especially one that stretches across 93 million miles, has its difficult moments. 

Viewpoint from space looking down on planet Earth.

Take the celestial courtship between the sun and the Earth.

Sure, the sun warms the Earth, stirs our atmosphere, influences our weather, propels our orbit and gives us humans life. But the sun—its vibrations heard here in sound captured by NASA—can also be an unpredictable tempest, an insanely hot dynamo that pumps out 4 million tons of matter into energy every second.

A scientific viewpoint of a solar flare showing red and orange colors.

Energy from a monster solar storm, for example, hit Earth in 1859, causing widespread powerful auroras in the sky and havoc on the ground with telegraph systems, the modern telecommunications of the time.

While the intensity and frequency of solar flares vary, a storm of this magnitude today would cause widespread disruption to electrical grids, global positioning systems, air travel and even the internal compasses of racing pigeons and wedding doves.

A scientific image of a solar flare showing green and yellow colors

Understanding the impact of solar events on us Earthlings is important for scientific, social and economic reasons. 

Scientists know solar events like this can happen but don’t always know why or when.

A young woman with long wavy red hair listens intently to a female college student explain her research in a crowded room. They are at an expo where college students share posters about the research they worked on all summer.

“I think we study the sun—as humans, as scientists—for the same reason we study anything, and it's that we don't know everything about it yet. It's human nature to want to know, and so, that's why we do it.”

Willow Reed, CU alumna

Willow Reed, a 2017 graduate of CU Boulder, is part of the next generation of scientists who learn alongside talented CU researchers supported by generous donors. 

Her research of solar flares builds from a childhood passion for space science, one that was launched because of CU Boulder’s location amid one of the greatest concentrations of solar physics institutes in the world.

It’s this collaboration that allows places like CU to nurture passion and curiosity across disciplines and perspectives, encouraging bright minds to ask big questions: 

How do we cure cancer?

Will artificial intelligence change us?

What’s beyond our solar system?

Willow Reed looks to the side as her long red wavy hair falls in front of her jean jacket. On the wall behind her is a large black and white artwork of the moon.

“Science is important because we as humans can't help but ask the question why or what, and we want to know more, and if we don't know all the answers, we're going to keep searching for them. But you have to have public support, so getting people involved in science is what's shaping our next steps as society and as humanity."

Willow Reed smiles and looks directly at you, a large black and white artwork of the moon is behind her on the wall.

"Not even looking at astronomy or astrophysics, look at general science. If you don't have public support, you don't have funding. Then how else are you supposed to discover the Titanic, or shoot things into space, or counteract climate change? It's a big deal.”

A young woman with long redy wavy hair stands with her hands on her hips and smiles amind the group of college students working on experiments outside. The young woman is wearing a black Star Wars T-shirt and eyeglasses.

A match made in Boulder

Last summer, Reed served as program director of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), the same one she participated as an undergraduate student at CU Boulder.

Clusters of college students stand outside on the CU Boulder East campus working together to build different projects. One group is working on a tube that will funnel sunlight. In the forefront a female student with a large leg tattoo checks her phone.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, REUs support hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate students and are offered at academic institutions across the country.

A female college student examines in her hands a solar-powered machine she and her classmates built. On the front of the contraption, which has gears and a mirror, is taped a printout of a cat wearing a sunflower costume. The flatirons are in the background.

Twenty-seven undergraduates from around the country attended the REU led by Reed. Opportunities like this are possible because of the incredible partnerships CU forms with scientific laboratories and research institutions here in Colorado and around the world.

A female student's smile is reflected in the mirror of a solar powered camera built from wires and particle board by her and her classmates. On the machine is taped a printout of a cat wearing a sunflower costume.

They learned technical skills like software programming and building sensors.

A male college student kneels to get a better look at a solar-powered camera his female classmate is leaning over. She is trying to attach wires and other materials to make it function. They are inside a classroom where other students are also trying to build similar projects.

They learned how to conduct proper academic research.

An aerial shot of students standing in front of their posters at the expo. One female points to her poster as two males listen.

They discovered what they want to research.

College students sit on blankets on the ground as dusk settles in along the flatirons. They are on a field trip, taking notes by lantern and lamp about the night sky.

And they met other researchers and scientists.

Hazel Bain was an REU mentor this year. A research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU Boulder and a contract employee with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bain has mentored students through other programs, including an REU at UC Berkeley. 

As an undergraduate student, Bain was mentored.

A female scientist stands with her hands on her hips in front of a wall showing red and yellow images about solar flares.

“The times that I’ve thrived in my career is when I’ve had a mentor that advised me and supported me and cheered me on. You can learn the physics from a book, but you can’t learn the job from a book, so it’s a good way to figure out how to navigate this career.”

Hazel Bain

Thania Ruiz, an aerospace engineering student at CU Boulder, said the research experience gave her the confidence to claim her spot in the scientific field.

A female CU student with long dark hair and a blue shirt explains her research poster at an expo on the CU Boulder East Campus.

“Sometimes in my major, there's a bunch of guys all the time and there's hardly any girls...That's when I meet people that are also different, they're going through the same experiences as I am, it helps them feel like, 'Oh, you know what? Maybe I am in the right track. Maybe I am where I'm supposed to be.'"

Thania Ruiz, CU student

A large group of space science students stand on East Campus of CU Boulder with the majestic Flatirons behind them.

The thrill of discovery

Reed knows that feeling. As a freshman, she wanted to do research but hadn’t chosen a field yet, so her advisor invited her to tag along in the REU. Most REU students were upperclassmen. She was the youngest in the room.

A young redheaded girl in kindergarten stands in front of her science fair poster about the solar system.

“Being a scientist is a huge part of my identity, but I'm not sure if it always was. On some level I think it was; I was always very curious as a child. I loved the science fair and doing that with my dad, but I also was a huge dancer and performer. That was also a large part of my identity back then; I would say it was bigger than being a scientist. Partly just because I didn't know what being a scientist was yet.”

Willow Reed

Willow Reed as an undergraduate student at CU stands in front of a large telescope. She is smiling and wearing a white CU Boulder sweatshirt.

In her junior year, Reed received the Charles A. Barth Scholarship in Space Research.

An old historic photo of a male scientist sitting in front of a desk with large vintage computers.

Barth was a leader at LASP for nearly four decades and left a legacy of inspiring space science students.

An old historic photo where three male scientists, one with a pocket protector, one with a bowtie and one with a skinny tie, stand around holding an early rocket.

Initially called the Upper Air Laboratory, LASP was created in 1948 by CU Boulder physicists (a decade before NASA was founded) to study Earth's atmosphere and develop instruments launched aboard rockets.

A young woman stands in her graduation regalia in front of a building that is named Duane Physical Laboratories on the CU Boulder campus.

The endowed scholarship was more than just financial relief for Reed. It was a chance to share her research with others in her field. She’s been investigating the sun ever since.

Willow Reed leans in intently to hear a female college student explain her research poster at an expo.

And she wants to share her work beyond the science community. Reed, who started her PhD at Montana State University this fall, has a personal mission to help the public gain a deeper understanding of science and all its applications. 

As part of her career, Reed is hoping to expand science education and outreach in our communities.

Willow Reed exclaims excitedly with her mouth open in the middle of a crowded student research expo while listening to a female college student explain her work.

After all, as human beings, we love those “Eureka!” moments.

Willow Reed smiles and looks off to the side, her red wavy hair hanging over her jean jacket. She is standing in the middle of an expo where students share posters about their scientific research.

“You really need to get people excited, and not just on an elementary and middle school level, but on an adult level. If you can get adults excited, then they'll help support it. They'll help elect people that will fund it.”

A female astrophysicist looks to the side, her long wavy red hair falling in front of her jean jacket at a student research expo

“They will make sure that science moves forward so that everybody on the planet can learn and discover. That's why public outreach is important because we need people to appreciate science and want to fund it in order to continue doing it and discovering and solving these mysteries.”


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