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Interview of Julia Phillips by David Zierler on April 27, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44401
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Dr. Julia Phillips, executive emeritus of Sandia National Laboratory. Phillips recounts her childhood in rural Illinois, her early interests in science, and the influence of her father, who was a general surgeon, and her mother, who kept the books for her father’s practice. She describes her undergraduate experience at the College of William and Mary, where she solidified her interest in experimental physics, and her decision to pursue a graduate degree at Yale, where she studied low-energy electron impact excitation in helium and krypton and the threshold for the excitation of the first few excited states. Phillips discusses her work at Bell Labs, where one of the major projects during her time was in extending Moore’s Law. She describes her decision to join Sandia, provides a historical overview of the lab, and explains her work in nuclear verification issues. Phillips discusses her various promotions in leadership at Sandia, and how its role in national security issues have evolved over the years. In the final portion of the interview, Phillips discusses her recent work in professional service, and provides some general advice for young scientists.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is April 27, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here virtually with Dr. Julia Phillips. Julia, thank you so much for being with me today.
It’s a pleasure.
Let’s start first with your — now, this might be a complicated question in your regard, but can you tell us your title and your current affiliation?
In terms of title, I suppose the best title is that I am an executive emeritus at Sandia National Laboratories. I retired almost exactly five years ago. In terms of other titles that you might apply at the moment — I am a member of the National Science Board, and I am the Home Secretary of the National Academy of Engineering.
Okay. so, “executive emeritus” is what? Like, they give you two offices, not just one?
[laughs] Actually, no office at all, but they invite you to a reunion and an update on Sandia once a year. Basically, anybody who retires at the level of director or above is given the “emeritus” title, if they choose to take it.
Got it. Let’s now start right at the beginning. Tell me about your birthplace, and your family background, and your early childhood years.
I was born in Freeport, Illinois. It is a town of about 25,000. “Out in the middle of a bunch of corn fields” is the way I like to characterize it, the emphasis being that it is not a suburb of a larger city. It is about 70 miles south of Madison, Wisconsin, 120 miles west of Chicago. So, in the northwest corner of Illinois. It is the relatively hilly part of the state, which actually, given some of the other places I’ve lived, doesn’t look all that hilly when I go back. But geologically, it’s fairly interesting, because the last glacier missed that part of Illinois. So, it does roll a little more. My father’s family were among the first settlers in that area, and, actually, the original homestead still exists and still is in the families of some cousins of one variety or another.
My father was a doctor. He was a board-certified general surgeon. Being a fairly small town, he was the first board-certified specialist in any specialty in that town, and that resulted in a rather unusual practice, because he had a large general practice, and then he also had the general surgery. And he found that very satisfying, because unlike what happens so often today, where for one doctor, it’s your nose, and another doctor, it’s your abdomen or whatever — he was able to really interact with his patients as whole people. And that was very rewarding to him. His father was also a doctor, and he was more of a horse-and-buggy doctor type. So, there was a changing of the guard. My father was born in 1914, so he did not have children early. It was always fun hearing stories about when he was little. He wanted to be a trash collector, because they had the best horses. So, really a different, different time. Okay, so that was my father.
My mother was born in Rochester, Minnesota. Her father was head of plastic surgery at the Mayo Clinic. So, there were doctors on both sides. But the family before that came from a tiny town in Nebraska. My mother was 13 years younger than my father, and she attended two and a half years of college at the University of Wisconsin and had started in music but ended up in premed. And then when my father asked her to marry him, she realized that this was meant to be, so she did not complete college. But when my parents moved to Freeport, she ended up keeping the books for my father’s practice for all the years that he practiced. And so, it was very much a partnership. What she has often said is that, “If I’d had any idea what I would be doing, I would at least have taken an accounting course,” which she didn’t. So, she invented her own accounting methods, survived IRS audits and all of that kind of thing. A very accomplished woman in her own right. And to her children, she was a stay-at-home mom. It was only much later that we really appreciated the tremendous accomplishments that she had both in her own right and in terms of the teamwork that she had with my father.
The other thing was that my father did not believe in putting patients off. If they thought they needed to be seen, they would be seen. The rule was they had to be inside the office at 5:30, when the door was locked, and then he would see them before he went home. And sometimes, they would wait for hours to be seen. But it’s hard to find help at that hour, so my mother also would go down to the office at 7:00 every evening and help with running the office until my father was finished seeing patients. So that was the kind of home existence that we grew up with. Now, my parents had a love match — very much so — and so it was just an incredibly loving and supportive environment. I think my mother, had she been born in another time, would have been an outstanding scientist or a technical person in her own right. She was not afraid to dig into things and fix them. She tells about being in the college dorm and being the only one with a screwdriver and a few other tools, so she could fix things. [laughs] And she ordered little science kits and things like that, and science magazines for us kids. Those were always around. When I showed some interest in the stars and astronomy, my parents bought a telescope. In a small town, skies are dark, even today, and they were even darker back then when I was growing up. So, there was always that encouragement. When science fairs came along, my mother made darn sure that we were in them. So, science fairs were part of growing up. And in high school, some of my friends — some of the girls but not the boys — were allowed to stop accelerated math, which was accelerated one year relative to normal. It never even entered my mind. I just knew what the reaction would have been if I had even made a noise about that.
Yeah, I want to ask about that. It seems like there’s a very strong emphasis from your parents on — like, you can be whatever you want to be. And my question is: was that implied in the kind of education and opportunity they afforded you, or was that a kind of statement that was explicitly made to you? Particularly because — the sense that your mom, in a different time, could have been a very accomplished scientist, had she been given those opportunities.
Oh, I think it was just kind of the way we lived. And another thing is that in the small-town Midwest, at that time, education was a cultural value. So, yes, my parents were, I think, unusual in a lot of ways. But my parents tell about how in this community, every time the school board came out and said, “We need another bond measure,” it was passed – every time. So, there was just this cultural value. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I lived other places, where education is not a cultural value, and you really see that difference. So, I had that value in the community, writ large, but also at home. I guess the best expression of not exactly coming out and saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” but sort of living it, is the career of my brother, a professional bassoonist. Well after he started pursuing that career my mother said, “The moral of the story is: never encourage your child in a hobby you would be disappointed to see them pursue as a profession.” And she’s never been disappointed. It’s just that it’s a hard way to make a living.
And I think that kind of says it all, that we knew that pretty much anything was open to us. What was not acceptable was not trying our best and really working as hard as we could. If we worked as hard as we could and things didn’t work out, well, it didn’t come back on us. But if we didn’t try, that was not acceptable.
You went to public school through 12th grade?
I went to public schools of one sort or another through 16th grade — yeah, college.
Yes. There was no private school option, but no. I was raised to believe in public education — and certainly I had the expectation, which didn’t turn out to happen — that our children would also go through public education. And where I grew up, there wasn’t an alternative, but the local school had been unacceptable, my parents would have figured out something. In fact, for my brother, they did not like the local elementary school when he got into the upper grades. So, when my grandfather died, they kept his house, in another elementary school district, for an additional year so that my brother could attend that school. In my brother’s case, it made a world of difference.
And given the family history of medical doctors on both sides, was that something that — did they encourage you in that direction in any way, or was that something that you thought you might have defaulted into when you were growing up?
No. I mean, it might have happened, and to hear my father tell it, becoming a doctor was sort of a default for him. But neither my brother nor I really thought at all seriously about it. You can speculate about why. I don’t know. But certainly, you can imagine that some aspects of our home life influenced that choice. You can imagine that if your father is seeing patients until 9:00 or 10:00 at night, and often on call on weekends, and we were never on time to anything because he was making rounds at the hospital or had a medical emergency to attend to, that there might be certain things that were not especially attractive about that career, at least as we saw it. But there was never anything stated one way or the other about that.
And in high school, were you an exceptional student in math and science, or even across the board?
I was really competitive. [laughs] And so, in terms of native ability, I don’t know if I would have been the best student, but I pretty much knew who the competition was. And back in those days, it wasn’t very disguised. I mean, I set out to really cream them, and I did. [laughs]
How big was your graduating class?
About 450 were in my graduating class.
Oh, wow. That’s a big school.
It was a big school, yes. And there were five or six that had a 4.0 average. However, in terms of the course load, both the number of courses and the subject I took, I overachieved — they didn’t really differentiate it officially, but the principal more or less said it when he called us all up.
There’s a 4.0 for honors classes, and there’s a 4.0 for non-honors classes.
I know all about that. [laughs]
And this was before the time when there were some classes where you could get a 5.0, and that kind of thing. There wasn’t any of that.
Sure. And what kinds of schools did you apply to?
I applied to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Period.
That’s it. I applied early decision, and it never occurred to me I wouldn’t get in. It occurred to my mother that I might not get in, but it never occurred to me. I had the big fat college handbook, and I spent hours looking at it. When I was applying to college, the Ivys had not been co-ed for very long, and I think there might have been something in me that knew I probably didn’t have quite the social maturity to deal well with the Ivys, even though I didn’t know much about them. William & Mary was fascinating for two reasons: one, it’s the second oldest college in the nation and in Williamsburg, Virginia, and that was all really cool; the other was, at the time, it was harder for an out-of-state woman to get into William & Mary than Harvard.
That’s just the way I was wired up back then.
Yeah. That’s remarkable.
Yeah. Anyway, it’s a state school, so the size of the out-of-state class was limited, and it’s a really good school. And it turned out to be the right place for reasons that had nothing to do with my choosing it. [laughs]
Going in, did you declare physics right away?
I didn’t have to declare, but that was kind of where I was leaning. Colleges had changed so much from my parents’ time, and growing up in a self-contained community, as opposed to a suburb where you have access to a lot of different opportunities, and you can go visit colleges and so forth and so on, I wasn’t very familiar with the forms and things like that. But they did send forms to fill out about classes you might want to take. Not an obligation by any means. And I do remember, as I was filling those out, I knew it was science and not math. I liked math pretty well, but I didn’t love math, and in fact, I think it was in 5th grade when I declared I wanted to be an astronomer. And the teacher running the program asked if I liked math, because I had to like math if I wanted to be in astronomy. And I decided, well, if I had to like math, I would like math. So, I was good at math, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. I knew I didn’t want humanities, because they were so subjective, and I really liked the idea that there was a definite answer to science questions. Of course, that’s not quite true, but that was the thinking at the time. And so then I —
Julia, I’ll share with you — let me share with you. This morning I talked — I don’t know if you know Gene Byer at Penn, University of Pennsylvania, one of the leaders in neutrino physics. I asked him the question: what is the one thing he likes to convey in Physics 101 to a captive audience of students that will never think about physics again? And he brought up that exact point that you just said: you can explain how the world works in numbers. You can actually do that in physics.
So, that’s a — what you just said is a perfect distillation of his entire educational philosophy. So, I just wanted to share that with you.
That’s good. I like that. So anyway, my rationale was that if I ended up in chemistry, I needed physics, and if I ended up in biology, I needed chemistry and probably physics, so I might as well start with physics and see where I ended up. And obviously, I didn’t deviate from that.
Right. So, how big was the physics department at William & Mary?
It was a very unusual physics department. This was post-Sputnik — I mean, far enough post-Sputnik that there had been a big buildup in university science departments in the race to put a man on the Moon. And so, William & Mary had really built up its physics department. It was one of two Ph.D.’s that they offered, the other being history. So the department itself was 20-some faculty members…
Wow, that’s big.
…in a wide range — yeah, it was a really good-sized department. The number of majors is a different thing. And at the time, I think there were something like six in my class by the time we graduated.
You got there right at the end of all of the campus unrest in the late ’60s.
Did you have a sense of — what was it like coming in on the tail end of that? Did you feel like, I don’t know — things from either a women’s rights perspective, or a civil rights perspective, or anti-war sentiment. Did you have the sense when you were there that you were experiencing the beginning of a new era after all of that, or was that on your radar at all?
[laughs] Remember that I’m from a small town in the Midwest. One of the reasons that I liked William & Mary was — a lot of that stuff was later getting to the Midwest, and it made me very uncomfortable. Actually, it never exactly got to William & Mary. And that was really nice. I could concentrate on my studies and on the social stuff, and I didn’t have to get tangled up in the other aspects. I don’t think I would have been ready for it, honestly. By the time I actually got to Yale, I was ready, but at age 18, I don’t think I was ready. So, I’m grateful that there was a place like that where I could go. Certainly, there were some things about diversity, Title IX and all of that kind of thing. For me, it didn’t make any difference, really. And fortunately, I had a wonderful experience there.
Who were some of the professors in the physics department that you became close with?
Well, my very favorite professor was John Delos, who is a theorist, and I knew really early that I was no theorist. But he taught sophomore physics. There was just kind of this connection there that was really powerful and influential. He became a good enough friend that last year, he and his wife visited us.
And we had a few wonderful days visiting redwoods and the like. So, it’s a friendship that has continued to this day. What was really formative at the time was, first, he was a brilliant teacher with wide-ranging interests that captivated me and a wonderful way of connecting physics with other topics that interested me. Second, he was an amazing mentor. For example, when I was applying to graduate school — I didn’t know anything! I was just — so, how do I figure out what grad schools to apply to? Also, I was still a shy Midwesterner who was reticent to ask for advice or help. So I went to the college catalog — which, of course, was [laughs] a book in those days — and I looked up where all of the people in the physics department got their degrees.
And that was where I applied. I had my professors picked out to do the recommendations, and John Delos was one of them. He then came in — I was doing my senior thesis in a lab next door to his office — and said, “These are all good schools, but it depends on what kind of physics you want to do.” And I’m kind of going, “Huh?”
That never occurred to you before — there were different programs that were good for different kinds of physics.
No! I mean, when I look at our scientist daughter and her background, mine was so different, it’s just unbelievable. But anyway, he sat me down and talked about the different places that might be good for me if I wanted to continue in atomic physics, so I applied to some other schools, and it was through that that I ended up at Yale, which is fine in physics. I would never even have thought of going to an applied physics department, except that’s where atomic physics was being done. And so, I never would have ended up there without that interaction.
At William & Mary, were there any women on the faculty? Or, how many women were your fellow students in the physics department? Were you on your own in that regard?
No women on the faculty. There were, I think, two other women physics majors, so maybe there were nine majors total, because it certainly wasn’t 50/50. But I can think of two others who were physics majors.
And your interest in going to graduate school, you never got any sense — any male professor that said, “Maybe you shouldn’t think about that”? You were fully encouraged across the board?
I was definitely encouraged. I mean, I certainly didn’t have people pulling me aside and say, “You know, you really ought to go to grad school.” I don’t remember any conversations of that sort. The guy who was valedictorian at William & Mary was also a physics major, so I was not number one in the class, but I was up there. The kinds of harassment, and so forth and so on, I don’t remember any of it. Of course, there was a certain amount of inter-student interactions on the social scene that were a bit uncomfortable, but nothing that I was unable to handle or that would rise to the level that is getting so much attention today. I was brought up to take responsibility for my own actions and with a very clear idea of what was right and wrong, which may have helped. Now, looking at it with today’s eyes, maybe I would see some things I didn’t at the time. But I was never made to feel uncomfortable, certainly in a learning environment or with any of the faculty. I don’t know how it was that I was so lucky. I think there is a certain way that I have always projected that maybe does not convey the vulnerability that some people convey, but I really don’t know.
This formative conversation about applying to graduate schools based on the kind of physics you want to do — so, two questions there: looking back, how well exposed were you to the full gamut of physics as an undergraduate? Do you feel like you had a solid grounding, both on the experimental side and the theoretical side, and the value of applied physics? And, how well-shaped was your own identity based on that exposure in terms of the kind of physics that you wanted to pursue?
Not overly. I mean, there was quite a concentration of high-energy and particle physicists there, and some of them were very good teachers, as well. But even then, I was thinking a little bit about lifestyle, which actually probably kept me from steering back into astronomy or pursuing high energy physics. The idea of having to go somewhere to do your work or being extremely limited in where you could live were not appealing. So, as much as I found the very fundamental particle physics fascinating in a lot of ways, I was already starting to make some lifestyle choices. How explicit was it? I don’t know, but I do remember there was that kind of thought process, and the atomic physics — well, three of the very best teachers in the department were all atomic physicists. Two were experimentalists, one was this theorist I’ve already talked about. And so, I did my senior thesis with the experimentalist, because I knew I was no theorist. At least, my thoughts about the kind of physics I wanted to pursue were beginning to be formed. The details of why atomic physics and not, say, solid-state physics — that probably came about because the teachers were better. So, that was what got me going that direction. Applied physics: I suppose there was a part of me that always wanted to make a difference. I kind of see that from my parents, I think. And so I don’t suppose it’s too surprising that I might be attracted to applied physics, but that really hadn’t emerged as a well thought out direction.
So, did you apply to other schools besides Yale, at the point when you had that conversation with your professor?
Yeah. Well, I already had applications in to Carnegie Mellon and Princeton, and I applied to, I think, the University of Washington and Rice. And I remember I did not get into Princeton. That distinct memory suggests that I got into the others, but I don’t really remember. What happened at that point was that the professor that John Delos had in mind for me to work with at Yale died just as I was applying. Very suddenly, very prematurely. And Yale made the decision — there was a young assistant professor there at Yale who was being given the opportunity to take over the lab and see what he could do with it. And so Yale flew me up to visit, which was not done in those days. I mean, it’s very common now, but it was not done in those days, so that was very unusual. And hey, let’s face it. It’s nice to be wanted.
And you felt like you were being courted.
Yes, I did.
And how well, in the end — the conversation about matching the kind of physicist that you want to be with the kind of program that you want to apply to. In the end, how well do you feel like that match played out?
Well, if you’re asking about my Yale experience, that was fascinating on so many levels [laughs] that that’s a whole different conversation. The basic answer to your question is that I was very satisfied with atomic physics as a choice for my Ph.D. For reasons that have nothing to do with atomic physics itself, I was more than ready to leave atomic physics when I finished.
Okay. So, you get to Yale. What year are you getting to Yale? Fall of ’76?
And you already know that you’re going to be working with this assistant professor. That’s all set up?
And who is this professor?
This professor is someone you’ve never heard of: Shek-Fu Wong. He had gotten his Ph.D. at the University of Delaware. He had been hired, probably as a postdoc first with George Schultz, who was the man I was supposed to work with, and had become an assistant professor, I think, a few months before George died.
And he picked up the lab, or he started his own lab?
No, he picked up the lab, and there were at least two different experimental setups going. They needed to be modified and upgraded and so forth. And fairly soon after I got there, he hired a postdoc, and he and the postdoc worked on a brand new apparatus with some new capabilities. So, it was a total of about three apparatus in the lab.
And what was the work? What were the big research questions?
The research questions that I was working on concerned very low energy electron impact excitation of rare gas atoms. There was other work doing similar things with molecules — low-energy electron-atom or -molecule interactions. Excitation was one of the phenomena of interest, but there were other possibilities, as well. If it’s a molecule, you could get molecular dissociation and various other outcomes. So, that was the general area. Very tricky, because electron optics are tricky, to say the least, and while I didn’t exactly encounter the connection personally, people were interested in the kinds of cross-sections I was measuring, because they are relevant to the kinetics in excimer lasers. And basically, chasing those interactions closer and closer to the threshold energy for excitation means the electron optics get trickier and trickier, because stray fields, anything will screw that up, since the electrons are moving so slowly after the interaction. And so, basically, I was trying to chase that down to closer to that onset than had ever been seen before.
And did you develop relationships with other faculty at Yale?
Oh, yes. Let’s see. I probably do need to go into what happened a little bit to explain this. I was working in a very small group. There was a theorist, Arvid Herzenberg, who was associated with the group, and the postdoc — most of the time, it was the postdoc, myself, Shek-Fu Wong, and Arvid was the “captive” theorist, if you like. There was another graduate student for part of that time. And that was a fairly self-contained unit in the applied physics part of the engineering and applied science department. Applied physics encompassed atomic physics and solid-state physics, but they were in different buildings. There was not much interaction between groups, so I didn’t have a lot of interaction with other faculty for most of that time. Probably towards the end of my fourth year, I think, my advisor essentially had a nervous breakdown, which manifested in extreme paranoia. And he decided that the postdoc — who was in reality a Czech refugee with residency in Switzerland — he decided this postdoc was a communist spy.
I will add — yeah. This former postdoc won the prize in this field in APS for this year, so he’s done okay. But anyway, Shek decided this guy was a communist spy. In addition, there was a technician in the group, as well. And so my advisor explained to the technician this long theory about how the postdoc was a spy. The technician didn’t buy it, so my advisor fired the technician, who was immediately picked up by another group, because he was very, very good. My advisor also literally locked the theorist, a tenured professor, out of the lab when he didn’t believe the theory. The higher-ups at Yale stepped in when they realized the postdoc was having trouble. They would not let my advisor fire the postdoc. They said, “He has a contract with Yale.” So, he could be locked out of the lab. By the way, his wife was seven months pregnant. So, he could be locked out of the lab, but he could not be fired from Yale. So he was basically exiled to another room. Which, by this time, pretty much left my advisor and me in the lab. And at some point — and I’m still a shy, Midwestern girl, right? — so at some point, somebody asked the question: well, what do you think is happening with her? I don’t remember where the first contact came from, but by the time it was over, the department head, the director of graduate studies, my entire thesis committee, absent my advisor, and even the dean of the graduate school got involved. And my committee was convened without my advisor — they decided I should write like crazy and defend my thesis, so I did all that. And my advisor didn’t cause problems. He seemed puzzled, but he didn’t cause problems with this. And then Arvid Herzenberg, the theorist, supported me on his grant for six months, because I had not had a chance to look for a job or interview at that point.
So, you were accelerated at this point. You moved faster than you otherwise would have.
Yes, exactly. But the point being — you’d asked if I had interacted with other faculty. Yes, during that period, I interacted with quite a few faculty and administrators. That probably would not have happened without the pathological situation in my lab.
What about coursework? Did you have much coursework, or was it mostly labwork?
It was mostly the first year, and I think there were a couple courses the second year. Not extensive coursework. I did take some courses up in the physics department, because that was where quantum mechanics was offered. There were minimal requirements, because this engineering and applied science department was pretty diverse — it had chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, applied physics. I think that’s about it. There was a math methods course that was required, and there was an experimental methods course that was required. Incidentally, in the experimental methods course, one unit involved doing an experiment in a professor’s lab – not the one you were working with. I tried to work in a solid state physics lab whose work seemed very interesting to me. The professor flat out refused to let me work in the lab. Was it because I was a woman? Who knows for sure. Bottom line: I had a great experience in the solid state physics lab of another professor, who has become a great and longstanding friend. And the professor who did not want me in his lab finally decided I was worth interacting with when I returned to Yale as a Bell Labs recruiter and held out the possibility of hiring some of his students.
And what were you doing during the summers? Were you in the lab in the summers as well? Were you going off on internships?
No, I was in the lab.
Internships weren’t really done back then, or at least not where I was.
So, now you’re on this accelerated pace, and you’re probably starting to think about your next move after you defend earlier than you otherwise would have. So, what are you thinking at this point, as the dissertation looms?
Actually, this was during a period when Bell Labs and Sandia National Labs were both recruiting at Yale, and I believe they were particularly looking at women. And so, the Bell Labs recruiter first walked into my lab — I didn’t call, none of that — when I was about a third-year student, and just had a conversation. And then a few months later, the Sandia recruiters walked in. There was a set of them. So, I had some leads, and it was very natural to set up interviews with them when I actually had enough to talk about — and by that time, I’d defended my thesis. I did not do any interviews before I defended my thesis. My first interviews were in March, and I defended in December.
What was your sense on this impetus to recruit women? Was this part of a larger diversity effort, or were there other factors involved?
I’m sure it was. I was young and naive. I didn’t know. I didn’t even know if it was especially aimed at women. I don’t know that it was, really. I mean, they were talking to lots of people. You know, Bell Labs always wanted to hire the best and the brightest, and there weren’t that many women in the Ph.D. programs, so it would almost not have been worth the trip to come up and talk only to the women. And I know Sandia was talking to a wide variety of people. And Bell was hiring not only for research, but they were hiring particle physicists to do economics. And they were hiring a lot — Bell Labs at the time had 25,000 people at various labs around the country. So, they were hiring people for all kinds of things. And most of the ones I know who were hired were not women. But I think they were probably paying somewhat more attention. But this is 20/20 hindsight and a fair amount of guesswork.
Yeah. Well, before we move on to that, I want to talk about your dissertation. What was the basic research question you were looking to answer in your dissertation?
I was looking at low-energy electron impact excitation in helium and krypton and trying to look ever closer to the threshold for the excitation of the first few excited states. This had never been done so close to the threshold in krypton. It had been done pretty close in helium, but we actually found some additional structure that had not been seen before, that we thought might very well be a new resonance — where the electron is captured by the rare gas atom for some period of time. And the longer it’s captured, of course, the sharper the feature. And so, it wasn’t a really sharp feature, but it was pronounced. And I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation that showed that it was reasonable that it might be there.
To the extent that you thought about these things, what was the intellectual heritage of your dissertation? In other words, what was the research from prior generations, or even prior cohorts of graduate students, that led to this line of inquiry for you?
Actually, the previous helium had made George Schultz, the professor who died — had really made his reputation. I know his widow really well. We’re extremely close friends. And from what she has told me, there are those — who thought that was Nobel Prize-worthy stuff. So, that was the lineage. In terms of where it went after that, I have no idea. I was pretty interested in moving out of the field, because one of the things I had observed was that the experiments were getting harder and harder, and the payoff in terms of new insights and knowledge was getting smaller and smaller. You know, sometimes it’s better just to cut bait. [laughs]
Sure. So, as your parting gift to atomic physics, before you went on to other pursuits, what did you see as your contribution to the field with this dissertation?
I measured some cross-sections that were relevant and of interest to the excimer laser community, which have been pretty important. And beyond that, maybe a little more understanding into these low-energy electron atom interactions. It wasn’t a phenomenal body of work by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, you had your offer with Bell before you defended?
No. No, I had done no interviews.
Oh, okay. I thought you meant that you had the job even without the interview. I misunderstood.
Okay, so you defended. Then what’s the timing? How does this work out?
I defended on Beethoven’s birthday, December 16, 1980. And my first interviews, I believe, were in March of ’81. They schlepped me all over to interview at various Bell Labs locations. I interviewed at Murray Hill, Holmdel, Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts, Allentown, Pennsylvania — I think that’s it. There were some interviews at other employers, also, but they were after at least most of the Bell Labs interviews.
And you’re single at this point, so there’s no other considerations except where you want to go.
No, there were no other particular considerations. The Sandia interview was in April. When I interviewed in Murray Hill, it was a whole collection of groups. There were both the research as well as the development areas, and I interviewed with a number of people, including Walter Brown. And I left that interview saying, “I must work for that man.”
It was one of two things in my life that I felt I had to do.
What was it about Walter that made you feel that way?
Well, he was a wonderful human being, but more particularly, it was our conversation about science. I was up at the white board, and he was kind of taking in what I had done, asking questions to make sure he understood. The amazing thing was that he was able to get into my space and take what I had done and say, “Well, if you did this, what might happen?” And I was up at the board and kind of figuring it out. And we were really, you know, trying to figure it out together. There was a lot of back and forth. He was an active participant, and it was like he knew, intimately, my field. Which, apparently, he conveyed to everybody, no matter what their field. But that give-and-take and the nature of that interaction was just amazing. It was such a thrill, and it really drew me in.
What was he working on? What were his projects at this point?
He was actually working on a Van de Graaff accelerator, I believe, and doing ion-induced sputtering of ice — not just water ice, but various ices such as you might on the outer planets. They were doing some experiments that were relevant to the large planets being visited by Voyagers 1 and 2 that had launched a few years before and were reaching Jupiter and Saturn around the time of my interview. He had been at Bell Labs a long time, even by then, having started in 1954 or ’55, and this was just one of many, many topics he researched over his long career. He’d done some early calculations that were relevant to the operation of the transistor, and over the course of his career had moved into lots of different fields.
Yeah. So, this sealed the deal for you, even after your interview with Sandia in April?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it was just like — this is what I have to do, assuming I can get an offer.
So, if I can ask, why even bother doing the interview with Sandia?
Well, you know, I may have my timing a little wrong. This was a few decades ago. To some extent, you’re never quite sure. And I can’t recall if I had an offer in hand yet. And the other thing is, you learn new things from new experiences, so I didn’t feel like I led Sandia on. I had certainly not accepted an offer at Bell Labs yet, and I can’t recall if I actually had one or not. I certainly declined pursuing an offer at Sandia it before they went to the trouble of generating one.
The other thing I think is probably relevant to tell at this point was the first interview at Bell Labs didn’t completely seal the deal. I mean, I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed to convince them. And that interview was on the day of a fairly significant snowstorm. There was an early closing. And in fact, it was very treacherous driving. I came down one hill sideways. My host looked [laughs] in his rear-view mirror and saw me sliding sideways after him. And all I could say was, “There’s nothing you can ask me today that will scare me as much as that did.” Anyway, one of the people on my schedule couldn’t get into work that day, and he was in Walter’s department. And so, I used that as the excuse to invite myself back. So, this was the beginning of the conversion of the shy, Midwestern girl to whatever it is that I am today.
There you go. Well, I’ve been so excited to ask this question, because I’ve talked to so many people who have been at Bell Labs in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And everyone has their own answer of what the heyday of Bell Labs was like. You know? “The heyday was in the ’40s,” or “the ’50s.” “No, the heyday was really in the ’70s.” Now, at the time, obviously you didn’t know what was to come in terms of the breakup of the monopoly, but did you feel like when you started there that you were entering into a Bell Labs environment that was still very much in its heyday?
Well, okay. I can’t exactly answer that question, because my understanding of the history of Bell Labs is so much better now than it was then, when I walked into Bell Labs. I mean, I really didn’t even know much about Bell Labs. [laughs]
But you didn’t feel — I guess my question is, you didn’t feel like it was in decline at that point?
Oh, it was not. I believe — and from what I’ve read — that it had already crested. But it was still a place that was defining scientific fields, and it continued to be a place that defined fields at least through the ’80s and well into the ’90s.
Right. And you know, the impetus when you get a Ph.D., right, is generally you go into — you get a faculty position. Did you feel like by going into Bell Labs that that was a fork in the road, and you chose one path, and you left the other behind? Or, did you feel like going to Bell Labs was one opportunity that could just as easily lead to a better academic appointment than if you started at an academic environment and then tried to move on?
Well, let’s see. A couple of aspects there. One was I never felt all that strongly drawn to academia.
But I believed — and I think I was right — that had I chosen to go to academia from Bell Labs, I could have done that. Many people did. If I had gone to academia first, I almost certainly would never have gone to Bell Labs. Very few people, with one exception that I know of, go from academia to Bell Labs.
I know the answer, but I want to hear in your own words. What was the draw? In terms of the kind of science that you wanted to do, what was it about the culture at Bell Labs, the budgetary environment, the technological capabilities — what was it, in sum, about Bell Labs that made you say, “This is where I want to be”?
I wanted to test myself. I knew it was the best — and I knew if I didn’t go there, I would always wonder if I could have made it there. And I knew that it would be a real test of what I could do. And I am convinced I did better work there than I would have done anywhere else.
And how much of this self-test was a function of you being a woman? And I assume it’s still very much a male-dominated kind of work environment. Or was this a non-consideration?
I didn’t think about it then. You know, it was a few years in the future when that really occurred to me. But at the beginning and for a few years after that, I had never felt like I was being picked on or harassed or anything else that interfered with my ability to do my work.
No one ever assumed you were a secretary, or anything like that? You never got any of that?
Oh, yeah. I got that. And that just said more about them than it did about me.
Of course. Right.
I would have said I had been at Bell Labs for a while before I became sensitized to inappropriate behavior. And I can think back on some things, and yeah, they were sexist. But they were not sexist in a way that put me down. They were sexist in a way that actually, if you play it right, you can turn into an advantage. And so, if you take it that way, you can make out ok. That is not to say that it’s right, but it is a great advantage to understand the lay of the land and to be able to play by the rules that are operating at the You know, you can go through life being pretty resentful about a lot of things, and I try not to do that. [laughs] And over time, I got better at speaking up about things that I didn’t think were right or appropriate.
And certainly, I’m much more sensitized now than I was at the time.
A different time.
What was the mix between the research that you came up with on your own and the research that was handed to you from above that you were expected to do?
Oh, I wasn’t handed anything from above. In fact, one thing that I am eternally grateful to Walter for was that he gave me space. Another thing was, he realized I needed a mentor. Not an official, “Here’s your mentor” kind of thing. And he asked a wonderful man in the department to kind of help me out as I got started. This mentor helped me scrounge up equipment before I actually got my own lab going, introduced me to people, suggested conferences to attend, and was a co-author on my first few papers. Then after some period of time, when I took him a manuscript, he said, “You know, I shouldn’t be a co-author anymore.” So, he also backed off. And I was eternally grateful for that. I think Walter was behind it, though I never knew for sure. To have that kind of person be your mentor and champion helped a lot.
In terms of forming a new identity beyond atomic physics, how much of it — going into Bell Labs were you trying to pursue a particular area of physics to work on? And how much of it was simply getting thrown into the bullpen and seeing what was interesting to you, and going from there? I guess my question is —
It was more the —
It was the latter.
You didn’t have a grand plan.
No. I didn’t have a grand plan. And in fact, I specifically remember Walter saying that I was being hired to do “not atomic physics.” And yes, by the time I got there, he had some ideas, and yes, I kind of went in that general direction. But he was never sitting down with me and saying, “This is what you should do.” On day 1, he told me, “I think this is a really cool area. I think you might want to think about it,” and then just kind of more or less left it for me to explore if I chose to do so.
What was that general direction, if you could put it all together as a theme?
At the time, there was a lot of interest in extending Moore’s Law and making devices smaller and smaller. And how can you cram more into a given volume? One way you can think about doing that is to go vertical. And if you go vertical, then you need to be able to stack your semiconductor, your metal, and your insulator, on top of each other. You need to be able to control the properties of each of those layers. And so, the challenge he put out there was: okay, is there an insulator, or a class of insulators, that you could grow in single-crystal form on silicon that would enable you to do some of that stacking? So, that was the original question.
Can you talk a little bit about the culture of collaboration at Bell? Like, the kinds of scientists that you worked with, the way that projects were initiated, the ease with which you could jump into a lab and share ideas, and how people would do that with you? How did that work on a workaday level?
It was pretty phenomenal. I mean, the thing about Bell Labs is that there were no empires.
Yeah. I’ve heard that exact phrasing before. That’s interesting.
Yeah. And so, as a result, especially if you’re working in a field where you can’t just sit in your office with pad and paper and think great thoughts, you have to interact with people. So, materials research inherently requires multiple approaches to figure something out. And so, a given principal investigator staff member might have a technologist, might have a postdoc, rarely but sometimes have both. That’s it. So, you absolutely had to interact, and it was expected. Now, at performance review time, you had to be able to point to what your contribution was to each project you were involved in during the year. But it was expected, and it was required that you interact. Now, where the ideas came from — there were coffeepots [laughs] in labs. I mean, it’s shocking now. It wouldn’t even be allowed now. But there were coffeepots in the labs. People would gather around, and you might be talking about a presidential debate, or a sporting event, or science. And that might plant the seed for a collaboration. Also, very commonly, the Bell Labs cafeteria, which was centrally located, was the source of new ideas. And even if you brought your lunch, you frequently would go down there, and you would eat. And the big round tables — you could always get one more person at that table. And you’d take a piece of Bell Labs stationery, otherwise known as a napkin, and you’d scribble out an idea. And you might very well go back to the lab and try it in the afternoon.
And your collaborators — did they tend to come from a particular field? I mean, did you work mostly with other physicists? Were there engineers? Who were your main collaborators, or was it really all over the place?
It was pretty well all over the place. My Bell Labs career was divided into two almost equal halves: the first half was in a physics-centric organization. The second half was actually in a chemistry and materials science-centric organization. And so, over the course of the first part, which was focused on epitaxial insulator and related materials — those collaborators were physicists, material scientists, probably some electrical engineers in there. I mean, you didn’t go around asking what someone’s degree was in. Right? So, I don’t know exactly. The second half, where I was getting more into high-temperature superconductors and then other kinds of complex oxide materials that had never been grown before. I collaborated with solid-state chemists and materials scientists, probably a little more dominantly, but also physicists, because if you had something interesting, you had to look at it six ways from Sunday.
Yeah. I wonder if you could reflect — in what ways was the transition, coming from an atomic physics background and going into more material physics — in what ways did that serve you? In what ways was that more difficult than it otherwise might have been?
Oh, goodness. I mean, I think the big benefit of coming from a field where one person can do a large part of a body of work was beneficial, so it wasn’t like the cast of thousands that you get in some branches of science. I think that was a huge advantage, because then it does make you a little more independent and more inclined to pursue your own questions and solve your own problems in the lab. But beyond that, I wouldn’t have said it was any particular advantage or disadvantage. I mean, I’ve never had a materials science course in my life, actually. That might be embarrassing. But you can pick that up, especially at a place like Bell Labs.
Yeah. And in the first half of your career at Bell Labs, did you ever get the sense that the kinds of projects you were working on should have been beneficial to the bottom line of AT&T, or those were separate worlds, as far as you could tell?
Those were very separate worlds. Certainly, the things I was working on, there was the belief that if they worked out, they might be beneficial to AT&T. But there was no pressure there. I mean, this was the research area, which was highly insulated from the bottom line. And for the first few years I was there, it was a regulated monopoly. And after that, they couldn’t figure out what they were doing anyway, which was one of the reasons why the bloom was off in terms of that connectivity to the bottom line. But the people were still amazing.
Now, in 1988, you don’t just switch over. It’s a promotion, too. Correct?
Yes. It was a promotion. In the research area at Bell Labs, some parts had what were first called “supervisors” or, later, “technical managers,” and some parts didn’t. And they couldn’t quite figure out what they wanted that level to do. So, you were still in the lab as much as you were before. But there was a bit more of a coordinating effort involving a number of people that were in the group. And so, we were pointed in the same direction more than you might have with people in a given department. And there were a few managerial things, like performance review and stuff. But it was kind of neither fish nor fowl. If it was something that the department heads didn’t really want to do, the supervisors got to do it. [laughs] But if the department heads wanted to do it, they did it.
And substantively, did the kind of research you were engaged in really change as well?
It was a complete change in ’88. I had been doing what I fondly called “lunatic fringe molecular beam epitaxy,” meaning that molecular beam epitaxy in general involved semiconductors on semiconductors. By the time I was done with that, I was doing metals and insulators on semiconductors. So, that’s why it was “lunatic fringe.” And then I got to build up a new lab again, and I was doing pulsed-laser deposition of high-temperature superconductors, which later branched out into other kinds of complex oxide structures as well.
If you look at your career at Bell as a whole, I’m curious the extent to which you felt integrated with the academic physics community. I mean, were you collaborating on papers with professors? Were you going to conferences? Were you writing? Or, were you really operating in your own world at Bell?
Oh, no, no, no. You were very much part of the world. And that was one thing that was really different when I got to Sandia. But at Bell Labs, first of all, it was a mandatory stop for a European scientist in the relevant fields who came to the U.S., or at least, East Coast of the U.S. And so, you had this steady stream of people coming through, and quite a few from academia as well. We also saw researchers from all over the U.S. and the world before and after conferences that were held on the East Coast. We went to conferences and gave papers in the same way that academics do. And collaborations were with whomever was doing the most interesting work relevant to what we were working on, no matter where they worked.
And these of course are eminent people that are coming in like that.
Oh, yeah. Exactly. You know, Japanese would show up with pretty good regularity. It felt very equivalent, to me, to a professor.
Without the teaching.
Well, without the teaching, and without the empire.
Right. So, you leave in ’95. How much of that is about where Bell Labs is heading, and how much of that is about you’re looking for a new opportunity?
During that 14 years, I met and married my husband, and we had two kids. And he was at Bell Labs until ’88 or ’89. He’s a neurobiologist and moved to the Hoffman-La Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, which was a great job and a promotion. However, in ’94 or ’95, there was considerable concern in the pharmaceutical industry about potential big changes in healthcare due to legislation, and Hoffman-La Roche decided to close this institute. They offered a very generous severance package, as long as you got off role fairly quickly. That pretty much meant that we needed to figure out what we were going to do, because New Jersey is an expensive place to live. While we had comfortable salaries, they were not exorbitant. And so, we both started looking. Age discrimination being alive and well, and there’s a fair age difference between us, I was the one that came up with the better opportunity at Sandia. And so, he ended up being the trailing spouse and ended up, after a couple of false starts, at the University of New Mexico. So, the bloom was off at Bell Labs, but that was not the motivation to leave.
So, you could have stayed and been okay had other factors not been part of the equation.
For a while. Now, what ended up happening — and the part that’s kind of forgotten — is that about three weeks after I left, AT&T split into three pieces. Lucent is the part everybody remembers. People don’t remember Agree, which was more or less the Western Electric piece that did engineering and manufacturing. And the department I had been in went to Agere. And that cratered pretty fast.
So, you got out at the right time.
I was quite lucky, yeah. Lucent flamed out later, but Agere flamed out earlier.
And what was the third? You said the three pieces.
I’m trying to remember. I’m pretty sure that was the NCR business. AT&T had acquired NCR some years earlier, and I think that spun out into something else, and was kind of forgotten. It was not relevant to Bell Labs.
I think it’s so funny that — to rewind back to your Yale days, your two interviews are Sandia and Bell, and here you are…
…going from Bell to Sandia. So, I can’t resist. Were the same people that you were talking to as a graduate student, were they part of the recruitment the next time around in ’95?
No. There is work at Sandia that is relevant to atomic physics and what I was doing in grad school, and those were the groups I interacted with the first time. I had enough stuff from my original interview that I tried to reconstruct if I had actually had met any of the same people, I might have met during that 1981 interview. I touched a couple of the same departments actually, as it turned out. But my recruiter the second time was Al Romig, who was by this time a director at Sandia. He was very active in the Materials Research Society, and by ’95, I was president of MRS. And so, when I indicated that I might be movable, he immediately sic’d one of the other [laughs] materials people on it, and that’s where the interview came from. And as I say, there was some tangential connection with the first interview, but not a tight connection.
Yeah. Were you looking at this — like, going from Yale to Bell, was this also an opportunity for you to redefine your field or your identity within physics, or were you looking mostly to continue what you had been doing at Bell?
When I went to Sandia, I knew that the level I was going in at — which was as a manager —at Bell would have continued to do research. But that level didn’t do research at Sandia. And I was okay with that, because I didn’t know quite what more I had to prove. I had already built a lab from four bare walls twice and done good work in both of them. And what I was really enjoying doing with MRS and also a decent amount of what I was doing at Bell Labs toward the end was putting people together and seeing connections between different things. And if you don’t have a dog in the fight, you can sometimes do things that you can’t do if your dog’s in there with everyone else’s.
Sure. When you got to Sandia — I guess my first question is — the national labs are so different in this regard. How big of a presence was DOE? I mean, DOE in some national labs is really apparent and front and center, and others it’s like, you wouldn’t even know that it has that connection. So, I wonder what your impressions of Sandia were in terms of the influence of DOE.
Well, it took me quite a long time to figure out what was DOE and what was Sandia. Let’s see. I should probably give you a little bit of history. Sandia was operated by AT&T for the federal government from when it was established as a lab in 1949 until 1993. And so, people at Sandia — at least those with some history at Sandia — have always thought of themselves as sort of the last bastion of Bell Labs. And that’s said by people who weren’t ever at Bell Labs, but that’s a different issue. Anyway, I was under the impression, not that it would be Bell Labs, but that there would be a lot of commonality. And I didn’t find that much commonality. Now, what I distinctly remember when I got there was that I really hoped that Sandia would be very good at bridging from fundamental research to applications, because that was something that I thought that Bell Labs had lost. I wouldn’t say that the period I was at Bell Labs was its very best, because that didn’t happen a lot of times, at least not in the Bell Labs research area. Anyway, when I got to Sandia, the thing that shocked me over and over again was the bureaucracy. And part of that — as I kind of figured out how it all worked — part of it was clearly DOE. Part of it was Congress. And part of it was self-imposed by the Laboratory. And you really have to dig hard to figure out what’s coming from where. I do remember going home fairly early in my career and telling my husband, “If I ever become complacent about the bureaucracy, just take me out and shoot me, and be done with it.” I found that the bureaucracy often stifled the transition from science to application, which was very disappointing.
[laughs] What did your paycheck say? Who paid you? Was it Sandia?
I was paid by Sandia Corporation, which I believe still exists. I mean, the contract has changed again since I left, so I don’t know what it says now. It said Sandia Corporation, which at the time was incorporated in Delaware.
I want to ask a broader question, because I have the sense that it becomes more relevant now. The growth of computational power and its ability to influence research and direct projects — when does this become a factor in your own career?
Well, let’s see. That started to become important after I’d been at Sandia probably a year or two. I ended up leading a department that focused on computational materials science. And I characterized my job as that of a confirmed experimentalist trying to keep the computational folks honest.
[laughs] Because otherwise, what? What would happen?
You can assume a spherical cow, and you can predict anything, and it’s got no resemblance to reality. Backing up a little bit, Sandia, of course, is one of the national security laboratories in the DOE complex, and so it actually sits under the National Nuclear Security Administration, not under the Office of Science or the other kind of energy-related offices. The ASCI program was the supercomputing program that was squarely in the national security space, and its intention was to enable verification that the stockpile would work without underground testing. And so, I got involved pretty early, because there was one school of thought that basically said, “Okay, you invest these large piles of money into developing these huge computational codes, and you worry about whether you’ve got your materials models right later.” And then there was another that said, “You know, you really ought to be working on these other things in parallel.” [laughs]
Otherwise, it’s “garbage in, garbage out.”
You have a clearance from the beginning — I assume you’re working in a classified environment for much of this stuff.
Actually, while, yes, I did work in the classified environment, for the vast majority of my time at Sandia, I wasn’t even sitting “inside the fence.” You can work on a lot of these things and the details of why you care about this particular problem we can’t talk about, but the problem itself is a very interesting materials problem, and that’s perfectly open.
Yeah. Another broad question because you do — these lateral moves from 2005 to 2010, where you assume directorships of three very different centers or offices. I guess my question is: that leaves you very well positioned to assess the relative hierarchy of programs at Sandia. Like, what were the programs that were most lavishly funded and attracted the best people and were institutionally considered the most important? What was the relative hierarchy of programs from your vantage point at Sandia?
It really depends on where you sit, but if you are looking down on Sandia, say, from the lab director’s viewpoint, program number one is the nuclear weapons program. Period, end of sentence. During much of the time I was there actually, it wasn’t even 50 percent of the lab budget, but it’s way more than 50 percent now, and it has always been the key driver of the laboratory. After that in priority there are other national security programs that take advantage of the same capabilities as the nuclear weapons program, so there’s a lot of synergy there. And also, Sandia is one of the few places where you could actually do that work. But nuclear weapons, number one; that other national security stuff, number two. Historically, there has been some really good science there, because there are some really thorny physics problems that need to be dealt with. Switching to the organizations that I was most heavily engaged in, the people who were in those organizations would — in the organization, not at the top of Sandia — typically, most highly value the DOE Office of Science funding, and Sandia had a pretty good-sized Office of Science portfolio. It reached $70 million while I was running it. So, compared to a $2 billion budget at Sandia, that’s not a lot, but in terms of the materials organizations and some of the other organizations that benefited from it, it was quite generous and enabled staff to work on fundamental science that they could not do using other sources of funds.
Yeah. Now, I know you said before that you fought the good fight. You never wanted to accept the bureaucracy, but I wonder the reality — as you moved up the ranks and you were there for longer, how much of any given day did you spend as a scientist doing science, and how much of it were you middle-management, bureaucracy, just sort of working the chain of command? How did you manage that balance?
Me personally doing science? If you look at my publication record, it almost ceases when I go to Sandia, although I got pretty deeply involved technically in a few things. What I did — and I spent quite a bit of time on it — was that I enabled others to do science, and I engaged with them in talking about their science. I engaged with them in exploring ideas of how we could bring different competencies together to work on problems and things like that, which is not bureaucracy. Then, if you get an idea of what needs to happen to make the science move forward, you take on the bureaucracy and you figure out how to make it happen. And one of the huge things that I was pretty proud of during the last few years I was there was to serve as one the most vocal advocates for fundamental science at that laboratory, because Sandia is an engineering laboratory. It’s proudly an engineering laboratory. There are ways of justifying and explaining science in that environment, but the frontal assault is not the right way to do it. [laughs]
[laughs] Well, you know, on the question of your interest as a mentor, I can’t help — it’s a bit of a pop psychology question, but I wonder how much you thought about the impact that Walter had on you, and the tremendously positive way that he allowed your career at Bell Labs to flourish. I wonder how much you modeled that relationship in terms of when it was your turn to be on the other side of that desk when you were at Sandia.
Well, I certainly tried. Basically, anybody who wanted to see me got to see me, no matter the particular position I held at the time. And so, to some extent, that practice harks back to my father’s example of seeing those who think they need to be seen. I’m not presiding over life and death situations, but still, you know, career kinds of things are very important to the people who are trying to figure them out. I really enjoy those one-on-one interactions, and it’s fun to see when they have had an impact on the career of an individual. Another thing that I did was to work on the diversity of the organization. I don’t know that Walter really would have done this exactly, but the population of women in the organizations I had was very small. Not so bad in materials, but much worse in the physics-centered organizations. And I finally got to the point that I would say: okay, I will sign off on hiring packages, but you need to explain to me what you have done to identify qualified women and underrepresented minorities for this position. And the diversity of the hiring shot up, just by asking that question.
Why do you think that is? What’s the connection?
When you want to hire someone, the easy thing to do is to call up your old advisor, or your buddies, and say: do you have any students finishing that are good? And you find some pretty good people that way, but they tend to look like the people you already have.
But it’s a closed loop.
But it’s a closed loop. I’m finding the same thing in NAE, getting women and minorities nominated. If they get nominated, they get elected. But it’s the same thing. You go back to the usual suspects unless you have something in place that incentivizes other behavior.
So, that’s one kind of thing I’ve done. I’ve also tried to influence the hiring and mentoring practices of others, although that has not always worked out as well as I would have hoped.
Yeah. I want to ask — you know, before you get up to the level when you’re deputy CTO and director of laboratory research, up until that point — I mean, that’s at a level that’s beyond — the question that I want to ask is: you moved around Sandia so much. Where did you see your greatest impact in those years from ’95 to 2010? Over those 15 years, where did you see your best work, I guess your most impactful work, from the perspective of — you know, this broader interest of science and society, which you really embraced in more recent years?
A couple of things. One was building and standing up the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, the DOE Nanoscience Center that’s joint between Sandia and Los Alamos — I had nothing to do with getting it funded in the first place — the person who did that moved off into another part of the organization. I got it built, and I got it staffed, and I stood it up, and worked a lot of the cross-cultural issues between the two laboratories to get it working reasonably smoothly. There were some rocky patches there at the beginning. So, that was a pretty big deal. Let’s see. What else? I was a real champion for Sandia’s solid-state lighting effort. Because of my Bell Labs history and my engagement in the professional community, which was supported at Bell Labs, and not so much supported for staff at Sandia. I had external visibility and recognition that a lot of other people at Sandia don’t have. I could use that to help bring attention to things like the solid-state lighting effort, chairing a workshop for the Office of Science and things like that. And I think just my being at Sandia was a statement to some parts of the community that Sandia valued science.
When you move up from 2011, your last years there, I’m sure at the time — I mean, you’re very self-aware of these opportunities and how to make the best use of them. I guess my question is: there’s only so many hours in a day and so many resources that you can draw on. So obviously, every day is very precious in terms of what you can accomplish. So I wonder: what are the major areas that you are interested in investing in at that level at Sandia, in terms of not just thinking about the National Laboratory, but thinking more broadly about the role of the national laboratory system and DOE, and then from DOE — in terms of what DOE’s purpose is to serve Americans more broadly?
Well, let’s see. I could take that so many directions. [laughs] I think that at Sandia, what I really wanted to do toward the end was whatever I could to get fundamental research more ingrained in the DNA of the laboratory. It always felt a bit precarious…
Why did it feel precarious?
Because it’s an engineering lab, and I felt that quite a few in the leadership felt that it was “nice to do” rather than “necessary to do”. Push comes to shove, when budgets get tight, there’s a great temptation to cut off the long-term stuff.
And so I tried to make the very best case that I knew how, making the connections between the research and mission impact. One outcome was the first research strategy Sandia had developed — which, with the contract change and everything that has happened since still survives in some form, even today. And so, I wouldn’t say it’s immune, but I’m reasonably optimistic about some of that. So, that was one thing. Another thing that I got really involved in was the network of national labs that was championed by DOE Secretary Ernie Moniz. He started that. The national lab directors had a council and the chief research officers, of which I was one, had a council. My boss was the rep when I was deputy CTO, but he delegated it to me, because he wasn’t comfortable in that space. And then when I was CTO, I had that role. And so, in trying to bring the labs together — I led and Sandia coordinated, the first national lab day on Capitol Hill. We wanted to communicate to Congress about the system of DOE labs as well as provide a snapshot of the cool stuff that the labs are doing and the impact that they are having, from national security to medical devices, and so on. Other things that I was working on were things like lowering the barriers to technology transfer, encouraging and providing mechanisms for staff to explore more speculative research ideas and things like that.
I want to reframe the question at this executive level, because when we think about science and national policy, one of the most important questions is the flow of information and where the person who’s reflecting on these things — where they sit on that chart. So, I want to ask. At these levels, as chief technology officer, deputy chief technology officer, where are you getting your information from, and where are you sending whatever you’re doing with that information to? What does that flow look like? And how are you shaping that flow, in light of these broad-based interests that you’re trying to promote?
Okay. Where is the information coming from? Well, at Sandia, the highest level information came through the laboratory leadership team, which was all the vice presidents and the laboratory director. And so, that’s a fairly rarefied set of information sources in terms of political environment and so forth. And that is also the biggest opportunity to try to drive appreciation for the value for research further into the organization at the leadership level and at the advocacy level. There was a research leadership team which was directors of research organizations, and we also included leaders from the various business areas at Sandia. And that was where we actually formulated what we called research challenges, which were 10-year, or even 20-year, goals that would pursue exciting science questions and clearly have an impact on Sandia’s mission if we were successful. And the idea is, you can’t have impact or sell programs only with “technology push” and science promising good things. You also need to have the mission area buying in and wanting to pull it forward to actual use. So, providing the forum as well as a mechanism to get some of those conversations going was a big deal. It was also important to push, with varying levels of success, to get scientists and end users to put these things on paper, since that clarifies thinking and helps ensure that everyone knows what is being proposed. We asked them to articulate what it is in 10 or 20 years that they will have accomplished? Even a negative result is okay, but they need to write it down, and it needs to be measurable. And there need to be points at which a definitive decision can be made about whether to continue a particular direction or to move on to something else.
And how can you tell if you’re on a path to get there? They’re sort of “yes” or “no” questions. It is incredibly hard to actually have the discipline to write those things down.
So anyway, working through all of that was incomplete, but we got some dialogue going that, I think, would never have happened without that framework — and that dialogue has continued.
And was this a mostly inward-looking dialogue within Sandia, or were you in contact with your counterparts at your level at other national laboratories?
On that stuff, that was Sandia. A challenge at Sandia has always been that it is rather insular. That was so different from Bell Labs, where everybody knew what George over in the Ukraine was doing yesterday. At Sandia, I think a lot of it was its national security history and continuing mission, the culture, and even geographic isolation. Even on the unclassified side of things, it is not as externally aware as it needs to be. So, I pushed hard, if not as successfully as I would have liked, to build the expectation and practice of external calibration. You need to know, realistically, how you stack up against comparable efforts elsewhere – at other labs, universities, or whatever. You can have an external review. You can bring in your buddies, and they say you’re wonderful, but that’s because they’re your buddies, and they’re nice and expect you may return the favor someday. And that’s not what you need. So we made some headway on more realistic calibration, but not nearly enough as far as I’m concerned.
Yeah. I want to ask: if you look at your career at Sandia as a whole, clearly just by virtue of your capacity to impact positively versus the bureaucratic limitations of the system, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what you felt like your greatest success was, and what was the — “failure” is always too rough of a word, but is there any area that sticks out in terms of something that you really wanted to achieve, that you were aware of its importance, but you just couldn’t get it to where you wanted to take it?
Yeah. Well, at the end of the day, it’s about the people. And I had a role in hiring some really great people who are there and continue to do good work and influence the laboratory and their technical communities. I read the Lab News, and I see their names. It’s like a “Oh, I hired them!” kind of thing, and that’s really satisfying. So, there is that. Beyond that, I would say that the research challenge idea — which admittedly has morphed — but I don’t know if they would have gotten to it if I hadn’t really pushed that while I was there. So, in terms of successes, I would say those — and CINT, the nanoscience center, has done very well also. Disappointment? I would say that the inadequate external calibration would be a pretty big one, and if the lab doesn’t manage to get a handle on that, that is limiting.
And what is so important about external calibration? I mean, why not just say: we’re an empire unto ourselves, and it’s not really a big deal that we look at ourselves within a community of national laboratories? What is the value in that calibration?
You are really vulnerable to tech surprise. And if you don’t have a seat at the table of true experts and aren’t recognized as being somewhere up there in the top echelon of folks, and you’re not showing up at the conferences, and so forth, you don’t have a transformative conversation with the person who can tell you about that very cool experiment that happened. And you aren’t among the first to learn about a hot new field. You read some papers, but without the “inside scoop” you may go off and do something stupid, or something that someone already did, if you’d only known whom to call to ask. And when you are dealing with the security of the nation, that’s a really bad position to be in.
[laughs] Right. So, I’m curious. In 2014, do you look at this as a retirement — like a retirement from the day-to-day, 9 to 5? Did you think about what other opportunities there might be before you enter into emeritus and consultant status and things like that? Was there a possible trajectory of a political career, possibly in Washington? You know, integrating yourself more fully into the DOE? I’m curious what your options and what your thinking was in 2014.
Okay. 2014. Let’s see. I had the option to interview at Sandia for a job that included the job I had been doing, plus a line organization of 1,000 people. That was singularly unappealing to me, because I thought the research job was a full-time job, perfectly suited for what I’m good at. And if you have a line organization of 1,000 people and a semiconductor microelectronics fabrication etc., operational things will eat you alive and you end up focusing on the urgent rather than the important matters of long-term consequence. And so, I fundamentally disagree with that structure.
What’s the better way? When you say you fundamentally disagree, what’s the better way?
The better way? Split them. You have someone who is responsible for research, and you say that is so important that it needs a person at a high level in the laboratory whose full-time responsibility is to make sure the lab is prepared for and investing in the future. And then you have somebody who does the operational piece. That’s also critically important – a misstep can shut down the lab. But it is fundamentally different than leading research. And Sandia may get back to that structure, but they weren’t doing it — actually, it was even in the Sandia contract that they were going to merge these two positions, as they had been before I had the vice president position. [laughs] So, you know, I was bargaining from a position of weakness. But anyway, that was the situation. The other thing was we knew there was going to be a competition for the Sandia contract. People at the vice president or associate lab director level, serve at the pleasure of the contractor. And so, if you are at that level during a competition, if your team wins, you’re committed for some period of time. And if your team loses, you’re out of a job. So, I could either go back down a level, or I could interview for a job I didn’t want and be subject to the competition. It just wasn’t a great set of options. Furthermore, my husband is a fair amount older than I, and sacrificed the latter part of his career to go to New Mexico. It seemed only fair that it was his turn to say where we lived. And he picked really well – now we live in paradise, so it’s all good, actually much better than good. So, that was the decision to retire, and I was just retirement eligible.
Did you look at it as a retirement?
Well, I retired from a regular paycheck.
Right. I kind of get the sense that in 2015, you developed a whole new level of busy, actually.
It’s totally different, and the ratio of fun stuff to junk is way better.
But anyway, that was what was really driving the decision. But I also knew that I wasn’t ready to get out of science altogether. One of the things that I have worked on through the entire course of my career and to this day is I just grow my network. It’s just something I do. Bell Labs was the most amazing way to start that, because when the diaspora happened, I ended up knowing people in every major academic institution in this country and many around the world. So, that’s a good start. I had the privilege of serving on the National Academy of Engineering council for six years. I had watched the Home Secretary position, and I knew when the current home secretary was going to become ineligible to run for reelection. That looked like a pretty interesting opportunity, so I let it be known that I would be interested in running for that position if I were asked.
Is this volunteer? Is this paid work?
There’s an honorarium associated with it. So, that was the one thing that I had investigated and had identified some time before I actually retired. The second thing that fell in my lap — I was asked to chair a National Academy study on the progress in converting research reactors around the world from highly-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. Not my field. Opportunity to learn a whole bunch, hang out with an amazing set of folks, visit seven countries and six states, and do a pretty impactful report, which is still going in some sense — now I’m on my third neutron report. [laughs] So, that’s taken on a life of its own. But you know, it hit my three criteria: hang out with smart, interesting people; learn new things; and make a difference. And so, those three criteria have been kind of the guiding star. And the National Science Board dropped out of the blue. That’s not something you campaign for, and the odds of being appointed are impressively long. And there have been various other things. I mean, a lot of things have come along that I have turned down, but it’s been a matter of really developing the network, making sure I deliver, making clear those kinds of things that I’m interested in, and staying true to my priorities.
Yeah. I think now I want to switch gears a little bit, and I want to ask more broadly conceived questions that assess your career in its entirety. And the first thing I’d like to ask about is on the question of professional service. I mean, you have served professionally in so many capacities and in so many different environments. I wonder if you could help establish a narrative through-line of the kinds of things over the past 20 or 30 years that have motivated you to get involved in particular organizations and get involved in a particular kind of way. What are the big, thematic, motivations that compel you to give so much of your time, and for what overall cause, besides the fact that you love it and you’re good at it, and you enjoy it. Right?
I’m thinking more in terms of what it is that you are looking to give, who is receiving, and what is it that you want them to get?
Okay. Before I go on that, I want to say one thing that I think is really important and possibly somewhat distinguishing for me relative to a lot of other people, and that is that I have been able to do more in the professional service end of things than many because I established my scientific credentials first. And it was Bell Labs that allowed me to do that. Many people who would be equally as effective as I get into it very early and give their technical contributions short shrift too early in their career, so they don’t have the creds to be listened to in some of these circles. And that was a happy accident. I can’t claim any particular credit for it, but it’s one reason why I feel so strongly about the lack of professional engagement at Sandia, because there’s almost nobody there who has sufficient external visibility to have even a ghost of a chance of doing something like what I’ve been able to do. And that’s really sad, because there are a lot of very capable people. Enough of that.
Well, first of all, a lot of it comes from my background. I emphasized how my parents really demonstrated giving back and contributing to the community in a lot of ways beyond what I’ve talked about. But basically, that was how I was raised. I got involved in the Materials Research Society very early at Bell Labs. Ironically, very shortly before I started, somebody else in the department left, and I inherited his phone number. And he went off to a national lab, and not very long after that, one Sunday morning, I got a phone call from him wanting me to head up a working group in the Materials Research Society. He was just coming in as president or vice-president of MRS. So, [laughs] you know, that’s just one of those kind of lucky things that happened.
Why MRS? I got involved in MRS for two reasons: one was it was a pretty young organization, heavily volunteer oriented, and at the time that I was most involved, it was still possible for volunteers to make a huge difference. In fact, on my watch, we started an electronic journal, way before there were electronic journals. It was ahead of its time, but we could do it. I learned a lot about organizations and about motivating people and working that volunteer-staff interface, and so forth. So, I got a lot out of my years at MRS. What did I give? Well, I showed the opportunity to deliver. It was also a really good opportunity. One of my first good volunteer possibilities there was chairing an entire meeting, which gives you free rein to look across the breadth of materials research and say, “What are the hot areas, and what might make a good symposium?” And so, technically it was very enriching. You could do that, but you could also work other aspects in. Communicating about the importance of materials — I did a bunch of columns in the MRS publication, but also we had the idea of trying to tell in very approachable terms stories about impacts of materials on our lives. And so, trying to get that message out — that was a mixed success, but that was one of the things we were trying to do.
Another thing I think probably can’t be ignored, although I’ve never paid that much attention to it, is just being an example out there of a woman who could rise up and lead an organization of that sort. I think I was the second woman to be president of MRS. And your picture is plastered all over the place. People know you. You have no idea who they are, which is really funny. You develop a reputation for an ability to deliver, being fair in how you think about things, and so forth, which gave me an opportunity then to start to serve on Academies committees. Probably the biggest contribution I made on that first Academies committee, which was a decadal survey of condensed matter and materials physics, was another effort to communicate the importance of science. A small group of us were talking about how we should do a glossy brochure in lay-language terms to explain the impact materials have had on our lives. And it would have been just talk, except after the meeting I thought that was such a good idea, I started to get a storyline in my head. I was lousy at Microsoft Word — this was 1995, so it was not the Word we know and love today. I mocked it up with text and embedded pictures. Actually, in the book, there’s a picture of me holding a cordless phone — not a cell phone, because I didn’t have one — in a car, driving — which you wouldn’t do anymore.
But anyway, by mocking it up, we were able to convince the people on the committee who thought that this would be “cheapening” the field that this was actually a good idea, and it could be done in a classy way. Then the mockup enabled us to convince the National Academies Press, which is a very conservative entity, to actually publish it. It was the very first one of those glossy booklets that was published. And by the time it was published, one of our original committee members was in OSTP, so the Vice President actually saw it. So, in short — you get an interesting opportunity. You take it on, and either it clicks or it doesn’t click. If it doesn’t click, you exit at the first reasonably graceful opportunity. If it clicks, then you make absolutely sure you deliver. At that point you can leverage that success into other opportunities. And you can’t predict exactly where it will go, but it grows and interesting things happen.
Yeah. I want to ask a similar broad question about your overall work and in your capacity serving in advisory panels, particularly for the government. I mean, again, there’s so much work that you’ve done there. I guess, broadly, what are some of the consistent issues that have, regardless of whatever the particular advisory panel you’re thinking of — what are some of the issues and themes that kept coming up over the course of your career, again and again and again, about problems that you saw, and the way that you either communicated or worked with your colleagues to help those agencies overcome those problems?
I would say certainly one theme, and it’s even playing out in some things I’m working on right now — is the importance of supporting and continuing to invest in long-term research, even when you cannot articulate what it will be good for. And the point is that revolutionary advances are just that, so they are not predictable. So, the need to have investment across the board — and I mean, “across the board” could be across the board in materials, or it could be across all science, depending on which audience you’re dealing with. And our culture is one that likes to do things fast and move on, so it is kind of counter-cultural to have that patient investment. And so, you continually have to think about how you are going to make the case. You need to understand the community that you’re talking to and what their values are. If you’re talking to an engineering community, you want to talk about it differently than if you’re talking to astrophysicists. That continues to be a work in progress. I would say that, because I’ve had a chance to look at the issue from so many different sides, I may understand the different kinds of conversations you need to have better than many.
In an alternate reality, if you had stayed on the scientific track and not gotten into the policy side of things, where do you think your research would have gone if you had just followed your own instincts and your own research interests.
I’m guessing it probably would have become increasingly applied. Some of the last deeply technical conversations that I helped initiate at Bell Labs were focused on getting a new direction of research going in high dielectric constant materials, which have become one of the things that have enabled the continued extension of Moore’s Law. It was a matter of trying to understand what the needs are in an industry and then bringing together the right scientists and engineers who have different but relevant backgrounds. I remember the conversation — a solid-state chemist who had no idea about the semiconductor industry, but knew a whole lot about the periodic table and inorganic synthesis, a physicist who knew a lot about materials properties, someone who knew enough about microelectronics to know what properties were needed, and so forth. So, I’m guessing I would have pursued directions of that sort – bridging from discovery science to technological impact.
It would definitely have been a matter of pulling together different areas of expertise that don’t necessarily come together naturally. I might have ended up in a university, I’m not sure. One of the things that I loved when I was at Bell Labs was I had a series of undergraduate students working with me over the summer, and I could see the impact on their careers and their subsequent choices based on that summer experience. When you work with somebody at the graduate student level, they’re quasi-launched. I mean, you can certainly screw things up, but unless things really go haywire, you kind of know the general direction they’re going in. But at the undergraduate level, the slate is much blanker. That suggests that if I had actually gone to academia, I might very well have chosen to go to a really top-notch four-year college where the opportunity for that kind of impact is especially high.
Yeah. Clearly, in the way that you have spoken about your career, you do see the expertise you developed as a hard-nosed scientist as prelude for all of your work and contributions in the broader world of science and policy. Right?
So, I want to ask: in the way that you’ve talked about all of your interests and the things that you have accomplished, in improving just the information flow and the way science and policy works — how much of that do you see as a function of you working in the trenches, so to speak, and how much of it is more — in terms of your natural abilities as a public intellectual, or somebody who cares about people and recognizes broadly the value of science and society and doesn’t necessarily need the Ph.D. in applied physics, doesn’t need that illustrious career at Bell Labs, to feel those things. Right? So, how much of it is as an intellectual prelude, and how much of this is — these are things that were sort of there all along, and they actualized when they did at the right time for you?
I think having been a practicing scientist and particularly in a place like Bell Labs, which was as intellectually honest, and even intellectually brutal, a place as you could imagine, really was an essential part of my development into who I am today. It is interesting to step outside myself and watch myself in meetings now, and the kinds of questions that I ask. The questions can sound simple, but they often reveal whether or not an issue has been thought through carefully and completely. Or, if I’m reading something, whether it’s a scientific paper or a newspaper article, my sensitivity to logical inconsistencies goes back to the rigorous methods of critical thinking that I really learned and sharpened at Bell Labs. There I had to get up and talk about my work and be able to defend it to the nth degree in front of world experts. I knew that if I could do that, I could go in front of any audience, and I’d be fine.
And so yes, it was doing the science, but it was also doing the science in a very special place.
You have been recognized — it’s remarkable — the awards and honors that you’ve received, they range from community newspaper to all the way to the very top of your field. I wonder: are there any that stick out for you in terms of either professional recognition or personal pride, or the extent to which those things overlap? Are there any awards or honors that really mean more to you than others? Is there any one or two that really specifically jump out, either at particular stages of your career, where it showed you that you had “made it” at a particular level, or later on, when you had a broader impact and exposure in the field?
Oh, goodness. Well, let’s see. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to these things, but I have to say probably on the professional side, the big one was election to the National Academy of Engineering. I knew that that was a big deal, [laughs] especially now that I manage the election process as Home Secretary, and I know how terribly selective it is. I had no idea whether I was even competitive for that. So, that would be the big one on the professional side. The other one that was just really cool was being inducted into the Hall of Fame of my high school. Three things about that were particularly special. One was that some of my high school P.E. teachers were inducted. They were cited for their efforts on Title IX. For me, Title IX meant nothing growing up since I had no particular athletic ability. But one of our daughters is a natural athlete, and I can’t imagine having raised her without sports. It was really a nice opportunity to be able to thank them and to be recognized at the same event. The second special thing was that a coach who was the father of a high-school friend of mine was inducted posthumously. My friend’s their son worked for the Cubs, so I got to try on a World Series ring from my very favorite baseball team. Third, and most important, my mother was there at the induction ceremony, so I got to share the evening with her.
Yeah. You obviously value diversity and inclusivity in the sciences. Right? And those are nice ideals, but as a real scientist, I’m sure you see empirical value and quantitative support for these things. And so, I wonder if you could articulate: what exactly is the value of inclusivity and diversity in the sciences?
Oh, my goodness. Well, let’s see. I’m first going to refer to Science and Engineering Indicators 2020, published by the National Science Board. I chaired the committee that pulled that together, so I’ve done some of the briefings. And what comes out of that is that, independent of all the other cool things that come from having a diverse work force, sheer numbers dictate that we have got to do a whole lot better in the diversity of the science and engineering workforce. 60 percent of our Ph.D.’s in computer science, mathematics and 40% in physics come from our foreign-born talent. And so, we have to continue to attract foreign-born talent. That gets harder as other countries get better at educating and employing their own, and there are other reasons why that might be challenging. So we absolutely must do a better job of attracting U.S.-born talent into science and engineering. But vast numbers of our kids aren’t even qualified to major in science or engineering when they graduate from high school. They don’t have the math and science background to be able to do it. And we can’t do it just with white males. Not even close. If you take white males off the table, we aren’t even beginning to scratch the surface in terms of the domestic talent we have, and we’ve got to do a whole lot better.
And furthermore, if you’re in an environment that has a lot of different kinds of people and with different backgrounds, you get different viewpoints and a richness that isn’t there in a monolithic population. It’s somewhat analogous to bringing together a materials scientist, a physicist, a chemist, and a biologist to attach a problem. They will have different views of the same problem, and when they come together, you’re probably going to approach it in a different way than if you had four physicists.
Yeah. I think for the last set of questions that I have, I want to shift to a more forward-looking viewpoint on your ideas about things. And the first one is: you value mentorship, and you really care about young people. And so, in your vast universe of contacts and people that seek your advice, I wonder if you could sketch out broadly the kinds of things that you want young scientists to think about. Not just in terms of kinds of research to pursue, but in the perspective that they should take in terms of thinking about their career and how they should go about developing themselves professionally and socially.
One of the things that I think is really important, and was something I always looked for when I was interviewing people for a job, is curiosity about the world about them. I look for something in their background — you know, you find the Ph.D. physicist who has a flower named after him, or something like that. I mean, that says that there’s a little something different there, and not just another smart person with narrow interests. So, it’s essentially a whole-life kind of thing, where it can’t be just the science and just the career. Those people are pretty uninteresting. Maybe if they’re sufficiently brilliant, they will make amazing contributions. Most of us are smart, but we’re not totally top-of-the-heap, if we’re really honest about it. And so, I think it’s really important to understand as well as you can what you’re good at, where you need augmentation, both by learning and also by working with the right people. So, that’s one thing. The importance of your network — I’ve emphasized that multiple times – that was one of the things that I learned in my Yale experience, but I think a lot of people could learn it sooner and experience it sooner. There is help out there, and if you really get stuck, you need to speak up. People may mean well, but they may not be able to see that you are in trouble. There’s also making sure that you are calibrated — just because your mother thinks you’re great, [laughs] doesn’t necessarily mean that your science is all that good. And so, getting feedback from the people who are qualified to give you calibration in a particular area I think is really important, and you can’t be afraid of that feedback.
In preparing for our discussion and reviewing your vast body of literature that you’ve contributed in all kinds of fields, in all kinds of areas, and for all kinds of audiences, one that jumped out at me is a piece you wrote for the MRS bulletin in August 1995, “Preparing U.S. Scientists for the 21st Century.” And I thought, here we are at the 25-year review of this article, and we are now in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis that is not just an economic and policy crisis, it’s also a science crisis that we’re in now. And obviously, 25 years ago was a long time from where we are now, and whether you remember the particularities of the points you were trying to make in that article then, in what ways do scientists need to be prepared for this brand-new 21st century in science that we didn’t see only three or four months ago?
I think that there are a number of things. The first point I would make is that the article you referenced describes the need for students to be prepared to pursue a variety of career paths in different sectors of the economy. It talks about aspects of Ph.D. training that needed to be addressed. It’s a bit disappointing to see how much remains to be done in that regard, even though there has definitely been progress. One premise underlying that article that is far more general than the details of Ph.D. training is that you’ve got to be flexible. The very most brilliant people probably can have a single idea that they absolutely know they must pursue or they will not be fulfilled. For most of us, having a general direction is important, but being totally single-minded might not work out so well. And really knowing yourself, knowing what things give you satisfaction and joy and what things drive you to distraction is really important. For example, if you really don’t like humanity all that much, then maybe you’re not going to be the best teacher or advisor. And that can help you at least limit your various options.
But another thing that I think is really important — and maybe even especially now — is the ability to communicate about what you’re doing, and why Jane Schmo at the grocery store ought to find it interesting, and being able to talk about it in a way that is not condescending but that captures in words and pictures that she will understand what it is that you’re doing and why it’s important. And you need to have and be able to communicate some awareness of why this particular area of work is something we should be investing in right now. This ability to communicate and put science in the broader context of society and its current issues only going to get more important going forward, because there are going to be a lot of budgetary pressures.
That’s right. In assessing your career in whole, I think one of the bedrock assumptions or worldviews that you bring to everything that you do is that science matters and that scientists are valued. Right? These are major themes that come up in the corpus of your work, through and through. And so, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your general reaction to where science is right now, at least with the segment of the population that — and you could name the thing. Right? Vaccines, or pushing back against social distancing now, or climate change denialism. Where do you place these things within the grander sweep of not just your own career, but in modern American history? Do you see these as relatively new developments? Have they always been there? And based on that answer, where do you think these things are headed?
I think they’ve always been there, to some extent, and one of the things that I think is very dangerous is assuming that everybody who has a view that we don’t agree with — or one that we think facts do not support — came at that view from the same place. That bothers me a lot — because I have lived in quite a few different areas, and not necessarily where all of the scientists live — in fact, much of my life, my physical abode has not been where scientists live. But a lot of people don’t have that experience, whether it’s the scientists, many of whom have at least grown up and lived most of their lives in these privileged and “enlightened” communities, or people with these other views that we scientists don’t necessarily buy into, who have grown up in communities where they’ve never actually met a scientist. And so, the first thing is to realize we are talking about real human beings, many of whom are very intelligent, who have a different set of backgrounds than we have. And if you can actually have those conversations without being condescending and understand where they come from and what their values are, then you can start to have the conversation about the things that matter to them — and you can start to bring in some of the scientific principles, and so forth.
One huge thing is K-12 education. And for this stuff, probably K-5 or K-6, where the teachers are so often elementary education majors who didn’t like science and math in the first place is a particularly critical issue. The kids figure that out and subliminally get the message that these subjects are not ones they should like. Teachers without adequate training and a positive attitude about math and science are not going to do a good job of explaining the scientific method or doing the demonstrations that really show how you can follow the scientific method to explore the world around you. And so, much of the current population might be sort of lost with regard to appreciating and valuing science. But if we really got our K-12 education sorted out, a lot of this would go away. Kids are naturally curious, and they love to experiment. We just don’t call it that in the education context.
Yeah. Well Julia, on that note, from —
The only other thing I will say is I just finished reading One Summer: America, 1927, and it’s amazing how many parallels there are in that book in terms of mass hysteria and so forth. They aren’t the same issues we’ve got today. But there will almost always be something to get people stirred up. I think what we’re seeing today is a reflection of our inability to talk to each other right now.
Yeah. I think, Julia, for my last question, I want to go forward the next 25 years. And it’s a simple question, two sides: what are you most excited about and optimistic about, both in terms of developments in science and policy, and developments in science? And the flipside: what concerns you the most? What are you most pessimistic about, looking ahead in terms of problems that you see now that you don’t see an easy way out of?
It sounds a little odd probably, but I’m actually hoping that we can use this current pause, if you like, due to the Coronavirus to think about how we can come back to a more sustainable way of life. Clearly, there’s the environmental aspect, but there’s the whole quality of life issue, and what constitutes quality of life, which is not physics at all. But you know, one might hope that there is an opportunity for some shifting in world view around some of that stuff. From a personal standpoint, if I could fly to the East Coast half as often as I have been doing in order to continue my work, I would be a very happy person. [laughs]
So, I think it’s going to take a while for that to play out, but I do see some hope on that, and I also am hopeful that some kind of reasonable balance between globalization and paying attention to our own country and all of our country, not just the coasts and the metropolitan areas, is something that we could do a whole lot better. And I think there’s opportunity there. In terms of worry, I guess that I worry, at the moment, about my kids, one of whom is a musician and has lost her two biggest months of employment this year, and it’s not clear where that’s going. The other one is a scientist, and is defending her thesis — we think she has a job, but we don’t know that for sure. But they and their entire generation has a lot to figure out, and I hope that there are some wise voices in there. I also hope that we do a good enough job of explaining why it is that continuing to understand the world around us, in physics but also in all the branches of science, has to be an important part of whatever world we, or our children really, make for themselves.
Well, Julia, this has been an honor, a delight. I feel incredibly privileged to have spent virtually this time with you, and I really appreciate you being with me today.
Well, it’s been a great pleasure, David. Thank you.