Dr. Maria Weber is an astrophysicists based at the University of Exeter. Here she tells us how she has come to embrace two aspects of her identity as a “space nerd” and “science fiction geek” and her wish to challenge the stereotypes around each of these. Come and hear Maria speak at Soapbox Science in Exeter about her cutting-edge work on this and other solar systems on Saturday 24th June 2017 at 1 pm.
By Maria Weber
I’m a Nerd (and a Geek) and That’s Okay
Soapbox Science’s mission is to challenge the public’s view of women in science. In most branches of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), we are certainly the minority. I’m an astrophysicist. Across the UK and the United States (where I grew up and obtained my degrees), women make up only ~20-25% of the membership in professional astronomy and astrophysics societies.
My subject of expertise is theoretical solar and stellar physics. I study the fundamental physical processes at work in the interior of stars, well beyond the reach of telescopes. To do this, I use sophisticated computer models and often manipulate mathematical equations in a very ‘old school’ way with pen and paper. I use the results of these models to understand observations of intense magnetic fields observed on the surface of the Sun and similar stars.
Here I am juggling the Sun (yellow), a star ~46% of the Sun’s mass (orange), and a star ~12% of the Sun’s mass (red)
In addition to being a scientist, I’m also a self-proclaimed nerd and geek. The terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ often have negative societal connotations, and usually bring to mind male-gendered images. As part of my Soapbox Science platform, I also want to challenge the typical nerd and geek stereotype.
At this point you may be wondering ‘What is the difference between a nerd and a geek?’ This is still a heavily contested debate that will likely never be settled. I envision ‘nerd-dom’ and ‘geek-dom’ as something like a Venn diagram, with traits unique to each, but also traits that overlap. Often the differences can be subtle.
To me, a nerd is someone who is a scholar and expert in a field of study or artistic expression, particularly to the point that he or she may be consumed by this pursuit. On the other hand, a geek is perceived as knowledgeable and excitedly enthusiastic about a hobby or a niche interest. Typically, nerds are likely to prefer solitude, while geeks often enjoy their hobbies with others who share their same interests. Some people may interpret ‘overly studious and over-the-top enthusiasm’ as negative traits, but I would regard them as signs of passion about a topic or interest of great value to the individual.
I was first labeled as a nerd at age nine, interestingly, by other girls in my class. Most days, I preferred to read encyclopedias rather than playing games during recess. Twice a week I would reshelve books in the school library instead of playing outside. I was viewed by my female classmates as ‘too serious’ and ‘no fun’. But I was having fun! I was reading cool new facts about rocks and space, learned about the Dewey Decimal system, and discovered books on so many interesting topics. I was unsure how to react to my new nickname…surely only boys could be nerds. Even at this early age, my female classmates (myself included) were buying into the gender biased nerd stereotype.
I now have very messy desk. Most days, I have papers everywhere and at least two computers going at the same time.
I was in denial about my nerd status for most of my adolescence. I loved learning and continued to do well in school, but I was afraid to say ‘I’m a female, I really love science and maths, and that is okay.’ Part of this may stem from the fact that I had no female scientific role models in my earlier years. Around the age of twelve, I discovered Dr. Dana Scully and the American science fiction television show ‘The X-Files’. Scully is a female FBI agent, a medical doctor, scientist, and skeptic who logically questions the world around her. I admired her very much, and began to realize that I too could be a scientist, and that was going to be really cool.
I was in denial about my geek status for an even longer time. I didn’t fully embrace it until I went to university and graduate school. I discovered a population of students that were interested in video games, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and midnight showings of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’. The most important thing for me was the realization that there were a number of women involved in this aspect of geek culture, which I had totally missed out on in high school.
Now I am proud to proclaim that I am a space nerd and fantasy and science fiction geek. My only regret is that I resisted it for so long. I am much happier, and have much more fun now than I did years ago. My advice to everyone, male and female, is this – pursue anything and everything you are passionate about. Sometimes you may be in the minority. In which case, be a positive role model for others who may be nervous or afraid to join. Sometimes you may be in the majority. In which case, be welcoming to those unlike yourself. I’m here to tell you that you can be any gender, and a nerd, and a geek, and there are others out there like you.
Here I am giving an outreach talk about stellar magnetism and planetary habitability.