Scientist Receives NSF Grant for Space Study

Posted: March 4, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Karen Akerlof

Watch dolphins playing in the waves off a boat, and you might learn something about our solar system’s astrophysical dynamics.

Merav Opher
Merav Opher
Photo by Evan Cantwell

The analogy between the physics of a boat traveling through the sea and bursts of magnetized solar particles moving through space isn’t so far-fetched, says Mason’s Merav Opher. She has just been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant to study the phenomena in the heliosphere, a “bubble” comprising our solar system, the solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. If fully funded over five years, the grant will amount to $950,000.

The prestigious CAREER program provides funding to early-career faculty to develop both research and educational programs at their home institutions.

As the bow of a boat plows through the ocean, it compresses the water in front of it and deflects fluid to the side in streams of turbulence (creating ideal surfing conditions for dolphins). Opher says eruptions from the sun containing magnetic fields – termed coronal mass ejections – interact with the wave lines of the galaxy’s magnetic fields in much the same way, creating “shocks” in front and “sheets” of particles that spin out at higher energies.

Opher titled her NSF proposal “Understanding the Evolution and Nature of Shocks and Sheets in Space Physics.”

NASA’s Voyager 2 recorded this phenomenon far from Earth, about 9.3 trillion miles away. Opher will be investigating its occurrence within the heliosphere as well.

The NSF grant will allow Opher to support the work of her two graduate students as well as a postdoctoral student for a period of five years. “It is seed money to establish my own group and my own line of research,” she says.

Another part of the grant will go toward a three-year summer school in space plasma physics. To be held at Mason, the summer school will bring in top scientists and develop curricular material for other universities to duplicate.

The last component of the grant – one Opher says NSF particularly liked – is to use Mason’s unusually large contingent of women in the Physics and Astronomy Department to develop a summer “roundtable” that would assist women starting science careers by providing advice on funding, networking and professional skills.

“This is an area where very few women go into science,” Opher says of space plasma physics.

For Opher, sharing career tips with other women scientists starts with family. Her fraternal twin sister won a CAREER award in 2005 for work on manipulating the way light flows over silicon chips using nanotechnology. Opher says she asked to look at her sister’s NSF proposal for hints on how to craft one successfully.

The Mason scientist clearly picked up some good pointers. She was also nominated for a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the top U.S. governmental honor for up-and-coming researchers. Each year NSF selects nominees for PECASE from among the most meritorious new CAREER awardees.

“The scope of Dr. Opher’s work clearly indicates her interdisciplinary approach to science,” says the College of Science’s Dean Vikas Chandhoke. “Her innovative research and dedication to supporting women in science are key factors that will continue to define her outstanding professionalism, as well as promote the visibility of the college and the university.”

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