Prof. Diane Michelangeli, Mars mission scientist, dies

Diane Michelangeli, an atmospheric science professor at York closely involved with NASA’s high-profile Phoenix mission to Mars, died on Aug. 30 of cancer. She was 45.

Left: Prof. Diane Michelangeli

Prof. Michelangeli, based in York’s Department of Earth and Space Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, had been co-investigator and Meteorological Station (MET) lead for the Phoenix mission, which launched last month and is due to reach Mars in May 2008. The MET, which will track daily weather patterns and seasonal climate changes on Mars, is the Canadian contribution to the Phoenix mission.

The following appreciation was written by York atmospheric science Professor Peter Taylor, her close colleague in the department and graduate program director for the Earth & Space Science Program:

Diane had been suffering from metastatic cancer for the past few years, fighting every step of the way, having encouraging periods of remission but finally succumbing to a series of brain tumours.

She earned her degrees in chemistry and space science from McGill University and the California Institute of Technology. She joined the Faculty of Science & Engineering at York in 1999 as a holder of a University Faculty Award and professor of atmospheric science. She also became a valued member of both the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS) and the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry (CAC). Prior to that she had worked at University of Toronto and in local environmental consulting companies on issues related to air quality, but her real goals were to teach and to carry on her research related to the atmospheres of Earth, and especially, Mars. Winning a highly competitive University Faculty Award offered her that opportunity.

Diane excelled at and enjoyed teaching, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. During her years at York, two MSc and five PhD students have earned their degrees under her supervision. It is a great tribute to her dedication that in the past year, while her health was seriously compromised by cancer, she devoted significant efforts to helping her students towards completion of their graduate degrees. Five of her students have successfully defended their graduate theses and dissertations in the past year.

The Phoenix mission gave Diane the opportunity to play an important role in Mars-related research, and until recently she led the Canadian science team for the Phoenix Mars mission as the principal investigator for MET. MET is the Canadian meteorological package provided by the Canadian Space Agency for this NASA Mars lander project led by the University of Arizona. Phoenix successfully launched towards Mars Aug. 4 and is now well on its way. Together with her students and post-doctoral researchers she has developed modelling capabilities that will be essential tools as we endeavour next year to interpret the data that will be acquired by the Canadian MET instruments on the surface of Mars. It is especially sad that she will not be able to see the fruits of this work when Phoenix lands on Mars next May.

Diane leaves behind her husband, Lionel Laroche, daughter Carolyn, 14, and son Daniel, 11. Lionel and Diane’s parents, Lois and Antoine, lovingly nursed Diane through the difficult final months of her illness. This has tragically ended her highly productive scientific career at far too early a stage. She will be sadly missed by all of her colleagues at York, by members of the Phoenix team and throughout the scientific communities of which she was a significant part.

The Dr. Diane Michelangeli Memorial Scholarship is being established to provide financial assistance to a female graduate student enrolled in the Science & Engineering programs that Diane was involved with at York University. Contributions can be made to:

Dr. Diane Michelangeli Memorial Scholarship
c/o York University Foundation, West Office Building
4700 Keele Street,
Toronto, Ontario M4J 1P3
Attn: Bruce Logan, Chief Development Officer, Faculty of Science & Engineering

Donations should be made payable to the York University Foundation.