Dr Maria Weber

Published on: 18 May 2017

Come along with Dr Maria Weber as she takes you on a tour of the Milky Way's stellar zoo and discusses the implications of stellar magnetism on exoplanet habitability.

Dr Weber is a Research Fellow in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

What is your current research about?

I am a stellar physicist. My research focuses on studying the remarkable magnetic properties of the Sun and the vast array of solar-like stars in the universe. Our Sun has a cycle of magnetic activity that waxes and wanes over the course of eleven years. During this magnetic cycle, the Sun exhibits dark spots of intense magnetism (called sunspots) on its surface and releases strong bursts of magnetic energy, referred to as flares, from these magnetically active regions. As of yet, the astrophysics community does not have a complete model to explain, and ultimately predict, the Sun’s dynamic behaviour. My research is one important piece of this puzzle.  

In particular, I use computational models and the principles of magnetohydrodynamics – the study of the magnetic properties of electrically conducting fluids – to understand how solar-like stars generate such strong magnetism in their interiors, and how this magnetic field is transported to the surface. My work characterises how rotation and convective fluid motions in various layers of the star, from the deep interior to the near surface, shape stellar magnetism on both local and global scales. It also provides important insight into the expected appearance and distribution of starspots on stellar surfaces.          

The results of the simulations that my collaborators and I have built make contact with many aspects of solar observations. Some examples of these include the statistical properties of sunspots and the differential rotation phenomenon – the variable rotation of the Sun as a function of radius and latitude. Currently, I am applying these tools to explore the near-surface differential rotation, expected starspot properties, and rise of magnetism across convection zones of solar-like stars with fast rotation and others that are 10-50% of the Sun’s mass. These small stars, referred to as red dwarfs or M dwarfs, are the most populous in our galaxy, among the most magnetically active, and are often the target of searches for habitable planets.         

 You can follow Dr Weber on Twitter

Do you think it is more difficult for a woman to get recognition in your field?

I wish I could say 'no' to this question.

From my survey of astrophysics, it is the case that women (in comparison to men) are not always equally recognized for their body of scientific work and are often less likely to speak openly about science among their peers (see also this engaging article by Dr. Karen Masters ). An analysis of astronomy and astrophysics journals over the past 65 years shows that articles written by women first authors receive ~10 per cent less citations than articles written by male authors (Caplar et al. 2016). Further, women may also feel less confident than their male counterparts in asking questions at academic conferences (e.g. Pritchard et al. 2014, Schmidt et al. 2017).

There are a number of subtle (and not so subtle) effects that contribute to this gender imbalance (e.g. Masters 2016, Schmidt et al. 2017). Our Physics and Astronomy Inclusivity Group, of which I am a member, actively assesses our departmental culture and implements initiatives to eliminate gender biases and promote equality for all our students and staff members.

The good news is that the participation and recognition of women in astrophysics has grown over the past 50 years. The fraction of first author papers written by women has increased from ~5 per cent in the 1960s to ~25 per cent today (Caplar et al. 2016). This is on par with the 25 per cent membership of women in the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and greater than the 17 per cent reported for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

In the United States, the percentage of women enrolled in astronomy bachelor’s degree programs has now reached ~40 per cent, almost twice that of physics bachelor’s program enrolment. Interestingly, the proportion of women in the United States enrolled in both STEM and physics bachelor's programs (of which I was one) remains nearly unchanged over the past 10 years. This trend is also reflected in the United Kingdom’s physics gender imbalance, where the fraction of Physics A-level obtained by females has remained near 20 per cent since 1985 (e.g. Masters 2016).

What can we do to bring the gender participation balance closer to parity in physics and astronomy? I think it is key to encourage young women to pursue their passions, and show all students (and parents) that the term ‘scientist’ carries no gender.          


Caption: The fraction of US bachelor's degrees awarded to women in physics and in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Credit: APS/Source: IPEDS Completion Survey

The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; who were your inspiring female role models?

From an early age, my aunt, who was an elementary school teacher, instilled in me a love of learning and passion for teaching. I continue to enjoy mentoring and teaching students, and get especially excited about sharing new scientific discoveries with blossoming young minds. During my training as a scientist, I have been lucky enough to have wonderful female mentors in Dr. Alexandra Tritschler (undergraduate summer research advisor) and Dr. Yuhong Fan (PhD advisor). Both are exceptional solar physicists, and have been instrumental in my training and growth as a scientist.    

I come from a very rural part of southern Indiana in the United States with limited science education opportunities. My adolescence was void of ‘real-life’ scientific role models of any gender. However, I did find inspiring scientific role models through television: the American children’s educational shows ‘Beakman’s World’, ‘Mr. Wizard’, and ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, and the strong female character of Dr. Dana Scully in ‘The X-Files’. In fact, it has been noted (although anecdotally) that there was an increase in young females interested in STEM and law enforcement careers during the show’s ten year original run, now referred to as 'The Scully Effect'.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about at the upcoming Soapbox event?

I will be talking about the solar-stellar connection - applying lessons we have learned about the Sun to study other stars with potentially habitable worlds. Within the Milky Way galaxy alone, our Sun is only one of the estimated 200-400 billion stars, and our Earth is only one of at least 100 billion planets. A number of these exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) may reside in the habitable zone, located at just the right distance from its parent star to have liquid water on the surface.

I will discuss what we have learned about the Sun from observations and simulations performed by myself and colleagues. The Sun’s behaviour, especially volatile magnetic events like flares and coronal mass ejections, has a direct impact on Earth's habitability and our increasingly technological world. We have found that our Sun's magnetic behaviour shares many similarities with other stars, but is also quite unique in a number of ways. Come along with me as I take you on a tour of the Milky Way's stellar zoo and discuss the implications of stellar magnetism on exoplanet habitability.  

What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?

It is very important for academics to share their research with the public. I am a firm believer that a public informed about scientific discoveries is one better to make more thoughtful decisions in their own lives and the public policies that shape our future. The most important thing when preparing for an outreach event is to know your audience. What is their demographic, age range, and expected education level?

Speak enthusiastically, using terminology your audience will be familiar with. I find it useful to compare the phenomena I study with everyday experiences or quantities. For example, I often compare stellar convection to a pot of water boiling on the hob, and show that a typical sunspot can be as large as the Earth. Most importantly though, have fun!    

Related links

» Exeter Soapbox Science

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