Frequently Asked Questions
I am often interviewed by young people who would like to become astronomers and are interested in the path I took to get where I am, and by prospective women scientists who would like to understand the experiences I have had as a woman.. I have decided to start putting the answers on my website so that I need to repeat less, and to make the answers available to those who do not contact me directly.
Why did you choose to go into physics? What experiences and people influenced this decision?
I have always enjoyed solving puzzles and math. My mother was a math teacher when I was younger, so she gave us all extra math instruction. When I applied for college, I thought about science or math as a major, and my father suggested that I pursue engineering since that would make it easy to find jobs afterwards (he had been a psychology major in a liberal arts school). But in college I discovered that engineers ask how things work and physicists ask why things work. My physics recitation instructor was Robert Resnick, of textbook author fame, and he encouraged my switch to majoring in physics. I remember him once telling me I thought like a physicist.
Were you ever discouraged from pursuing physics?
No, not really. However, the road to becoming a physics professor is not easy, and we all face many obstacles along the way.
How has being a woman affected you throughout your career?
It seems to make more difference the older I get. The first thing is that my undergraduate school was 80% male, and the gender ratio was if anything worse in physics classes. By the time I was in graduate school and a postdoc my peer group was 90% male. I had grown up with two brothers and three male cousins, so being in a group of men was not uncomfortable for me. But it created a high pressure social environment which I did not know well how to navigate. I stood out in class, which is good in some ways but even though I was a top student I did not feel that way and was afraid to ask or answer questions in class for fear of poorly representing myself and my gender. Everyone knew and noticed me, and I did not always know them.
In graduate school the courses were very difficult for me. The other student in my class who had gone to the same undergraduate school as me had taken graduate classes as an undergraduate student, but was in the same classes as I had even though I never had. I felt underprepared and I suspect as a female I would have been admitted with lower test scores than the others. That might or might not have been the case, but confidence is a very fragile and important thing. I had difficulty finding any role models with whom I identified. I never saw myself as a scientist, but more likely as a teacher or administrator. I did more outreach, more mentoring of younger students, more grant-writing, more communicating than the other students.
As a postdoc and a faculty member, I have a greater understanding of the difficulties faced by minority and female students, and have tried to help younger people as much as possible. I have been a favorite of the press, often asked to be in pictures or radio or comment on articles. I was favored as a female job applicant for whom they might be able to make an extra position, even though in my evaluation the top candidate(s) turned out to be of equal or lower ability to do the job for which we were hired. I got extra salary when I was hired as a faculty member though a program to attract women. There was then no particular need to give me raises after that. Though I have run many things, they have been my own creation or my own idea; no one thinks of me as a person who should run a project or a group, or asks me to stretch to a higher level. As a younger faculty member I was heckled by undergraduate students who thought they know more than I do or who did not feel the need to treat me respectfully, an indignity that does not happen to my male colleagues.
What things would've made your experience pursuing physics easier?
I would have benefited from a mentor who recognised me as a younger version of herself, who opened doors for me, who encouraged me in my career, who did not see my lack of self confidence as a weakness, and who nominated me for honors and awards. The closest I have had to this were my undergraduate mentors Robert Resnick and Charlie Bean, and they are probably the reason that I went on to graduate school.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? How has this affected your professional life?
I would say no. I do lack self confidence sometimes, but I don't really remember ever thinking I was an imposter or that I did not deserve to be in the position I held. I have many times as a postdoc or faculty member felt that I was held back and that I would never hold a position for which I was not completely competent.
Do you feel that students treat you differently than they do male professors?
As young professor I think I was treated very differently. Now, I get more respect. I believe students have considerable unconscious bias in their teaching evaluations.
Women only make up 1/3 of physicists. Why do you think this is? What do you think could or should be done to improve this ratio?
I am not sure where this ratio comes from. In my experience the fraction of women is much lower. I don't think many young women look at Albert Einstein and thing they want to be like him. Physics culture was made in the days of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb; it is very competitive and there is a lot of concentration on work in the younger years that directly conflict with child bearing, so it is a bit of a daunting path to start along. And then, when women look for senior women role models and mentors, they often see very smart, talented women who have few children, who have not advanced with their peers, who are having more than the average difficulty getting grants or telescope time, and who are often angry or resigned or ill. And they wonder: if this smart, talented person is having trouble how would I be able to do it? So the thing I think that should be done is to make life better for the mid-career and senior women who could make a difference to those who might consider following in their footsteps.