All-female physicist team publishes research on magnetic domain walls

Alex Stuart ’19 and former associate professor of physics Karen Livesey at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Award Ceremony in 2018.

An all-female team of Colorado physicists, including former associate professor of physics Karen Livesey and UCCS alumna Alex Stuart ’19, recently published scientific research on the properties of magnetic domain walls.

“When we submitted the paper to the Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials, I realized I’d never seen this before,” said Karen Livesey, former associate professor of physics at UCCS.

“I couldn’t find any data, because a lot of physicists publish with their initials, not their full names, so their gender is hidden from the equation. But I have never seen a paper where all four authors were women.”

Physics has the lowest percentage of female researchers of any academic discipline in the United States. For Livesey, part of the magic of the paper – titled “Analytic calculation for the stray field above Néel and Bloch magnetic domain walls in a rectangular nanoribbon” – was that publishing a paper written by four female authors was purely incidental.

“We didn’t set out to have an all-female team. It just happened,” Livesey said.

A schematic of a magnetic domain wall.

The paper originated in a project Livesey assigned to Stuart as part of her undergraduate work in computational physics at UCCS: devising a calculation that could determine the nature of magnetic domain walls existing in a given material.

Prior to Stuart’s work on the project, the only way to predict the structure of a magnetic domain wall was by running a time-intensive calculation.

Using funding from the National Science Foundation, the Undergraduate Research Academy and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Faculty-Student Collaboration Award, Stuart and Livesey were able to produce a fast, simple analytic tool that can accurately determine the domain wall structure – in just seconds.

The work was verified by Kristen Buchanan, associate professor of physics at Colorado State University, and Buchanan’s research assistant Carla Quispe-Flores. The project itself rested on research completed by another UCCS physics alumna, Miriam DeJong ’15, who produced a now-heavily cited analytic expression that helps to predict the properties of magnets.

Stuart alongside her award-winning poster presentation at the 2018 Front Range Advanced Magnetics Symposium.

“The reason people are interested in these domain walls is that they are regions where magnetization switches from up to down,” Livesey explained. “You can encode information with them in the form of ones and zeroes. And because they’re very small regions, just a few atoms wide, you can encode information very densely.”

But for Stuart, the true importance of the project was that it provided mentorship from another female physicist – and it was the launchpad for her career in physics.

“This was my first introduction to doing a scientific research project,” Stuart said. “I was able to work with another female physicist and learn what Karen had to teach me, whether it was the actual physics or how to handle myself on a project. It gave me motivation to be where I am today.”

Livesey agrees.

“Working on a science project is not just about learning the maths and the physics,” she said. “There are a lot of soft skills to learn when you’re working together on a science project: learning how to do poster presentations and talk to people, learning to write a scientific paper.”

“I’m so grateful for the opportunities I was afforded while I was at UCCS,” Stuart said. “It’s cool to feel confident in my skills.”

Livesey is now pursuing a new faculty position at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and Stuart is now in the second year of her physics Ph.D. at Colorado State University working with Buchanan.

Both Livesey and Stuart are involved in multiple theoretical physics research projects that have kept them busy, even through a pandemic. In many ways, their collaboration was simply business as usual.

“In the physics department at UCCS, this is the norm: to work with undergraduate students and to include them on meaningful, cutting-edge research projects,” Livesey said. “We bring undergraduate students in alongside faculty and graduate students. It’s a culture of supporting each other, doing work together and doing it well.”

And perhaps one day – thanks in part to their efforts – seeing a physics paper published by an all-female team will feel like business as usual, too.