Imperial’s Michele Dougherty elected next president of the Institute of Physics

27 Jul 2023 | Network Updates | Update from Imperial College London
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Imperial’s Head of the Department of Physics will begin her two-year term as President of the Council of Trustees in 2025.

Professor Dougherty is Professor of Space Physics and Head of the Department of Physics at Imperial. She will serve as President-Elect for two years from October 2023, shadowing the current President, after which she will serve as President for two years.

The Institute of Physics (IOP)’s aim is ‘to promote the advancement and dissemination of a knowledge of and education in the science of physics, pure and applied, for the benefit of the public and the members of IOP’.

On the announcement of her election, she said: “I am honoured to be taking up this role, and very much look forward to working together with the IOP in its critical work in this area. I also very much look forward to working with the new President, Keith Burnett, and wish him all the best in the role.”

Planetary missions

Born in South Africa in 1962, her love of space science began when her father built his own 10-inch telescope in the family’s back garden. Physics was not even on the curriculum of her all-girls’ school in South Africa. She gained a BSc in applied mathematics at the (then) University of Natal, where she stayed on to do an honours year in physics followed by a PhD.

She started her career working on the theory of solar wind and galactic wind outflows at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, before moving to Imperial in 1991. Soon after joining Imperial, she was asked whether she would like to get involved with preparing a magnetic field model for when the Ulysses spacecraft flew past Jupiter on its way to orbit the Sun at its poles. This proved to be the start of her career in space physics.  

Professor Dougherty was principal investigator for the magnetometer on the exploratory Cassini mission to Saturn and now holds the same role for the European Space Agency’s JUICE Jupiter moon orbiting project, which launched in April 2023 and is expected to arrive in the Jupiter system by 2032.   

Decorated career

Her use of magnetic field data on the Cassini mission led to the discovery of an atmosphere containing water and hydrocarbons around Saturn’s moon Enceladus — opening up new possibilities in the search for life. For this, she was awarded the IOP Chree Medal and Prize in 2007 and the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 2008. She has been a fellow of the Royal Society since 2012 and received one of its prestigious Research Professorships in 2014.

She chaired the UK Space Agency’s Science Programme Advisory Committee from 2013-2016. In 2017, she became only the fifth woman to be awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's gold medal for geophysics, recognising lifetime achievement in the field.

This was followed by the IOP Richard Glazebrook medal and prize in 2018 in recognition of her scientific leadership on both the Cassini and JUICE missions. In 2019, She was named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union for her exceptional scientific contribution to space science. 

Professor Dougherty is also a member of the Science and Technology Facilities Council at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and an honorary international member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded a CBE in the 2018 New Year's Honours list for services to UK Physical Science Research.

This article was first published on 21 July by Imperial College London.

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