Picture of Kathryn McWilliams

Kathryn McWilliams PhD, PEng, FRAS


Faculty Member in Physics & Engineering Physics

Research Area(s)

  • Space weather
  • Aurora
  • SuperDARN
  • Radars
  • Ionosphere
  • Space-based education


Teaching & Supervision

Taught Courses

  • PHYS 111.6, General Physics
  • GE 124.3, Engineering Mechanics I
  • GE 125.3, Engineering Mechanics II
  • PHYS 115.3, Physics And The Universe
  • PHYS 155.3. Introduction to Electricity and Magnetism
  • PHYS 156.3. Electromagnetism and Waves for Engineering
  • PHYS 356.3, Intermediate Electromagnetism
  • EP 271.3, Heat Kinetic Theory and Thermodynamics
  • EP 370.3, Heat Kinetic Theory and Thermodynamics
  • PHYS 391.3, CaNoRock Canada Norway Student Sounding Rocket Course
  • GPS 974. Graduate Professional Skills
  • GPS 984. Thinking Critically Professional Skills for Global Citizens

Curriculum Development and Science Communication

  • CaNoRock - Canada Norway Student Sounding Rocket Program (undergraduate)
  • CaNoRock STEP - Research-based Ph.D. field school
  • Principal Investigator, NSERC CREATE International Space Mission Training Program (M.Sc.)
  • First Year Review Steering Committee and Bridging Committee Member, College of Arts & Science
  • Science Leadership Fellow, University of Toronto (2013-4)
  • Physics Undergraduate Program Chair (2015-2019)


Atmospheric & Space Physics Space-based education SuperDARN aurora ionosphere radars space weather

Dr. McWilliams is the Director of the SuperDARN Canada National Research Facility and the Chair of the international SuperDARN project. SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) is a ten-nation collaboration who synchronize the operation of their space weather radars in the north and the south to produce space weather maps of the Earth's ionosphere. These radars measure the convection velocity (equivalently the voltage) over vast areas of the Earth. SuperDARN measurements are made in the regions where the aurora borealis and the aurora australis (the northern and southern lights) are most active. These regions are very important to the Earth's space environment, as they are the regions where huge amounts of energy can be transferred to the upper atmosphere from the solar wind via the Earth's magnetosphere. For example, during a typical substorm 50 gigawatts of power can be dumped into the Earth's ionosphere. This produces the beautiful aurora that we can see at night in Saskatoon.

Dr. McWilliams' main research interest is the Earth's magnetosphere-ionosphere system. Her research relies on assimilative data combination to study the electromagnetic picture of electric fields, magnetic fields, and electrically charged particles in the Earth's space environment and upper atmosphere.  She combines SuperDARN measurements of the Earth's ionosphere, images of the ultraviolet aurora from space, images of the visible aurora seen from the ground, magnetic fluctuations observed on the ground and in space, and particles detected in the upper atmosphere, the magnetosphere, and the solar wind. This multi-instrument approach is well suited for system science studies of space weather.  

Dr. McWilliams was first involved with SuperDARN as an NSERC summer student, when she was part of the team that built the radar located just outside of Saskatoon. Her M.Sc. work at the U of S involved estimations of field-aligned currents from SuperDARN velocity maps. Field-aligned currents are the primary means by which the magnetosphere and the ionosphere are linked. During her M.Sc. program, Dr. McWilliams spent several months at Imperial College, London, analyzing magnetic field data from Saturn from the Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and Pioneer 11 spacecraft. She also worked for several months at the British Antarctic Survey, which is home to the group that operates the Antarctic SuperDARN radar located at Halley Station. After her M.Sc. work, Dr. McWilliams received a Commonwealth Scholarship and went to the University of Leicester in the UK, where she worked with the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group, who operate the CUTLASS SuperDARN radars. Her Ph.D. work was an examination of the direct coupling of the solar wind to the magnetosphere-ionosphere system, primarily by means of transient magnetic reconnection, or 'flux transfer events.' Dr. McWilliams returned to the University of Saskatchewan in 2002 as an NSERC postdoctoral fellow, where she rejoined the Canadian SuperDARN team.  

Dr. McWilliams is heavily involved in research-based educational program development.  She is an original member of CaNoRock (the Canada-Norway Student Sounding Rocket Program) team.  Canadian and Norwegian students who participate in CaNoRock spend a week in northern Norway, where they build and launch a rocket.  Dr. McWilliams was also a member of the CaNoRock leadership team that developed the highly successfuly CaNoRock STEP Ph.D. School, where students are challenged to write a leading-edge scientific paper in ten days, given appropriate datasets and mentorship on scientific research and paper writing by experienced researchers.  This learn-by-doing concept proved so successful that every CaNoRock STEP school has resulted in at least one published journal article led by students.  Dr. McWilliams also leads the International Space Mission Training Program, an NSERC-CREATE funded training opportunity for M.Sc. students from Norway and Canada. The ISM was an outstanding success, with students going on to careers in the space sector and to further space related education.

Education & Training

NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow (2002-2004)
Ph.D. (University of Leicester) 2001
Commonwealth Scholar (1998-2001)
M.Sc. (University of Saskatchewan) 1997
B.Sc. (University of Saskatchewan) 1994