Survival of the Fittest

Originally posted as a Wellesley in STEM article at Wellesley Underground.


Every year the day before the first day of school, my family had a tradition where my father would take my sister and me to a museum (or later to the Doylestown courthouse to watch trials). We frequented Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the science museum, where I fell in love with astronomy and physics. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of a career as an astrophysics professor, or later one in high energy physics.

The physics path, however, was strewn with obstacles from performance anxiety to discouragement from every direction, including the male bullies who drove me out of my high school math competition team as well as my nuclear physics course, where in both cases I was the only girl. By senior year of high school, I conceded. I swapped AP Physics for philosophy, nuclear physics for choir, and agreed to pursue my parents’ desire for me to become an international lawyer.

During my first week at Wellesley, one of the Munger dorm advisors happened to be the renowned astronomer, Professor Dick French. As the advisors introduced themselves, he said, “I’m an astronomer.” Those words changed my life. I soon ventured to Whitin Observatory and procured a position within the department  with the support of Professor Wendy Bauer who also encouraged me to take Dick French’s astronomy course.

I remember those early years. Dick French inspired in me the confidence that I could become an astronomer, so I majored in astrophysics which would give me the option of a math major. I loved the community where all the physicists I knew were women.

Of course what lay in my future outside Wellesley’s womb was the full range of gender discrimination from the minor (professors not respecting my knowledge and deferring to men with less expertise) to the severe (sexual harassment) instigated by both men and women. I was attracted to high energy theoretical physics as well, reputed for being the sexiest field of physics and only for the elite. There have been years of misery due to the systematic devaluation in a field which favors the survival of the fittest. In this harsh academic climate, I have found pockets of solace. My college boyfriend, now husband, my MS supervisor in string theory, my PhD group and supervisors in string-inspired cosmology, and friends at my current university among them. There have been other individuals and groups I apologize for omitting.

The academic path post-college is a minefield, starting with entrance exams, comprehensive exams on every field of physics once you are in graduate school, and ending with the defense. Then the competition to procure a post-doctoral position is fierce; in some cases there are as many as a 1000 applicants for a few low-paying positions and generally, in my experience, no less than around a hundred applicants for a single position. I count myself lucky to have been on two college shortlists at the University of Cambridge, one for Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, as well as other shortlists, and have obtained a Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics National Fellowship, though not in high energy theory.

I see two major problems with science in society: 1) the devaluation of women and minorities and 2) the lack of value society places on those who advance basic science, which leads to a highly competitive job market and research environment.  There are also restrictions on academic freedom to explore novel ideas, in part, due to funding restrictions.  Engineering and industry with direct and obvious profitable ends seem more valued by society.

We, especially women in science, need to band together to create a more supportive, inclusive environment. Many of those I’ve known in high energy theoretical physics, men and women, have left the harsh academic climate in search of an improved quality of life. The academic environment is especially caustic for women who constantly have to defend their scientific arguments, sometimes to no avail, which are taken for granted when coming from men.  Part of the problem might be that women are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome and might not convey their ideas in a confident way, translating into seeming less competent. Confidence and competence are unrelated, yet the first projects the second.

I wonder about a society that places more value on athletes and entertainers than the individuals who explore the fabric of space-time, which in the case of general relativity, incidentally, led to your GPS and cell phone technology. I wonder about a community of physicists, men and women, who can either be dismissive or abusive to their women colleagues with equal education and abilities.

Wellesley, to me, is a model for an environment to foster astronomers and physicists. It was challenging but not degrading. We were encouraged to ask questions without preceding them by the qualification I see in seminars, “This might be a stupid question.” We were treated as humans as opposed to machines. Our gender did not subject us to attack for the most part. We were encouraged to cooperate to solve problems and not to work in lonely isolation, as is often the post-doc experience for many. We were valued by default without having to prove ourselves. We were encouraged to fulfill our dreams.

It was not a perfect environment. For a short time, I had a research advisor who demeaned women and screamed swear words at me (he is no longer at Wellesley). Many of us were extremely stressed, sleep deprived, and lacked balance in our lives. I never made the proverbial lifelong friends among my Wellesley classmates. But these issues were minor because I loved the work which justified any hardships. I loved the companionship of all nighters with my classmates or playing Madonna in the warm room while operating the 24” telescope (once accidentally leaving the microphone in the dome on, blasting the music to the entire hill surrounding the observatory).

A lot of my friends and colleagues, men and women with PhDs from prestigious universities, are leaving academia behind. Academia used to be a safe haven for intellectuals. As academia has begun to fall prey to corporatization, the number of papers produced is valued, rather than quality, and the very stressful ambiance and gender biases run rampant, many are finding new homes in the world. For those who are able and choose to remain employed in academia, it consumes their lives as they are generally overworked. However, kudos for those who flourish in academia, who have found niches of inspiration, curiosity, academic freedom, and support.

As the job market in academia for theoretical physics shrinks, workloads increase and permanent positions become scarce, the competition in academia is only likely to become more fierce as physicists vie like gladiators for positions.  This environment has always been adverse for the survival of women in the field, and it isn’t likely to improve without a conscious effort.  As students and colleagues, we should be mindful of our behavior that might be gender biased.  This ranges from looking at male colleagues in a discussion rather than the woman who might have asked the question to discussing, or not respecting, a woman’s choice not to have children in public (would you do this with a male physicist?).  It includes students and faculty not treating women equally as men, not respecting their explanations but accepting the same ones coming from men.  In the extreme cases, it has resulted in deserving women being omitted from prestigious prizes. According to Nobel website, of the approximately 200 Nobel prizes in physics awarded, only two have gone to women, Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.  Why hasn’t Vera Rubin been awarded one for the discovery of dark matter?  Why didn’t Jocelyn Bell receive the Nobel prize her supervisor won when she discovered radio pulsars?

To solve the problem of gender discrimination, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are treating a woman in the same way we would a man and consciously become gender-blind, as in how orchestral auditions have become.  In my personal experience, I have been fortunate that most of my academic groups led to largely positive interactions.  However, it can take just one destructive individual that can lead to days or even months or years of distress.  A drop of poison will affect an entire well.  We need to be mindful of our words and actions to lead to supportive environments that will encourage ourselves and others to do our best work and to enable the possibility of everyone reaching their full potential to contribute to the field.

My view of academia is narrow, a pinhole including high energy theoretical physics and astrophysics. There is a dearth of women and men in high energy physics from certain ethnic groups, especially of African descent. We can hope that in these fields, or academia at large, now that the discussion has been broached, the conditions, especially for women and minorities, will improve. Academic employment might have become the realm where survival of the fittest applies, but, those who have chosen to leave, as the Gloria Gaynor song expressed at so many Wellesley dorm parties, will survive (and thrive) too.