2023-2024: Geomagnetism, Paleomagnetism and Electromagnetism: Barbara Maher

Barbara A. Maher
Lancaster University


Professor Barbara A Maher (pronounced ‘Marr’) is an environmental scientist. She studies the formation, transport and deposition of tiny magnetic particles, natural and anthropogenic, which act as tracers in the natural and built environment. 
Barbara’s academic career has spanned two world-leading environmental science departments; first, at the University of East Anglia (1987 – 2000), and then Lancaster University (2000 – 2021). Her undergraduate degree was in Geography, at Liverpool University (1st Class B.Sc. Honours, 1981), where she stayed for her PhD, studying the magnetic properties of modern soils. Awarded a NERC post-doctoral research fellowship (1984 – 1987), in the Geophysics Department at Edinburgh University, Barbara produced benchmark, size-dependent data from synthetic ultrafine magnetite particles, enabling interpretation of soil and sediment magnetic properties.  With Reg Taylor, CSIRO Adelaide, she showed how distinctively ultrafine magnetite forms in soils, controlled by oxidation rate and Fe2+ supply.

Appointed to a Lectureship in Soil Science at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Barbara applied her understanding of modern soil magnetism to the fossil soils of the famous Chinese Loess Plateau. Continuing her collaboration with Roy Thompson (Geophysics, Edinburgh), Barbara showed the amount of soil-formed magnetite varied with modern monsoonal rainfall. Applying this modern magnetism/rainfall relationship to the fossil soil magnetic properties, they quantified monsoonal rainfall variations over the past 2.5 million years. Barbara also began investigating magnetic air pollution particles. She was made a Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 1998. Barbara lectured at the Royal Institution, ‘Science for the New Century’ series in 1999.

In 2000, Barbara was appointed the first woman professor in Lancaster University’s Science Faculty. Notwithstanding numerous senior management roles (Deputy Dean, Department Head, University Orator, University Senator), Barbara’s research flourished in her re-located, now internationally-famous Centre for Environmental Magnetism & Palaeomagnetism. For her pioneering palaeoclimatic work, Barbara was awarded the Chree (now Appleton) Medal by the Institute of Physics (2005), and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award (2006 – 2012) for ‘Environmental magnetism: innovative problem-solving in climate change and pollution’. She received the Schlumberger (now Neumann) Award from The Mineralogical Society of Great Britain (2014), for ‘scientific excellence in mineralogy and its applications’.  Fellowship of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) was awarded (2020) for ‘Outstanding contributions to understanding fine-particle magnetism, ancient monsoons, global dust cycles, and atmospheric particulate pollution’, and the Edward Bullard Lecture in 2021 (AGU named lectures ‘recognize distinguished scientists with proven leadership in their fields of science’; the Bullard for ‘significant contributions to geomagnetism’).

Other distinctions include leadership of the Dust and Climate Working Groups (2007-2012; 2012-2015); a Pilkington Medal (2013) for teaching excellence; vice presidency of the Quaternary Research Association; membership of the European Science Foundation’s College of Expert Reviewers; uniquely, Barbara was elected twice as Chair, Rock Magnetism Group of the International Union of Geophysics and Geodesy (2002-2006). She has given over 70 invited and plenary lectures at international meetings in the last 20 years. She was the Smith Distinguished Lecturer, Michigan University (2018).

Finally, Barbara’s science outreach work is highly regarded; contributing frequently to international TV/press science coverage, reaching audiences of 10s millions for her work on the health impacts of particulate air pollution.

Abstract: Icebergs, monsoons, Human Brains; Magnetism is Everywhere.

Tiny, distinctively magnetic particles are formed, transformed, transported and deposited both in the natural and built environment. We can use magnetic measurements of different materials – windblown dusts, soils, sediments, human tissues – to characterize these particles in order to use them as tracers and answer a whole diverse range of important and urgent questions. Do iron-rich air pollution nanoparticles get into our brains and hearts and what damage might they be doing? Where is the sediment that is filling in this lake and killing the rare fish coming from? How much has the rainfall from the East Asian monsoon varied by in the past and how much will it vary in the future? How did the flow of heat and salt in the North Atlantic ocean change during past glacial climate stages? What links Tibetan glaciers with Asian dust and iron fertilization of the North Pacific ocean and how might that have changed the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Can magnetic nanoparticles clean up drinking water supplies?