Fellowship supports physicist’s study of planets outside solar system

UTA grad student focuses her research on exoplanets’ magnetic fields, habitability

Monday, Dec 06, 2021 • Linsey Retcofsky : Contact

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A doctoral student in physics at The University of Texas at Arlington has received a prestigious national grant to continue her research in space science.

Fatima Bagheri, who plans to complete her Ph.D. in December, was recently awarded a $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship. The award will fund her proposed study of exoplanets—planets that orbit around other stars—as well as their magnetic fields and their potential ability to support life.

“My proposed research plan aims to understand better the magnetic fields of exoplanets and their potential habitability,” she said. “This fellowship means a lot to me and allows me to pursue my childhood dream of being a scientist and studying the universe professionally.”

Her doctoral research focuses on geomagnetic storms, which are major disturbances of Earth’s magnetosphere that occur when there is an exchange of energy from solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth. She also examines how energy from solar wind dissipates into the magnetosphere-ionosphere system.

Bagheri began her doctoral studies at Sharif University of Technology (SUT) in Tehran, Iran, and transferred to UT Austin after immigrating to the United States in 2017. She spent a year there as a visiting researcher before coming to UTA three years ago.

The research she plans to conduct during her postdoctoral fellowship will combine the work she did at SUT and UT Austin (detecting exoplanets) with the work she is doing at UTA (studying solar wind-magnetosphere interactions).

“I came up with an idea that connects these two fields of planetary science, and this idea resulted in the NSF postdoctoral fellowship,” she said. “I’m so excited and grateful for this opportunity. This fellowship will help me bridge the two independent fields of exoplanet and planetary science (mainly focused on extra-solar planets) and space physics (mainly focused on studying Earth and other planets within our solar system).”

Bagheri’s faculty mentor is Ramon Lopez, distinguished professor of physics and an internationally recognized leader in space physics and space weather research.

“I found his research work in space physics fascinating,” she said. “Dr. Lopez is very kind and supportive, and I’m grateful to have him as my advisor.”

Lopez praised Bagheri’s research efforts and said he looks forward to seeing how she will build and expand on her doctoral research in her postdoctoral work.

“Fatima is an outstanding research student and is very deserving of this NSF fellowship,” Lopez said. “Her proposal is innovative and combines the astrophysics work she did before coming to UTA with the space physics work she has done here.”

Bagheri was born and raised in Tehran. She took an early interest in science, and her curiosity about the fundamental questions of how the universe began and how it works led her to study physics in pursuit of answers.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics, focusing on general relativity and cosmology. She began working on her Ph.D. the following year. During her doctoral studies, she attended a colloquium given by guest speaker Amir Shahmoradi, who had earned a B.S. in high energy physics from SUT in 2007 and went on to earn a doctorate in physics from UT Austin in 2015.

The two hit it off and were married in 2016, after which Bagheri joined Shahmoradi in Austin. In 2018, Shahmoradi was hired as an assistant professor of physics at UTA, and the couple moved to Arlington. Shahmoradi helped launch the College of Science’s program in data science, a field in which Bagheri also has an interest. She and Shahmoradi have co-authored several publications on data analysis topics, including gamma-ray bursts and Monte Carlo simulations.

Bagheri said she is glad to see an increase in the number of women studying physics in recent years. She is happy to serve as a role model if it helps to bring more women and more members of underrepresented communities into the field.

“I always think about myself as a scientist and never thought I couldn’t be one because I was a woman,” she said. “There are a lot of very talented female students, and I hope my success with this NSF fellowship is proof that all female students at UTA can do it, too. I plan to help students—in particular, female and underrepresented members of the community to which I belong—and attract them toward physics and science.”

- Written by Greg Pederson, College of Science