12 women researchers to explain science on soapboxes at Navy Pier

Maria Weber, organizer, talks falling in love with science, what she’s learned about outreach

In Victorian Britain, citizens would gather in the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London, and listen as speakers climbed their soapboxes to argue for civil liberties. In 2011, Nathalie Pettorelli of the Zoological Society of London and Sierian Sumner of the University College London revived the tradition by climbing their soapboxes to talk about gender equality in science, launching the first Soapbox Science event.

Since then, Soapbox Science has spread to countries all over the world, featuring more than 800 scientists explaining their research to the general public. Maria Weber, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, was inspired after speaking at an event in England to launch Soapbox Science Chicago—the first Soapbox Science event in the United States.

Soapbox Science Chicago will take place on Saturday, July 21 from 12 to 3 p.m. at the Navy Pier Wave Wall Performance Platform. Twelve women scientists will climb soapboxes and speak about their research.

UChicago News sat down with Weber to hear more about the event, as well as her research and her love for science and technology.

What is Soapbox Science all about?

Soapbox Science’s prime objective is to promote the participation of women in STEMM, and also share scientific research with the public. We want to go somewhere that will be freely accessible to anyone, providing science content for those who might not have the financial means to visit a museum. The fun thing is also to catch people in a place where they wouldn’t expect to find science. It’s sort of like guerilla science – catching you off guard, when you’re not expecting it. We are also about trying to break down the stereotype of the typical scientist, and help people to see that there are a lot of women scientists.

What is challenging about Soapbox Science presentations?

A thing that is hard for us as scientists it whenever we give presentations, we have all of these visualizations and slides to help us tell our story. But at Soapbox Science, no technology! I told our presenters to only bring the props that they can carry in on their back. That means that our scientists have to figure out the most meaningful things to bring, and distill their message down while still being as interactive with the audience as they can.

Do you remember any particular fact or equation you learned that got you really excited about science before you decided to pursue physics?

When I was little, say seven or eight, I went through this phase of interest in rocks. My parents had a rock garden in the front yard, and all of the rocks came from riverbeds or limestone or other interesting places. I realized that my school had books about rocks, and so I would try to figure out what cool rocks or fossils I was finding in the rock garden. That was my first fascination with science.

How did you first get interested in astrophysics?

I first was interested in physics in general. In high school, I was amazed that equations could actually describe the way things move in space: the way planets move, the way projectiles move, and so on. I wanted to learn more about the connection between math and the way things move in the world, so I went on to study physics in college and graduate school.

What aspect of your research do you think people are most excited to engage with?

I usually find that people get most excited about how the Sun’s magnetism affects our life. When the Sun’s magnetic fields eject from the surface, they travel through the solar system, and if they reach our planet they can interact with communication satellites, or expose astronauts and pilots to radiation, or even short out transformers that power our electrical power grids. What I do is fundamental research to try to understand how the Sun creates its magnetic field, because if the Sun didn’t create this magnetism in the first place then we wouldn’t see it at the surface and beyond. In order to really understand and predict the Sun, we need to get back to the fundamentals of how this magnetism is generated.

What are you hoping people will walk away with after attending Soapbox Science?

I hope they walk away with a few pieces of knowledge, along with a recognition that there are women in science across all disciplines and fields. I want all those little girls who are interested in becoming scientists one day, or the parents who might have young daughters, to see that there are women flourishing in these fields. Any time I do outreach, I also want to inspire curiosity, exploration, and inquiry.

Learn more about Soapbox Science online. In the event of inclement weather, the event will be held inside Navy Pier in the western-most end of the Food Court, in front of the Mural Wall.

The event is funded by a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Campus-Wide Inclusive Climate award backed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Leadership, Advancement, and Diversity, and supported by Navy Pier and the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement.