#WomenonWednesdays: Julia Stawarz

Today’s interview is with Dr. Julia Stawarz, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the SPAT group, working in space plasma physics.

As a little introduction, what area of Physics do you specialize in?  

I work in the field of space plasma physics using measurements from spacecraft to study the dynamics of a number of different plasmas in near-Earth space – mainly the fast flow of hot plasma that expands from the Sun (known as the solar wind) and the region of space influenced by Earth’s magnetic field (known as the magnetosphere). Some of the spacecraft that I work with are NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale and Parker Solar Probe missions and ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission (the magnetometer for which was built here at Imperial!). Using this data, I focus on studying some of the fundamental processes that operate in a plasma, including plasma turbulence (the highly-nonlinear, seemingly chaotic dynamics of the plasma) and magnetic reconnection (the sudden release of stored magnetic energy in the plasma into the charged particles), both in terms of understanding how they influence the interaction between the Sun and the Earth and understanding the fundamental physics that may be applicable to other plasmas throughout the Universe.  

What kick started your career in Physics?  

As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a research project in the field of space plasma physics over the course of several years that lead to the publication of several scientific, which, for me at least, was a really amazing experience. I think this experience really got me interested in the field of space plasma physics and gave me a taste of what a career in physics research is actually like – which in many ways can be quite different experience from what it is like studying for your degree!   

What has your experience being a woman in Physics been like? Both the positives and the negatives. 

As a trans woman in physics there have certainly been some challenging times, particularly around when I was coming out. I guess a lot of people face various unique and intersectional challenges and it is easy to feel very isolated and discouraged. However, it is important, and certainly very possible, to find people within the field that you can connect with beyond just pure physics and that can be supportive during challenging times. For me, being involved with groups focused on promoting inclusivity in physics and LGBT+ physics groups have been a really great experience. I have also fortunately had some really wonderful supervisors and colleagues (some of which in places that I wouldn’t have initially expected) that have helped to support me over the years, as well as had the opportunity to work with a number of really inspiring women in the field that I could look up to.  

What do you hope to achieve in the next 5 years? 

It is a really exciting time in the field of space plasma physics at the moment. We have recently had multiple cutting-edge spacecraft launched, such as Magnetospheric Multiscale, which is letting us examine the detailed dynamics of the plasma with finer detail then we have ever had, and Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter traveling closer to the Sun then we have ever gone before, letting us directly probe the solar atmosphere and understand the origin of the solar wind. These missions will be advancing our understanding of these physical systems in a fundamental way over the coming years, so I am really excited to be helping to analyse these datasets, shape the next big questions in the field, and develop the next generation of missions that will be answering them.  

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