Margaret A. Shea

1998 Waldo E. Smith Medal (INACTIVE) Winner

Phillips Laboratory, U.S. Air Force

Margaret (Peggy) Shea was awarded the Waldo E. Smith Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 8, 1998, in San Francisco, California. The medal recognizes extraordinary service to geophysics.


“Margaret (Peggy)Shea embodies the motto of AGU, ‘Unselfish Cooperation in Research.’ She is the epitome of a role model for the Waldo E. Smith medal, and is a paradox. Peggy not only has had a remarkable personal research career, but she has also expended an enormous amount of energy facilitating the research of others, especially within the international community. Not only is she a prodigious publisher, authoring or coauthoring over 300 papers, but she is also a prodigious editor, editing more reports, proceedings, and journals than AGU would grant me room to mention. Moreover, even though she has spent most of her career doing basic research for the U.S. Air Force, she was so highly regarded in the Soviet Union that she was a recipient of their Academy of Sciences’ Commemorative medal honoring 100 Years of International Geophysics.

“Peggy began her research career as a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, the first woman to receive an advanced degree in physics from that institution. After brief stints at the University of Hawaii and AVCO Corporation, she joined the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (later known as the Geophysics Laboratory) at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, where she worked until her recent retirement from the federal civil service. Her work at AFGL concentrated on cosmic radiation and solar terrestrial phenomena. She is recognized as an expert in geomagnetic cutoff rigidities for cosmic radiation. Her cutoff rigidity tables are the international standard and have been adopted by the FAA for determining radiation dosage to air crews and by NASA for estimating radiation to astronauts. In fact, her technique for determining the values of cutoff rigidities and the application of asymptotic cones for high-energy solar proton event analyses are used by the whole of the cosmic ray community. She developed a technique to deconvolve the time varying anisotropies in the solar cosmic radiation. Her work on both solar particle events and geomagnetic cutoff rigidities enabled her to identify the presence of solar neutrons at the Earth at the onset of a relativistic solar proton event. She has been active in ferreting out and preserving unique, historical scientific records, and she has devoted much time and effort to bridging the gap between the scientific and engineering communities. Although she is now retired from the federal civil service, she has an emeritus position at the Air Force Research Laboratory and is an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“Peggy has served AGU in many ways, most notably as editor-in-chief of the U.S. National Report to the IUGG but also as a member of many AGU committees. She has served as vice-chairman of the U.S. National Committee for the IUGG and has been an active participant in SCOSTEP programs for 30 years. She has organized over 25 international meetings or symposia, has edited 18 scientific reports, and is now editor-in-chief of Advances in Space Research, an undertaking akin to being editor-in-chief of a major section of the Journal of Geophysical Research, but covering disciplines from Earth science to life science.

“In short, Peggy has been a spark plug on both the national and international scenes, realizing that solutions to global problems required global cooperation. It is rare at a major international solar-terrestrial meeting not to find Peggy and her husband Don Smart in attendance. She worked extensively with scientists from eastern European countries, long before it was politically correct. Her international activity has been recognized by not only the USSR Academy of Science medal, but also by Foreign Associateship in the Royal Astronomical Society, and corresponding membership in the International Academy of Astronautics.

“Lesser known, perhaps, are her many governmental activities, such as guiding many high school and college students from summer positions in her office to college graduation and successful careers. She has received several Air Force awards: the Scientific Achievement Award, the Air Force Association Citation of Honor, and the Guenter Loeser Memorial Award for outstanding career contributions to scientific research.

“Peggy received a letter of commendation for a special report she and two other scientists prepared on the solar and geophysical environment during September 1979 for the Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

“Lest we think she is ‘all science,’ Peggy is an accomplished needlepoint artist who also enjoys reading, photography, snorkeling and gardening.

“An exceptional person and member of the solar terrestrial community, Peggy is both a doer and a server. She is a human dynamo, a great colleague, and a smart lady. I am pleased to present to you someone who is only the second woman to receive a senior medal from AGU, this year’s Waldo E. Smith medal awardee, Margaret Ann Shea.”

—CHRISTOPHER RUSSELL, University of California, Los Angeles


“It is an extraordinary honor to have been selected as the recipient of the Waldo Smith Medal.

“I started my career during a period of time when studying engineering and particularly physics were not popular subjects for women. I had just turned 17 when I entered college, and during Freshman week the Dean of the College of Technology politely suggested that I transfer to the College of Liberal Arts.

“Throughout one’s career there are many decisions to be made. During my sophomore year in college I had a choice between taking Spring Break or working in the physics department for 90 cents an hour! I wanted the break but I took the job, and during that week I found that I really enjoyed the work. Subsequently, I was offered the opportunity to continue working in cosmic ray physics throughout the rest of my education, and I have been involved in various aspects of this scientific discipline ever since.

“Another big decision a few years later was whether to marry one of my coworkers. Our courtship was primarily spent doing computer problems on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Air Force computers. It was particularly fortunate that our Air Force laboratory did not prohibit a husband and wife from working together. We know our unique relationship greatly benefited both our careers, and I believe the Air Force also benefited.

“As my career advanced, I found myself increasingly involved in various national and international programs. My basic philosophy is to respect scientists for who they are, as individuals, without trying to gain an advantage from any position they might hold. This has afforded me excellent opportunities not only to advance my knowledge of science but also to work with and learn about people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Over the years, many long-lasting friendships have developed.

“I have been blessed with good fortune: parents who encouraged me to pursue my goals, a good education, helpful colleagues, and a wonderful and supportive husband of 32 years. I have had a fascinating career with the Air Force where, during those early years of space exploration, scientists were enthusiastically encouraged to expand the horizons in space research.

“I sincerely thank Professor Chris Russell for his nomination and the other nine gentlemen who wrote supporting letters. Also, I thank the members of the Smith Medal committee for selecting me as the recipient of this prestigious medal. I gratefully acknowledge the many wonderful people who have been instrumental throughout my career. Without the interaction with all of these people, I would not have achieved this honor.

“Finally, thinking back to my interview with the college dean who tried to discourage me from majoring in physics, I want to quote a poem by the famous New Hampshire poet, Robert Frost, that means a lot to me and best describes my satisfaction in the career decisions I have made.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From “The Road Not Taken” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, Copyright 1944 by Robert Frost. Copyright 1916, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Co., Inc.

“For me, the road less traveled was the best decision I could have made.”

—MARGARET (PEGGY) SHEA, Phillips Laboratory, U.S. Air Force