What makes a physicist? by Dr. Eve Vavagiakis
What makes a physicist?
Hi! I’m a neutrino, and I am so small
that matter to me barely matters at all.
I hauled a thick book about college majors back to an old wooden reading desk at my local library and opened it on the slanted table top under a green glass reading lamp. My 16 year old fingers flipped through the pages, each one a travel pamphlet to a potential life. P… Ph… Philosophy… Physics. I was stealing a moment away from the children’s section where I worked as a library page shelving books. I was on the clock. I didn’t belong in the adult section of the library, and I had no idea if I would belong as a college physics major. With a degree in physics, students can pursue careers in science, engineering, research and development, the military, education, medicine, law, and the financial sector. Well that doesn’t help at all.
High school is the last time that women participate in physics in equal numbers to men. Upon entering college, the figure plummets to around 1 in 5 students, a gender gap among the highest in the sciences.1
Sure, I loved science. I devoured every science book I could check out from the library when I was a child. Did you know that you can burn a peanut to boil water to measure how many calories it contains? Did you know that Triceratops was an herbivore that lived 68 million years ago? Did you know that it took a thousand years for the light from that star to reach you? I did.
But I had no idea what it meant that I loved to learn about science, came alive in my high school lab classes, or felt determined to build a better egg-protecting structure for the Science Olympiad egg drop.
Did it mean I would succeed in a college physics class learning quantum mechanics, decoding white chalk scribbles in an alien language on the chalkboard? Because I opened one of those textbooks once. I did not understand it.
Did it mean I could come up with a novel research question and work in a lab to make a major discovery? Because I did not have any ideas for novel research questions to work in a lab to make a major discovery.
They still don’t know my mass!
Can you believe that it’s true?
Who will find out?
Could it one day be you?
What on earth is a “career in science” anyway? The book said you take many physics and math classes in college. I liked my classes, and my teachers had faith in my abilities, but how was I supposed to know I’d be good at “many” college physics and math classes? That sounded exhausting. And really, I’d rather learn about astronomy. Or burning peanuts. And I also loved writing. Should I major in English instead? I turned off the green glass lamp, reshelved the book, and returned to my cart in the children’s section, disappointed that I hadn’t made any progress.
Except that I had, because I’m sitting here writing this today with a PhD in physics, and the memory of that moment remains with me to this day.
Most women in physics report becoming interested in a career in physics in high school, and not earlier.1 One potential reason is that high school is often the first time students encounter teachers with physics backgrounds. Encouraging words from my physics high school teachers were a big reason I opened that college major book to the “Ph” page. Take risks early, they told me, and go after what you’re interested in. This is the best time in your life to do it.
My decision to pursue physics was rooted in my interest in science, formed when I was young by the children’s science books I read. My supportive mother, who pursued her own passions when they ran against the societal grain, gave me the confidence to explore my interests. And finally, the words of my high school teachers pushed me over the edge when I needed it the most, to take an otherwise blind step of faith into a course of study that deeply intimidated me. I decided I’d take it a year at a time, and only quit when I failed or was kicked out. And to my delight and surprise, I succeeded.
Today I develop instruments to study the oldest light in the universe, probing open questions as big as humans have ever been able to ask. My work excites me, motivates me, and fills me with purpose. I didn’t have to stop writing to pursue this career. In fact, my love of reading and writing was a boon. And I didn’t have to come up with my own novel research question to start this work; I was welcomed into a vibrant community of researchers working closely together who taught me everything I needed to get started.
When I think back on my younger self, there is so much I wish I could tell her. And I’m one of the lucky ones, who got the education and support I needed. To me, equity in this field will be achieved only if young people have equity of access to the subject: when no child grows up with the idea that someone like them doesn’t belong in science, and when everyone is taught what a career in the sciences entails. There are so many brilliant minds that will contribute to our understanding of the natural world if we can reach these children early and throughout their education. I hope that my children’s books will play a small role in inspiring an early interest in science and introducing children to modern research experiments I didn’t know about until I was much older. And I hope these interested children will get the encouragement they need to pursue their biggest dreams.
So although I am small, and secretive, too,
I matter to the universe, and I matter to you.
Dr. Eve Vavagiakis is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. An experimental cosmologist and author of “I’m a Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe”, Eve builds instrumentation to study ancient light and is passionate about sharing the wonder of physics with the next generation. When not working in the lab or talking about cosmology, Eve enjoys exploring the beautiful Finger Lakes region on foot or on two wheels.