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UW community mourns passing of Professor Robert Winglee (1958–2020)

Portrait of Winglee Robert Winglee
Credit: University of Washington

Robert Winglee, professor of Earth & Space Sciences, passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 24, 2020, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 62. His nearly 30-year UW career spanned research in space plasma physics, magnetospheric physics, advanced propulsion and engineering, as well as educational outreach to underserved and underrepresented communities across the country.

Professor Winglee completed his undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Sydney in Australia, earning his Doctorate in Physics in 1985. After postdoctoral work at the University of Colorado at Boulder and appointments at University of California, Los Angeles, UC Boulder, and the Southwest Research Institute, he joined the UW faculty in 1991, in what was then known as the Geophysics Program.

Throughout his career, Winglee promoted the integration of different strands of academic fields to further research in physics. He served as chair of the UW Department of Earth & Space Sciences (ESS) from 2005 to 2015, and also held adjunct appointments in the Department of Physics, the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics, and participating faculty in the UW Astrobiology Program.

Winglee published nearly 150 research articles on topics ranging from solar winds to plasma propulsion. Discover Magazine granted him a 2001 Award for Technological Innovation for a project to develop a plasma-powered spacecraft. His research efforts were featured on the Discovery Channel’s "Science of Star Wars," in 2005, and "Mars Rising," in 2007.

In addition to research, Professor Winglee was a devoted teacher who provided both theoretical education and practical experience. He was loved by his students for his attitude of always supporting them if they had an idea and a plan. He started a UW course in designing and building rockets in 2009, which included field trips to remote areas, particularly Black Rock, Nevada, for launches. These continue to be popular and have led many graduates to pursue careers in the space community.

More recently, Professor Winglee mentored a UW student team that designed and built a miniature satellite, called a CubeSat. It launched in 2019 and began orbiting Earth in January 2020. This was the first student-built satellite to be launched in Washington state. He also led summer exploration seminars to his native Australia, where he took numerous students into the Outback to study geology and biology. In 2005 Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium received the Brotman Award for Instructional Excellence, and Winglee was the 2014 UW Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year. He graduated 20 Ph.D. students, as well as numerous masters and undergraduate students.

"Robert’s passing is a tremendous loss to our department, and our entire University," said Eric Steig, professor and current chair of the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. "Robert’s influence on the curriculum in our department — especially the popular physics track in our undergraduate major — cannot be overstated."

Winglee became director of the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium in 2007. In 2016 he established the NASA-sponsored Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline, which he also directed to bring STEM outreach to underserved communities. He made STEM more approachable to students by emphasizing that anyone can be a scientist.

The outreach efforts included balloon and rocket launches, microscope observations, observations of the surroundings and maintaining logbooks. For example, during the solar eclipse in August 2017, Winglee facilitated a balloon launch with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon to obtain a high-altitude perspective on the eclipse.

In 2019, for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, he developed a moon-themed robotics challenge for hundreds of middle and high school students from across the country, with a grand prize trip to NASA Johnson Space Flight Center. He continued to design student competitions with the ROADS on Mars challenge in 2020, which he adapted from in-person to online during the pandemic.

Winglee speaking at a student challenge for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing Robert Winglee speaking in July 2019 at a student challenge held on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

"Robert worked tirelessly to inspire students and educators across the country in his work towards inclusive STEM education," said Mary Denmon, the associate director of both programs, who remembers the ambitious and original ideas Winglee proposed. "It is difficult to measure the impact Robert has had. Honoring the energy and passion he had is a high bar, but we’ll certainly give it a try."

He is survived by his by his wife of 40 years Jennifer (Jenny), his children Kathryn and Matthew, and his brother, Peter. He was a devoted husband, father, teacher, and researcher and will be greatly missed.

Family members invite those who knew Robert Winglee to share their memories of him here.

A memorial will be held Saturday, Jan. 16, 2–3 p.m. Pacific Time, with public livestreaming to Washington Space Grant Consortium's Facebook page and NESSP's YouTube channel. A reception will take place immediately after in The Winglee Club, via the online platform Discord.

Those wishing to make a donation in his memory are invited to contribute to the Robert and Jenny Winglee Endowed Graduate Support Fund, established by the Winglees to provide financial assistance to graduate students in Earth and Space Sciences, with first preference given to those students studying Space Physics and second preference given to those students studying Planetary Sciences.