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May 21, 2024

Maria Weber

DSU physics professor shares love of subject

By Jack Criss, The Bolivar Bullet

Dr. Maria Weber obviously loves the subject matter she teaches for a living. Spend only a few moments with her and the excitement with which she discusses physics is palpable for an academic field that, frankly, is over most people’s heads – literally, in her specialization and main interests of study and research.

As Assistant Professor of Physics at Delta State University, as well as the Director of the Wiley Planetarium on campus, Weber’s focus is on astronomical issues in such fields as stellar magnetohydrodynamics, magnetic flux emergence, solar physics, stellar dynamo theory among many others. Not your standard water cooler conversation starters, by any means. But Weber is no standard teacher, either. 

Born and raised in Dale, Indiana, Weber said her hometown is not all that different from towns in the Mississippi Delta.

“It’s a very rural area,” she said. “Dale only has a population of about 1,000 people, it’s agricultural and I was in 4-H as a young girl. My parents and grandparents all grew up on farms, so Cleveland was not a shock to me at all. I love the community feel of this town where people know each other and support each other, and it reminds me of home.

“My father is a truck driver and my mom is the manager at a fast food restaurant in Indiana,” she continued. “As a child, I was always curious about everything which, simplistically put, is what the subject of physics actually consists of studying – everything as a whole. And my parents were very supportive of my innate curiosity as a kid, digging up worms, conducting odd experiments and such. Plus, I was an avid reader and was drawn to learning, particularly math.”

Weber said it wasn’t until she was in high school that she decided on physics as a possible career field after taking a class during her junior year. 

“It was an algebra-based physics course and I had a wonderful teacher, which cemented things for me,” she said. “That’s when I got really excited about physics, when I discovered that I could take all of the math I had already learned and apply it to explain the real world and all of the beautiful equations that explain everyday phenomena, such as why a football spirals or how planets orbit stars – just about anything you could care to mention. I was hooked.”

So hooked, in fact, that Weber went on to obtain her dual Bachelors of Science degrees in Physics and Philosophy at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Illinois, with a minor in Mathematics, graduating Magna Cum Laude and in the Honors Program. 

Next, Weber attended Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she received her Masters of Science in Physics before entering the school’s doctorate program, where her area of concentration was solar physics.

“I was surrounded by a lot of intelligent people at Colorado State as a graduate student,” said Weber, “and I was fortunate in that we were all very collaborative and respectful of each other – it was a wonderful environment in which to learn and study. I also had a little ‘side hustle’ as a private physics tutor in the Denver/Boulder area during that time where I actually made a good bit of extra money. It was much more than what I was receiving as a grad student,” she laughed. 

After receiving her doctorate, Weber moved on to post-doctoral work at the University of Chicago, as well as working for two years at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago through a National Science Fellowship. She also spent three years at the University of Exeter in England doing research on M dwarf stars and is the recipient of numerous other awards and fellowships. 

Weber arrived in Cleveland and Delta State in the fall of 2019 to begin her teaching career. 

“I thought Mississippi would be the last place I would ever live,” she admitted. “But this was a rare job opportunity for me to not only be on track for tenure, but also be a planetarium director and have the freedom to have time to conduct research.”

Weber said that being a good teacher is about challenging her students while also making the subject of physics as accessible as possible. 

“When you grasp principles in physics, it’s very rewarding to find yourself understanding a subject matter that can be so challenging,” she explained. “When I try to solve a problem to convey to my students, I also relay to them my own struggles in reaching that understanding, or the conclusions that I’ve drawn. I’ve had to struggle oftentimes, too, and when they see that, I believe it helps them with the material. For some professors, the subject matter is so obvious that it frustrates them that it’s not equally as obvious to the students. I’m not that way at all and I think it makes me better at my job – I know what it’s like for them and they can see and hear that.”

Weber also said that, as somewhat of a natural performer, she believes she can bring the often difficult material to life in the classroom. 

“Growing up, I was always performing ballet and in dance classes, the school’s marching band and color guard, those kinds of activities – I never was shy in front of people,” she said. “That’s helped me tremendously as a professor. And I think I’ve made an impact on my students here at Delta State – I truly do.”

A yoga practitioner, Weber also enjoys traveling, reading and learning to cook new food dishes in her spare time. “I also like being the ‘weird, scientist aunt’ to my sister’s two boys who live in Virginia Beach, Virginia,” she laughed. “I always go visit them twice a year and I hope they’ll get down here at some point soon to see me, as well.”

Weber said that Cleveland is “a lovely town” and that she’s looking forward to her future here as a teacher and resident. Conversely, Delta State is fortunate to have such a well-respected physics professor teaching within its halls and, hopefully, guiding some future physicists to carry on her love of the subject.