The sky is the limit

Brazilian wins award granted by the President of the USA to future research leaders

Merav: the boundaries of the Solar System


A Brazilian astrophysicist who lives in the United States was one of the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers/Pecase, a renowned award granted to young researchers in the United States. São Paulo City native Merav Opher, 38 years old, and 11 other researchers from various fields of knowledge, were at the White House, the seat of the US Government, on December 19 to receive the award from President George W. Bush. This is a highly competitive award, created in 1996 by the then President Bill Clinton to acknowledge and encourage scientists and engineers with leadership potential to explore the frontiers of scientific knowledge. “It was a surprise because very few astrophysics researchers have been the recipients of this award,” says Merav. In the period from 1993 and 1998, she studied for her doctorate degree in astronomy at the University of São Paulo/USP as a FAPESP scholarship grantee. This achievement also draws attention because not very many women are involved in this field of physics.

Merav Opher is specialized in the calculation of particle flows and the magnetic fields on the frontiers of the Solar System. Assistant Professor at the George Mason University, a public institution in the State of Virginia, she has dedicated herself in the last few years to studying the heliopause, a theoretical bubble that contains the Sun and the planets of the Solar System, acting as a shield that protects the Sun from the invasion of galactic cosmic rays (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 137). Lying millions of kilometers beyond Pluto, the heliopause bumps into a gigantic interstellar gas and dust cloud which crosses its path. As a result, this shock distorts the heliopause into a shape resembling a bow, similar to that of a comet with a tip in the front and a long tail behind.

In partnership with Edward Stone, from the California Institute of Technology/Caltech, In May 2007 Merav Opher published a map of the nose of the heliopause in Science magazine, analyzing how the interstellar medium distorts it. She used computer models in this study to explain the data captured four years ago by the Voyager spacecraft, launched by NASA in the 1970’s and which nowadays is beyond the heliopause. The model explained that the bubble and the shock zone were crushed by the magnetic field outside the Solar System, and that the southern hemisphere is pulled inside in relation to the northern hemisphere, because of this magnetic field. The study published in Science attracted the scientific committee’s attention to the astrophysicist’s work. Last year, Merav Opher had already been granted a grant of US$ 950 thousand from the National Science Foundation (NSF); the objective of this grant is to foster the connection between research and education under the leadership of young researchers. The nominees for the Presidential Award come from this program.

The researcher became interested in astrophysics because of her father, physicist Reuven Opher, a professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmosphere Sciences/ IAG), of USP. She was not the only member of the family to go into the academic field; her twin sister, Michal Lipson, is a professor at the US’s Cornell University. Her fields of research focus on photonics and nanotechnology.

The Milky Way, as seen from Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile

NOAA/NSF The Milky Way, as seen from Cerro Tololo Observatory in ChileNOAA/NSF

Counseled by the father
Merav got her elementary and high school education at Colégio Iavne, a traditional Jewish religious school in São Paulo. “Even though my parents are not practicing Jews, they enrolled me in a religious school so that I could learn Hebrew properly,” she says. She was enrolled as a physics major at USP from 1989 and 1992 and soon thereafter enrolled in the doctorate program at the IAG, under the guidance of her father. She began her post-doctorate studies, but concluded that the time had come for her to leave the country. “The education I got in Brazil was excellent, but I felt I needed more contact with observation and the United States is the best place to do so,” she states.

She went to the Jet Propulsion Lab owned by space agency NASA and looked for physicist Paulett Liewer, who is a reference on the study of solar wind interactions in the interstellar medium. “She hired me on the spot,” Merav recalls. Between 2001 and 2004, she attended the post-doctorate program at the California Institute of Technology/Caltech, to which the NASA lab is connected. Having shown interest in using computer tools to explain observation data, she contacted Tamas Gombosi, a professor at the University of Michigan, who had developed a program able to simulate three-dimensionally the interaction between magnetic fields and electronically charged particles. This effort required Merav to take several trips from California, on the southwest coast, to Michigan, in the Great Lakes region, close to Canada, to meet with Gombosi. When she learned how to deal with the codes of the program, she asked to work with Caltech’s Edward Stone, the head of the Voyager mission.

Merav Opher did not lose contact with the academic community in Brazil. At George Mason University, she already worked with two Brazilian scholarship grantees, Aline Vidotto, from IAG-USP, and Cristiane Loesch de Souza Costa, from the National Institute for Space Research/Inpe. “These collaborations were very good. The Brazilian researchers’ educational background is the same level as that in other countries, and I don’t understand why our researchers sometimes feel intimidated when they come to work in the United States,” states the astrophysicist, who says she is open to welcoming more Brazilian scholarship grantees in the United States.