Girls Raised In Tennessee Science

Faces of Tennessee Women in STEM

Dr. Martha R. Weller Professor, Physics and Astronomy
Middle Tennessee State University

1. How did you become interested in math or science while at high school?

To be honest, I think that I became interested in both math and science by accident. I was trying to accomplish something else (get grades with which my parents would be satisfied , get into the college of my choice) and doing that something else required that I address the challenge of math and science. I really like challenges so I quickly fell in love with algebra. Chemistry was another matter. I was determined that I did NOT like science because, until I took chemistry, it had all been a bunch of memorization of not particularly relevant (to me anyway) facts. I decided that I had to do well in chemistry and I worked very hard at it. However, it was some time before it finally dawned on me that chemistry did not consist of a bunch of facts, but rather a set of rules for understanding how one part of my world worked. It was like having a set of Tinkertoys: You could take the jumble of ideas that you had and put them together in lots of different ways to make or understand something new. Physics is, if anything, even more like that. The basic building blocks of nature are there for me and I have the rules (some of them, at any rate) for putting them together into all kinds of things.

2. Why did you choose to work in your field?

I really love the idea that the universe works according to a set of rules that always apply. The challenge of physics (I love challenge, remember?) is first to find out what the rules are and then to learn how to use them to your advantage or to learn new things.

3. What are some areas of your job that you like the most?

I think the thing that I like best about my job is that I can do new things just about every day. As an experimental scientist, my job includes designing experiments to answer questions about nature, identifying the equipment that I need to perform those experiments, sometimes designing and perhaps even making some of that equipment, and doing the experiments. Experiments usually don’t work right the first time (and often not even the tenth time!) and there is a real thrill when you finally get past all the bugs and start getting meaningful results from an experiment. The absolute best part is when you walk out of the lab knowing that, for a short while at least, you know something about the universe that NOBODY else knows. As a scientist, I enjoy learning new things all the time. This job is only dull if you let it be.

4. What one thing would you tell a middle or high school girl who is considering majoring in STEM in college?

Just one thing?? Okay, this is it: Challenge yourself. Take the most challenging math, science, English, foreign language, etc. courses that you can handle. ALL of these will give you a good foundation for college, EVEN the English and foreign language classes.

5. Please provide a short biography and a photo.

Dr. Martha Riherd Weller is a professor of physics and astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University. A true Southern girl, she was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in rural north Florida. She received her B.A. degree in physics from Rice University and her Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology. Her research activities have ranged from the study of meteorites to the interaction of ionizing radiation with materials. She is married to a Vanderbilt engineering professor and they have three children, two of whom are following their parents’ footsteps into STEM professions. Dr. Weller has had a long time interest in local public school education, serving on the PTO of almost every school her children attended and also serving one term on her local school board. Her focus these days is the development of a course that emphasizes

the relationship between scientific ideas and civic issues. (Dr. Weller is not a biologist and doesn’t do biophysics either, but she really likes this picture of herself and the starfish, which incidentally was thrown back into the Pacific Ocean.)