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Aiming for the Sky: USU Physicist Honored for Lifetime Achievements

Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012

USU's Tom Wilkerson receiving Lifetime Achievement award

USU physicist Tom Wilkerson, center, receives career honors from the International Coordination Group for Laser Atmospheric Studies at a June 2012 ceremony in Greece. Presenting the award are Upendra Singh, left, and Geary Schwemmer, right.

Utah State University physicist Thomas D. Wilkerson, whose accomplishments in lidar (light detection and ranging) and atmospheric research are world-renowned, is the recipient of the International Coordination Group for Laser Atmospheric Studies’ 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wilkerson, who joined USU in 1992 as a research professor in the Department of Physics and Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and has served as a senior scientist at Space Dynamics Laboratory since 1997, was honored in a June 2012 ceremony in Porto Heli, Greece, during the 26th International Laser Radar Conference.

“As Tom served as my mentor early in my career, I was deeply touched to present this award, which recognizes his long-term and outstanding contributions to the field of lidar research,” says Upendra N. Singh, ICLAS president and chief technologist, NASA Langley Research Center. “He is one of the finest individuals I have ever met and I am blessed by his association and guidance.”

ICLAS member Geary Schwemmer, who joined Singh in presenting the award, praised Wilkerson for his many contributions to the field of lidar remote sensing as well as his extensive mentorship of students.

“His influence and innovations have touched many of us,” says Schwemmer, director of research and development for Maryland-based Science and Engineering Services, Inc., who worked with Wilkerson during the physicist’s 34-year tenure with the University of Maryland. “Beyond his scientific accomplishments, he was best at encouraging, supporting and fostering others to rise to the occasion and do great work.”

USU alum Jan Marie Andersen ’07, a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in astrophysics at Boston University and a Nordic Research Opportunity Fellow with Denmark’s Centre for Star and Planet Formation, credits Wilkerson with much of her success.

“Tom is one of the people who have made the incredible academic opportunities I’ve had possible,” Andersen says. “As my first research mentor at SDL, he was awesome and patient and I wouldn’t be where I am today without his teaching and encouragement.”

While an undergrad, Andersen recounts nervously preparing for her first scientific conference presentation. Wilkerson volunteered to stay after work and help her run through her talk.

“I ended up winning the undergraduate student presentation award and I owe much of that to Tom’s guidance,” she says. “That’s just one example of how he supports his students and colleagues.”

Wilkerson, whose distinguished career spans more than 50 years, received the Utah Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology, the state’s highest scientific honor, in 2007.

“Tom was a driving force behind all of the lidar work at USU’s Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and the Space Dynamics Laboratory,” says Robert Schunk, USU physics professor and CASS director. “Some of his measurements were seminal.”

Wilkerson’s recent career highlights include:

  • Service as principal investigator on an SDL contract from NASA-Goodard on TWiLiTE, an airborne Doppler lidar project under NASA’s Instrument Incubator Program.
  • Conceptual design of the AGLITE lidar, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded SDL research project.
  • Completion of a SDL cloud-tracking project for Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground.
  • Work on SDL’s ValidWind automated lidar tracker for measurement of tropospheric wind profiles.

The California native began his academic career at Princeton University, after completing bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. In addition to his USU appointments, he is an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland.

Related links:

Contact: Upendra N. Singh, 757-864-1570,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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