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Maria weber

Astrophysicist

 

And - National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow

Know that you can do hard things.

What do you do?

My job combines my two favourite things, research and science communication. Using computer models and simulations, I study how the Sun and other stars with habitable worlds create their own magnetic fields. Our Sun is more than a hot, glowing orb in our sky. It creates its magnetism deep in its interior, well beyond the reach of telescopes. This magnetism is the source of solar explosions, or ‘solar storms’, that occasionally impact our planet, simultaneously wreaking havoc on earth-orbiting satellites while spawning beautiful aurora. We still don’t have a complete theory to describe, and ultimately predict, the Sun’s magnetic behaviour.

 

My work is an important piece of this intricate and complicated puzzle. At the Adler Planetarium, I get to create visualizations of my research and other new space discoveries to share with the public. Making these visualizations allows me to use my computer programming skills, but I also get to be creative with the stories that I want to tell and how I want to tell them. One of my favourite things about working at the planetarium is getting to have one-on-one conversations with visitors. I hope I inspire people to look up into the night sky and wonder. 

Why did you choose this field?

I didn’t realize I wanted to be a scientist until I took my first physics class in high school. I was amazed to learn that the world around me - the trajectory of a softball, the flow of water through the pipes in my house, the motion of the planets - could all be explained by equations! I wanted to learn more, so I studied physics in college and graduate school.

 

Every physicist has a favourite topic to which they apply their knowledge. I didn’t quite know what that topic was until I had a research placement at a solar observatory, and from that moment on, I was hooked on the Sun. The particularly striking thing to me is how ordinary the Sun looks to our naked eye, but how much it affects our habitability and how complex it actually is when we observe it through telescopes. I’m still amazed, and it is only one of the approximately 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone.   

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"I spent a lot of my early years never trying something new for fear of failure."

Younger me had a hard time attempting to do things by herself. I would try something new, and immediately give up if it wasn’t perfect. I spent a lot of my early years never trying something new for fear of failure. But, that also meant I never got to find out what things I might be good at.

 

In high school, I opted not to take a computer programming class because I was afraid I wouldn’t do well. Now programming is part of my research. One of my yoga instructors says ‘know that you can do hard things.’ I wish younger me knew that too.  

Why do you love working in STEM?

Because there is so much possibility for discovery. Every day we learn new things about the world around us. Sometimes these things solve mysteries we have be pondering for years, but sometimes they introduce new puzzles that need solutions. I look forward to solving problems, and of course sharing my love of the cosmos with everyone I meet. 

Best advice for the next generation

Follow your passions. Find that thing that gets you excited, that thing that you can’t wait to learn more about. Educate yourself about what it takes to become a professional in that field, and go for it. 

Role model 

I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Southern Indiana. I never met a scientist until I went on my very first college visit. But, I did cultivate an interest in science with the help of two US television personalities of the 90’s – Billy Nye the Science Guy and Dr. Dana Scully from the X-Files.