Westborough ‘space scientist’ making most of his life on Earth

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By Peg Lopata, Contributing writer

Josh Semeter
Photo/Jackie Ricciardi

Westborough – Joshua Semeter, Ph.D., 55, doesn’t need vacations. As a scientist working in his own laboratory, he has a job where vacations aren’t needed because he is so excited about his work. Semeter studies a very active part of our atmosphere, the ionosphere, which is some 50 to 600 miles above the earth’s surface.  

Aside from his work and spending time with his wife, Heather, and three children, ages 16, 14 and 8, Semeter volunteers at elementary and middle schools to discuss science and engineering with students. He also has many interests outside the lab, including bicycling, reading short stories, tennis, and debating with his kids. He loves building things out of wood, cooking for his family and is fascinated with dragonflies and octopi.  

Could all that activity up above be the explanation for his high energy right here on earth? Perhaps he’s always been this way.

Semeter’s career began with a position at Pratt and Whitney Aircraft in Connecticut after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. But something wasn’t quite right.  

“After three years at this company…I felt myself slipping perilously into a comfortable, suburban Connecticut existence,” said Semeter. “So, I considered grad school.” 

Then a fellow worker said Semeter would never quit his job to go to graduate school because next year he had earned three weeks’ vacation. Semeter realized, he said, that “I needed a career where vacationing is irrelevant.”  

To prepare for that type of career, Semeter enrolled as a doctoral student in electrical engineering at Boston University. While there, he looked for a research opportunity and discovered the Boston University Center for Space Physics (CSP). The interdisciplinary aspect of this department made the CSP the perfect home for him.  

An interdisciplinary approach to life and learning is Semeter’s modus operandi. As a high schooler, courses such as literature, French and music, had a more profound effect on him than science courses, teaching him about thinking, ideas, and effective communication. 

He applies what he learned then to his current studies of the ionosphere, an important part of the atmosphere because it reflects and modifies radio waves used for communication and navigation.  

“One of our current projects,” he explained, “is using a network of thousands of GPS receivers spread across the world to create global images of the ionosphere.”  

Another project involves non-scientists studying auroras, bright, beautiful, colorful bands of light that happen in the ionosphere.  

“In the polar regions of the world there are many who love to photograph the aurora,” he noted. “We are collaborating with these citizen scientists to find important phenomena in the aurora.” 

Josh Semeter on a glacier in Greenland
Photo/submitted

As part of this work, Semeter travels to beautiful places such as Alaska, Greenland and northern Scandinavia. 

The ionosphere is not the only love of Semeter’s life – music is also vital to him.  

“If I go too long without playing music, I feel like I’m suffocating,” said Semeter. He plays acoustic guitar, banjo, ukulele, electric bass and harmonica and performs with a local band called “No Guarantee.”   

Like the name of this band, Semeter recognizes that life is full of uncertainties. That’s not just a philosophy for him – it’s based on some fundamental laws of science. 

Explained Semeter: “There is a persistent flow toward greater entropy. We are caught up in it.  Resistance is futile. ‘Go with the flow’ is more requirement than advice.”  

So, does that mean we should accept falling into chaos?  Not according to Semeter.  

“Within this flow, we are self-aware and empathetic beings, free to decide what principles we will live by. The three precepts I try to live by are: be kind to yourself, be kind to others, seek the truth.”