Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
Credit: L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Nadya Mason by David Zierler on 2020 August 7,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Nadya Mason, Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mason recounts her family background and her childhood growing up in New York City, then Washington DC, and then Houston. She discusses her dedication to gymnastics between ages 8-16 and her rise to national stature in that field. Mason describes her developing interests in math and science, including a formative internships at Rice University and the Exxon Production Research Center where she discovered her love for lab work. She describes her undergraduate experience at Harvard, the supportive mentor she found in Howard Georgi, and her work in the condensed matter physics lab at Bell Labs where she developed her interest in liquid crystals. Mason explains her focus on condensed matter physics for graduate school, and she describes her graduate work at Stanford, where her initial intent was to work with Doug Osheroff before she became interested in working with Aharon Kapitulnik on superconductivity. She explains some of the main questions that drove her dissertation research, including the behaviors that are possible in a low-dimensional superconductor. Mason discusses her postdoctoral work back at Harvard where she pursued research on carbon nanotubes quantum dots. She describes her decision to join the faculty at Illinois and what it was like to set up a major lab and the strong support she enjoyed from the university. Mason describes her research agenda over the course of her career, she discusses her current interests in mesoscopic low dimensional materials with correlated materials, and she describes the opportunities and challenges teaching at a large public university. She shares her thoughts on where physics can go as a community to enhance diversity and inclusivity in the field, and she emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility as a means to achieve those goals. At the end of the interview, Mason describes some of the exciting avenues of research in the future, including work on combining topological and magnetic materials, and she considers the importance of machine learning for the future of condensed matter physics.
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 7th, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Professor Nadya Mason. Nadya, thank you so much for joining me today.
OK. So to start, would you tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Yes. I am a Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
OK. Let’s take it back all the way to the beginning first. I want to hear a little bit about your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
My father was born in Panama and was a teacher in New York City where he met my mother. My mother’s ancestors are from eastern Europe, Jewish. Her mother and grandparents had to escape from Nazi Germany during the war and came to America. My parents were teachers. They met in New York City.
How old was your father when he came to this country?
I think he came for college.
Do you have a sense of what his life was like in Panama? Did he talk about his background at all?
Not a lot. I believe his father was an engineer, and so they were pretty well to do middle class generally, there.
Did he come here with the intention of gaining an education and going back or he wanted to emigrate to the United States?
He wanted to emigrate. In fact most of his family ended up emigrating to the United States. And so they all came to New York. But he maintained strong connections to Panama.
Why New York? Was there family there already?
There was family in New York and it was the epicenter of the US—OK. So, now you’re talking to someone who was born in New York city so I always thought New York was the cultural, economic, and other epicenter of the US. I mean, why does an immigrant come to New York? Because there are already immigrants there and it’s a culturally diverse environment. You can find anything there.
And now your mom was a teacher also?
Yes, she was. She subsequently went to law school and then spent her career as a lawyer.
Oh, wow. And what grades did they teach, your parents?
High school I believe.
And growing up, what were some of the customs in your house coming from both sides of the family?
Some of our customs. Oh, I don’t know. On my father’s side, we’d have big family gatherings. [Laughs] Actually same on my mother’s side. For me it was a very typical New York upbringing where you’d have big family gatherings in parks and backyards and picnics. You know, I was one of these kids who actually grew up sitting on the stoop in a Brooklyn brownstone in the summer as they’d open the fire hydrants and you’d play in the water. We’d go to fairs, do everything—we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but there’s a lot of free, public, cultural things that you could do in the city. So we grew up just doing those.
Was it a dual religious upbringing or a no religious upbringing?
No religion upbringing is what I would say. [Laughs]
So it wasn’t much Christmas or Hanukah on either side.
No, no, no. This is, again, New York style in some sense, I mean, you celebrate all of it. You don’t dismiss anything, a party is a party. So there was some Hanukah, there was Christmas, there was Easter, there was Halloween. Everything you can imagine, we did.
What neighborhood in Brooklyn did you grow up in?
In Brooklyn Heights.
Oh, wow. Probably before it got all fancy, right?
Yeah. So we were there in the 1970’s. Actually, my parents divorced when I was around six. And my mom and sister and I moved to Washington, DC. So it was really only the first six years or so that I was in New York city. OK, now I forgot what your question was.
The question was where you grew up in Brooklyn, not having known that you left so early.
Oh, right. So Brooklyn Heights. So back then, it was a really family neighborhood. It was a very solid, middle class family neighborhood in the 70s. In the 80s, it became kind of dangerous, you know—the crack epidemic hit and it became dangerous for about 10 years in the 80s and everything kind of fell into shambles. Property values went down and then of course in the 90s it started gentrifying again and now it’s an extremely hoity toity fancy neighborhood that it never was when I was there. A lot of New York has gone through these transformations. You’d have to move to Queens now to get a similar experience I think.
Right. The move to Washington, DC, was that about your mom going to law school?
No, she actually went to law school when she was pregnant with me. She gave birth to me I think the same couple months that she was taking the bar exam. She told me about nursing me while studying. So yeah, it was just other reasons to move to DC. She was already a lawyer. She worked for the National Labor Relations Board at that point and so got a job in DC doing that.
Oh, did she stay with that for the rest of her career?
Well we moved to Houston about six years later—and she worked the EEOC in Houston. And then she moved to Maine when I was in college and became an administrative law judge, which is like an internal judge for the government.
So you spent your latter early childhood, like six to twelve, in DC?
What neighborhood in—
Maybe seven to 14 would be more like it.
Seven to 14. And where in DC were you?
Northwest. I don’t know, Tenleytown and Burleith—just sort of all around, we moved a lot. I went to a National Cathedral School for most of the years that I was there, so we always lived within 15 minutes of the school or so.
And then the move to Houston, you said?
Houston, that’s right.
At 14 years old.
Where in Houston were you?
Oh gosh, I don’t—it was somewhere. I think Tanglewood. I went to school in River Oaks, so it was the cheapest neighborhood within 15 minutes of there. Houston’s a weird place because there’s no zoning.
Right. It just keeps sprawling and sprawling.
It just sprawls, so it’s hard to tell one neighborhood from the next. So we moved there, I was pretty displaced and I just know that we kind of plopped into a neighborhood. For me the whole city seemed like a little neighborhood and then a freeway and a church and a strip club and some restaurants and then you repeat again in some other place. We moved when I was 15— I really only lived there for three years.
Right. Was that a private school also in Houston?
Yes, I went to Saint John’s School when I was there.
That’s interesting that you went to a Christian school, I guess, living with your mom.
They’re all Episcopalian and both National Cathedral and Saint John’s were pretty top ranked private schools. Education was very important to her and to us, and she really cared more about the educational quality than anything else. National Cathedral—so we did have cathedral and other services there, but it was more like—
It’s a good school.
There was very little mention of Jesus, let’s say, right? It was a very be good, take ethics sort of place.
At St. John’s we had church services twice a week. But it wasn’t super religious. There was a pretty mixed group. When we moved to Houston, my mom she felt like there were maybe two very strong private schools in town, one of them wasn’t religious and I wanted to go there, but I was doing competitive gymnastics at the time and needed a schedule that allowed me to only go to school halftime and the other school wouldn’t let me do that.
Oh, so you were a really crazy-dedicated gymnast, like you built your life around that.
Yeah. I did. The school was chosen because they allowed me to just—it was a good school, but they let me only do it part-time at that stage. So, kind of crazy.
How good were you? Like, what were your ambitions at that point?
Oh, the Olympics, for sure. Yeah.
How far did you take it?
Well, if I seem vague about some parts of my life, it’s because between the ages of maybe eight and 16, gymnastics is all that I really did. Every after-school activity every day, every trip was centered on this sport. When I was 13, I was on the junior national team, for example, and I was ranked I think 13th in the country. By the time we moved to Houston, it wasn’t a great year for me. I was ranked 25th in the country. You have to be the top eight to get into the Olympics and the top 12 to get in alternates, and so that was a big disappointment, but it was—I was in the ranking at least.
Did you walk away from gymnastics when you didn’t make that cut or did you stay with it?
I walked away. Yeah. There were several reasons for that. One is the last couple years especially as it got more intense—when I moved to Houston, I worked in the Karolyi’s Gym, it wasn’t a great experience for me personally. You know, looking back, I would call it a lot of emotional abuse and other things that—
Which is coming out in the news right now, I mean there’s still these stories that are just so upsetting to hear about.
Yeah, exactly. And so I witnessed a lot of that and experienced a lot of it myself, including racial abuse. Lots of things. And you know that was one, the other was I was in pain a lot. At that level, there’s—
Physical pain, you mean.
Physical pain, yeah. You sprain things, you break things, you tear things, and yet you only have one chance to make the team. Either you work through the pain, or you lose the years and years of buildup. And so there was a lot of physical pain at that point. And finally, I definitely knew, even at that stage—I mean, this is my tenth year of high school, and so I knew all along that I had other interests. I was interested in academics and I wanted to learn more about the world, I cared about school in a different way even than some of the other kids at my level in gymnastics. And so I really wanted a chance to explore these other interests.
When you were thinking about college, was gymnastics not part of the equation?
Oh, no, not at all. No, I quit after my tenth grade year. When I was at the gym, many of the kids either went to the school by the gym or took correspondence courses because at that level, it’s really secondary. And I was the only one who went to a school that was 45 minutes away so we had to travel two to three hours a day just going back and forth and everything and finally the coach told my mother, like, “Look, Nadya can’t achieve at the level she needs to if you keep her in that school. You need to make her leave that school or else you’re holding her back.”
And we talked about it and we decided that I wanted to keep my education. So even at that stage—I stayed at the school, but it tells you the sort of choices you have to make at that level. If you actually have other interests —even intellectual interests or even want to do something else—it takes away from the sport and you have to make a choice.
It must have felt so liberating in tenth grade to have all of this free time open up to you and discover—
Oh, totally. Yeah that was 11th grade, but yeah. So it was only two years of high school, but it was really funny because I used to do all my homework just on the bus. I had 45 minutes to the gym and I’d get all of my homework done on the bus or in class while they were teaching ‘cause I didn’t have any other time. We had twice a day practices and stuff. And so when I quit, it was crazy ‘cause I had so much time.
I got a job, I joined cross country, I joined track, I did all these things and I just still had all this time and it was so mystifying to me why people complained about homework and school. All these things, it was so easy.
So is this the time when you discovered your abilities in math and science? Not just like doing well on quizzes, but realizing that you had serious potential in this area?
Well, interestingly, I always really liked math. I mean, I used to do math puzzles and these analytical games and stuff for fun, so I always knew that I enjoyed doing math. I liked the idea of science, I actually was always very interested in it, but the one thing I really regret about the gymnastics is I didn’t get as strong a science background in high school as I wish I could have because I limited the number of classes I took to just the core curriculum, which meant I never took the elective science classes. I happened to be ahead in math, and so that was a little easier for me, I was a couple years ahead anyway in my math class, so that made it easier to just keep up.
But I didn’t have a very strong science background in high school. I guess I took biology and chemistry. I took one semester of physics. It just wasn’t that strong. I was very interested in it, but unfortunately I realized I really didn’t get much from my classes. I think one of the big changes for me came when after my junior year of high school, the local university, which was Rice University, gave an opportunity for students in the school to do a summer program. And I believe that in that program they were trying especially to get women and underrepresented minorities into the labs, and I was extremely grateful to have that opportunity.
And so I worked for the summer in a biochemistry lab after my junior year of high school.
Something must have clicked for you there.
Oh, it totally did. I loved it. I didn’t love biochemistry, but I really loved working in the lab. And I knew I was thinking in that direction because when they offered the summer job, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought this is something I’ve thought about a lot but that I didn’t have experience—and this experimental science really clicked, so for sure.
So obviously when you were thinking about college, physics was not preordained at that point. You were not thinking about physics departments.
I actually—interestingly, I was thinking about physics. I mean, maybe this is one of the things that doing a lot of things external to school changes in you, but I didn’t rely on my classes to determine what my interests were. To me, school was something that I did on the side from the rest of my life. And so I knew that I was interested in science and I really liked the idea of physics. Whenever I read about physics, I was interested in it. I actually thought I wanted to major in physics, despite the fact that I didn’t have a lot of background in it.
Did you ever think about the physics behind gymnastics?
No because that’s mechanics, which I’ve always found less fun than electronics, I’ll be honest.
Keep those worlds separate.
I really do keep those worlds separate [laughs]. That’s not the area of physics that excites me the most, but yes, there is physics behind it, I agree. And twirling and all those things. But no, those are really different worlds for me.
Obviously every successful applicant to Harvard really has something standout about them, so what would you say was your standout achievements or attributes?
Well, obviously I had done gymnastics at a very high level. I had quit—my junior senior year, I ran track and cross country and I was track captain and I had won, I don’t know, four or five events. We had a very small conference, but I think I was just very athletic at that point. And in fact I ended up being a walk on to the varsity track team in college. They didn’t recruit me, but I just walked on.
So I had achievements in sports at that level. And then also I was in the top 5 or 10 percent of this pretty well-ranked high school. And probably because I wanted to be a physics major, that didn’t hurt. And I had recommendations—I had the science experience plus recommendations from a faculty member who was very pleased with my work the previous summer in the research lab. So I think that combination probably put me over the top.
So you declared the major right away?
I came in saying that I was interested in physics and then my first year there, I took math, biology, chemistry, and physics courses, to figure out which I liked best. It turns out the answer was still physics.
What were your experiences as both a woman and somebody coming from an underrepresented group in the physics department? Did you feel like there were any roadblocks, were there any discouragements or did you feel like anything and everything was as available to you as it was to anybody else?
Yes and yes I guess I’d say. I mean I think I felt more hindered by the fact that I had a weaker science background than anything else. Most of the kids who major in physics come in having taken AP physics their sophomore year of high school or something, right? And I had never even taken AP physics. But the one thing that Harvard did which I thought was really great is that they had two tracks for majors. One was for majors who had had AP physics and one was for majors who hadn’t, but who really wanted to major in physics and needed to catch up.
And so I ended up being in a class with people like me who didn’t have the strongest background, but really loved the field and wanted to succeed, and interestingly, amongst that group of majors, I would say probably more of them ended up going on into science than the others.
Oh wow. That’s interesting.
It’s interesting yeah because these are people—it’s not just ‘cause they’re good at it and did it, you know, or that it came easily—it’s because they wanted to do it.
Would you wager why—what might explain that?
I think for the people who stuck with physics it didn’t necessarily come easily, but they were willing to work at it. Because at some point, physics stops being easy and starts becoming something you choose. And I think for many of us, we started out that way.
Now in terms of the yes and yes, any other way that you were discouraged or hindered?
Sure. OK. So in one sense, it was discouraging being a little behind. It was encouraging having that class that allowed us to catch up at our own pace without having everyone feeling like everyone else was so far advanced. By the time we merged with everyone else, we were pretty much in the same place.
I think that there was a couple people at Harvard—I’ll specify Howard Georgi in particular—who took it upon himself to be my academic advisor, who hired me to work in his office, who was always incredibly supportive.
Yeah. He’s awesome.
He’s awesome. Howard found me somehow my sophomore year there and took me under his wing and I always felt like the department expected me to succeed because Howard was the one who was pushing me the whole time. And so that made an enormous difference, having that. Certainly, there were some little comments I guess, micro aggressions. For example, I took a graduate class when I was an undergraduate because I thought that I had to, but I decided to take graduate stat mech which was a mistake because I didn’t realize it was a second year graduate class. I just saw that the requirements fit with mine.
And Howard, bless him, I went to Howard and said, “Howard, I want to take graduate stat mech I need a graduate class.” And he was a little hesitant. And I said, “Why not? I have all the things.” And he said, “OK. Just do it.” I think he didn’t want to be discouraging, but it was a really hard class. Anyway, I walk in and I sit down and there’s—it turns out—another undergraduate who comes in, takes a look at me, and says, “You know this is graduate stat mech, right? Is this the right class for you?”
And so those sorta things happened. But on the other hand that person was another example of someone who was really advanced in physics but ended up not proceeding in the field because it had just come really easily at first and then ended up, you know—I don’t think he ever really thought about what he wanted to do with it.
So anyway, there were little things like that. I think the other advantage at the time in Harvard—I was one of three African American majors in physics in my year, which was really great. Usually there’s one, right? And having three other people and we were all friends and we worked together and we actually had these cohorts of study groups that we would work in that made it much easier.
It’s crazy to think of three as a big number, but…
Oh, it’s huge. Yeah.
Nadya, thinking back about your experience in the lab in biochemistry, did you seek out any opportunities you could to work in physics labs as an undergraduate?
Yeah. So I also got an opportunity, again, through the high school after my senior year to work at the Exxon Production Research Company. They are based in Houston, and their physics lab was hiring for the summer. And so I worked in their geophysics lab for a summer. I crushed rocks and then put them in a FTIR machine and had to analyze the data and they had some new, like, sputtering-type machine that made little round balls out of the rock pieces that would give you the better isotropic signals from this FTIR machine.
Anyway, so I got to do that for a summer, which again, I really loved. It was a great experience working with the equipment. It was much more interesting to me doing something like this than the biochemistry lab. And I worked at Exxon again the next summer and then they tried to hire me. They were like, “When you graduate, we want you to work for us,” but I wasn’t ready for that.
So that research experience made a big difference also. I think the most important experience for me was after my sophomore year, I worked at Bell Labs in a real condensed matter physics lab, and that environment was, to me, probably one of the biggest factors in making me want to do experimental physics as a career. I ended up working at Bell Labs twice.
Yeah. What kind of work did you do there?
I worked on liquid crystals. We were looking at how liquid crystals evolve from basically parallel to rotated, and so I took two glass slides and just took cloth and rubbed one one way and then rubbed another slide the other way and then we put the liquid crystals in between and watched the transitions under the microscope and you could see different domains form and how they spread, and you could scale that.
I did this my sophomore year, and I took all this data and there was a staff working on it also and then he wrote it up and it was a PRL. And I thought, “Man, this physics stuff is really easy. You take a little data, you get a PRL.” So of course it took me like 10 years to get another PRL.
People ask often if there were negative experiences in all of this work and maybe it’s my personality, but in this case again, I really remember the positive experiences. And to be honest, I think when I talk to other women and underrepresented people who have succeeded in physics, I think it’s just a mental trick that allows us to remember the positives more than the negatives. It’s not that there weren’t any negatives.
That’s not to say that the negatives are not there, it’s just you put them in their place.
Exactly. I think it’s true and I think that’s just a psychological thing, which does worry me because you end up having one type of person who can succeed and anyone who actually is more affected by the bad things that happen just doesn’t stay in the field. Because there’s a lot of bad things that happen that you can get upset about—which is normal to do—and it makes you just not want to be there. Why would you be in that environment?
And so the people who have some sort of weird psychological trick where the bad things just kinda get dismissed and the good things are really impactful are the ones who stay.
Yeah. That’s a very important point and not altogether comforting for all of the people out there who might have tremendous talents, but are not able to compartmentalize.
Oh, I completely agree. And it took me a while to realize this, but I’d meet other successful women in physics and I’d be like, “Wait, we’re similar in this.” And you suddenly start realizing how similar the people who succeed are, which means that there’s so many talented people left behind who are totally normal and probably are just not built in this exact same way and it’s hard for them.
Not to put you on the psychiatrist’s couch, but do you feel like this was a skill that you brought with you to gymnastics that allowed you to succeed in gymnastics or did you learn it in the course of becoming a successful gymnast?
I think it was a little of both. I think I definitely brought it with me, but I think I honed it from a young age. And the same thing—the perseverance, the ability to just focus on the improvements, no matter what happened, is something that you need in sports at that level. And in sports definitely you get rewarded for that from a young age.
Now at Bell Labs, I’ve heard so many stories—particularly from more senior people who were there in the 60s and 70s, even the 50s—that at its height, it was this amazing place of basic science where the corporate aspect had nothing to do with it. Obviously you were there much later and you were not there in a professional capacity, but I wonder, looking back, if you remember working still in that basic science environment where the corporate interests were really not a part of the equation?
Yeah, for sure. So this was ’92 and there were already a lot of changes, but there was still a very strong, basic research core. The very positive memory I have is just being treated like a scientist and being part of this amazing, fundamental physics group that they had. So you know, I would sit with the researchers, the faculty, the staff—members of the technical staff, right, their equivalent to senior faculty—at lunch and they would all discuss science and include me in the conversation. And then after lunch, we’d all go for a walk around the grounds where they’d continue discussions about things and include me in this and then we’d go to the lab and I’d do things and we’d work together and we’d talk about things. And I just really felt like—you know, they treated me incredibly—I don’t know if respectfully, but I mean for my age—
They included you.
They included me fully. And it was really interesting, it was really exciting for me. And I worked as many hours as I could. I’d be on a late bus home all the time and having that experience of doing something that was really interesting, feeling like it was an inclusive and very welcoming environment, even just scientists technically focused, right? Made a huge impact on me.
The other thing I should mention is that this was part of a program to have women and underrepresented people in the sciences, and so the other students who were there were mostly from underrepresented backgrounds. So I had a huge cohort of other black and brown students and of other women who all had the same goals. And that was the context that I was working in and then I was also in this lab environment. And that combination was very, very powerful because you go back and you see people—you know, people like me, people who I feel very comfortable with, people who are really supporting each other and expect each other to succeed in science, especially the tight group of people who would work late every day, the late bus people, we called each other.
We would support each other in some ways and then we’d also go into the lab and feel included there and that combination made it a very powerful experience for me, personally.
What did you discover that you were particularly good at at Bell Labs?
[Laughs] I think that for me, it was really just thinking very systematically about things. So, thinking my way through a process. It’s something that I thought was obvious until I realized later that—you know, I kept wondering, “Why do they say I’m doing well?” And so I realized that it’s not that obvious that, you know, if you have a 10 step process, to think about every step, keep the end goal in mind, and then think your way through. What is this doing? What is this doing? What is this doing? And you know, why am I seeing this effect? Why am I seeing that effect? Why am I seeing that effect?
So keeping the process in mind while also thinking scientifically about every step. And that’s relevant to what I do now because I do nanoscience, which involves a lot of fabrication and a lot of measurement of devices that have many different behaviors and so it requires thinking through the process of what’s going on, but also being able to think very physically about what’s happening at every step along the way.
It sounds like your experience at Bell Labs in terms of helping you identify your talents and your interests and your confidence was as formative, if not more formative, than your overall experience at Harvard as an undergraduate.
Yes. For sure.
That speaks beautifully for Bell Labs. What a remarkable thing.
It is. And actually if you look at Bell Labs’ history, the number of scientists they produce—the number of even underrepresented and female scientists they produced—is pretty remarkable.
And it’s interesting, it’s known among staff, Bell Labs could be an incredibly competitive place. You know, it wasn’t that everyone just was joyful working there all the time or everyone was really nice. But everyone was really focused on the science—if you did the work, then that’s all they cared about.
On the range from having a grand plan from day one to just like waking up one morning as a junior or senior and saying, “I’m going for it,” where were you in terms of figuring out that physics and graduate school was your path forward?
So ten is going forward and one is not knowing what you’re doing?
Yeah, like that.
I think probably a seven.
Probably. You know, I did have to work really hard in college. I felt like I had to work really hard learning physics to catch up. And maybe one of the reasons Harvard wasn’t as impactful an experience in some sense is because I spent all of my time catching up in physics. You know, I spent evenings, weekends, days in the physics library just going through problem sets and trying to understand and trying to make sure that I could do the work, that I understood what was going on. I was the opposite of a partier. My kids make fun of me now ‘cause my college experience was so lame, as they see it.
I didn’t really go out and I didn’t really do other things. I didn’t really have other activities. I just focused on learning physics, which I didn’t mind. I wanted to. I was interested in it. It wasn’t that I was driven by some other need, it was that I wanted to do it. So maybe it wasn’t impactful in the sense it was—it wasn’t as fun, in that sense, but I did learn a lot. And I did enjoy that learning.
But it was also very difficult. So then when I was graduating from college, part of the question was, “Is it going to be hard for the rest of my life? Do I want to really do something that’s that hard?” The experience at Bell Labs is what really convinced me that it’s OK. I enjoyed it. So it didn't really matter how hard it was because it was something that I enjoyed. But I did think that if I went to a professional school like medical school or law school—I could do things that I would be good at that would be an easier life, in many ways.
And I still think I might have been a really good lawyer. I like to argue.
The world doesn’t need another lawyer. That’s good. You made the right call.
That’s why I didn’t do it, I decided that the world didn’t need another lawyer and that it could use more physicists and it especially could use more black female physicists. Even in college, to me, it was important that there weren’t many people like me in the field. There weren’t many role models. There weren’t people who had the same opportunities I had. I finally decided that if I was 70 percent sure of something I wanted to do, then I should just go for it and try it and if it didn’t work out, I could always do something else.
Besides Howard Georgi, were there any other professors at Harvard that you became close with and were mentors and were real encouragers for you?
I mean, there were some others— I worked in the lab of Eric Mazur for a while, and he was very supportive. It was during the term, so I didn’t get much done, but he was also very positive. I’m trying to think of who else. I remember Mara Prentiss is someone who had just started when I was there and Melissa Franklin. I didn’t interact with them much, but they were two female professors who were still relatively young when I was there, they taught introductory classes that I took, and they were definitely role models for me.
When it was time to think about graduate school, how narrowly focused were you at that point in terms of the kind of physics you wanted to pursue, the kind of program you wanted to be at, even the kind of individuals that you thought might be a good graduate advisor?
Yeah. So at that point, I knew I wanted to do condensed matter physics. I knew that because the research I did at Bell Labs was condensed matter. I’d gone back there again after my senior year of college, which helped confirm that I wanted to do condensed matter. I was also really interested in these issues of complexity. This is the 90s when the butterfly effect was really popular and I loved the idea of thinking about collective behavior and how individual microscopic thing can lead to macroscopic effects that you couldn’t predict otherwise.
But then I didn’t love the idea of doing complexity theory—I realized complexity theory itself was something that was very mathematical and not practically fun for me to do in the same way as hands-on stuff. And so I decided that working with materials was a chance to look at complex behaviors, looking at electrons and phonons and interactions among particles, leading to collective effects without having to do the theory.
I was pretty sure I wanted to do condensed matter, so I applied to only strong condensed matter programs for graduate school.
And just to historicize the terms, was solid state physics totally out of favor by the time you had come?
Yeah, pretty much.
Nobody was saying that anymore.
No, it was all condensed matter at that point because there was already a lot of understanding of the connection between different types of materials. For example, my summer project had been on liquid crystals, but that was considered condensed matter even though it wasn’t “solid.” Soft condensed matter, hard condensed matter, glassy systems were all lumped together in a way they couldn’t be if you just considered “solid states.”
Where did you apply for graduate school?
Where did I apply for graduate school? Well, I’m embarrassed to say I really only applied to the top graduate schools. I was an overconfident kid—not overconfident, but realistic about how decisions were made—when I went to Harvard, I only applied to one college also, I applied early and I got in and I just didn’t do anything else. So for graduate school I applied to MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, Illinois, and Caltech. And Berkeley.
That’s all of them right there.
Yeah. Well, I’d had—you know, I’d had very good experiences at Bell Labs and I had this publication and the people I worked with there were very encouraging. I’d talked to them and also Howard Georgi about where they thought that I could get in. My grades were good. I’d had this paper and research experience . So they were very encouraging and helped advise me about where I should apply.
I didn’t apply to Harvard actually. I just didn’t really still want to be there. It had been—it wasn’t a negative experience. It wasn’t that anything negative happened. It had just been difficult and I think it’s a rather displacing environment there. There’s a lot of type As who are just very, very advanced in what they do and I definitely did feel like it was an environment where there are the top people in physics who have been doing it since they were six and they know how to do everything and they’re doing quantum field theory as college freshmen.
And then there’s everyone else and if you’re not one of them, you’re not really part of the club in any field. And I didn’t enjoy that sort of competitive and comparison-driven environment. I just didn’t enjoy the environment that much, honestly.
You’re obviously not the first person to say that. Nothing controversial.
Yeah. So I didn’t apply and then Howard found out that I didn’t apply and he told me to apply and I got in, but I ended up not going.
Why did Stanford win out?
Two reasons. It ended up being between Stanford and Cornell. They’d both had very strong condensed matter programs and I found multiple people there that I was very excited about working with. Stanford is somewhere that a lot of former Bell Labs people had gone, future Nobel laureates like Steve Chu and Bob Laughlin and Doug Osheroff. And so my Bell Labs advisors had talked to people there and I’d even found a group that would take me right away with what would be a future Nobel laureate and they did great stuff.
And then also—this is terrible—but I went to Stanford and Cornell a week apart and at Cornell, I had a cold and I was kind of sick and it was snowing and very icy and then the next week I went to Stanford and I was feeling better and it was 75 degrees and gorgeous and I’d just decided that I’d had enough of cold weather. I decided grad school was painful enough, my environment might as well not be. So that was it.
Nadya, I’m curious—just to fast forward a little bit—if you recognized how strong Illinois was generally and how strong, particularly in condensed matter, it was when you were considering graduate school?
I did. And I applied to Illinois also, like I said. That was in my top seven schools. I ended up not going. You know, I never considered Berkeley or Caltech or Harvard or MIT really either for various reasons. And so it wasn’t that it wasn’t strong or as strong as the others. I think I was partly swayed by being in California and partly swayed by, like I said, the personal connection that I had at Stanford. I knew Illinois was very strong for sure.
The desire to get away from all of the type A-ness at Harvard, was that mission accomplished when you got to Stanford?
[Laughs] That’s a funny question. Stanford is actually different from Harvard. Stanford’s described by the duck analogy. Have you heard this before?
So Stanford students are described as ducks where they like to be seen as placidly floating on the surface, whereas in reality, they’re pedaling as fast as they can under the water. So everyone acts like they’re not working and like they’re calm and relaxed, and yet everyone’s driven as much as they are anywhere else.
But I still don’t mind an environment where everyone acts like they’re cool and relaxed ‘cause that’s fine. It turns out that graduate school is different from undergraduate. It was encouraging for me to get to graduate school and realize that I was really solid middle of the pack. The courses weren’t the easiest for me, and yet they also weren’t the hardest. I think that the work that I had put in as an undergraduate had definitely paid off and classes were just kind of standard.
So, a couple things I can say about grad school that struck me. One is that when I first arrived, everyone used to study in a big pack in the coffee shop and it turned out to be a pretty competitive environment. People would be walking around and asking who got the answers and who finished it and it felt like, again, this thing where everyone’s comparing each other.
So one of the things I ended up doing is removing myself from that environment and finding a couple people who I felt very comfortable with studying and working on problem sets and just doing it separately. For me, just separating myself from the environment made a huge difference. You know, once you’re in a research group, it was also different and not competitive in the same way.
My other experience I had early on is I remember we took our first exam as graduate students and it was E&M or something like that, and one person got a hundred percent on the exam. And I remember then this rumor went around that it was me. And I remember thinking like, “Why would they think it was me? Why would I get a hundred on the exam?” And I realized, “Oh, it’s because they have a black female in their group and because they can’t imagine that I’m just a middle of the road grad student. I have to either be the worst in the class—and if I’m not the worst in the class, then I must be the best in the class, but I can’t just be like everybody else.”
And so because they probably figured out from interactions that I wasn’t the worse in the class, then they just assumed that I had to be the other side. And it was eye-opening for me to realize that, you know, no matter what you do, you’ll never be considered as part of the group in the same way. At least until time passes and everyone just kind of forgets about that, which takes a couple years.
What were some takeaways from that experience that might have informed your broader graduate and professional experience?
I think one of them is that people are always making assumptions and I can guess what those assumptions are, but I can’t control what those assumptions are. And in the long run, those assumptions don’t impact me. So it’s good for me to be aware of those assumptions and as much as I want to be aware of my context, to try to control the context.
But beyond that, all that really matters for me is what my goals are and how I achieve them. So if I’m trying to do well and I do as well as I want, that’s all that matters, no matter if someone else thinks that I’m the worst or the best because they can’t help having—well, they can help—but most people do have these underlying assumptions, prejudices, biases that will always inform how they interact with me just because of who I am and the way that I look and what they think they see.
But for me, it was actually a good experience because once I realized that, then I felt like I had some control over it, you know? I better understood my environment. And I could decide what matters to me and what affects me.
What was the process at Stanford for connecting with a graduate advisor? Would you sort of think about who you wanted to work with and approach them? Or would you be asked to join a particular group?
There’s a rotation system. The first year, you go through three different groups and then you decide—it’s a matchmaking thing—you decide which group you want to join and they decide if they want to take you. I came to work with Doug Osheroff, who does low-temperature physics. He had been at Bell, he knew all the people I knew there. But after being there for a couple months, I realized that I just wasn’t that interested in helium 3.
And I wasn’t really interested in building fridges. It just felt like it wasn’t the newest research at the time. And so I ended up leaving his group and then going to a different group, which did more standard condensed matter—superconductors, which was a topic I was much more interested in.
Yeah. So I went to Aharon Kapitulnik, I asked him if I could join his group—it was a rotation, but I ended up just staying there.
And what was exciting to you about superconductivity?
Well basically what I said before, that the idea of individual particles acting collectively to create something completely different than what they do individually was really interesting. So that part was very interesting. The fact that it had some technological relevance to it, I liked. I appreciated the fact that it was fundamentally interesting and yet this interest could lead to something that might be useful someday.
I also just liked the type of research. I liked the tabletop research where you had control over making your devices, measuring them, analyzing and doing all those things yourself.
How did you go about developing a dissertation topic?
So as with my students now, you’re sort of driven by the grants of the faculty that you work with. When I started working with Aharon, I told him that I did not want to work on high temperature superconductors because this was the late 90s and it had already been 10 years since the discovery of high TC almost and it had kind of stagnated at that point and it was known as a pretty vicious field. At least in terms of—
And the stagnation was what? There were experimental limitations or theoretical?
Both. Experimental and theoretical. So experimentally, they were not finding higher temperature superconductors easily and theoretically, they had not come to—there had been a few years I think since there had been any leaps in understanding the materials or their underlying behaviors . And it had led to a lot of in-fighting. It was still fresh enough that it was a well-funded and hotly sought topic, and yet it was competitive. It was becoming competitive and unfriendly because there were so few advances, so everyone was trying to knock down everyone else’s theory and everyone else’s results in order to gain prominence for their own. That’s what it felt like from the outside and I didn’t see that as an environment where I wanted to work at that point.
Have there been breakthroughs that have moved beyond that period of stagnation?
There have been some, for sure. The field kind of goes up and down. I think the past 10 years there’s been a lot of progress in new types of higher temperature superconductors, for one. From twisted bilayer graphene to iron-based superconductors, all of these things have been really exciting in terms of opening up new classes of materials. And I think there’s also been greater understanding in terms of the underlying competition between different ground states that can lead to high temperature superconductivity.
There hasn’t been big jumps in the TC in years, but I think that it’s become a better field to work in now for sure. It’s gone in different directions. But back then—you asked how did I decide my dissertation, so one of it was by omission. I said, “I want to work on superconductors, but not high TC superconductors.” And then my advisor put me on a project that involved using lasers to reflect off the surface of superconductors, which tells you about their pairing at the surface, basically, which is a great project in theory, but it turns out that I don’t really like aligning lasers and using the mirrors and things. That work itself was not interesting to me, maybe because as I said, I like work where I can think my way through the process and this seemed much more like just fine work without thought. I don’t know, I just didn’t like it.
So I came off that project and he put me on a project of measuring thin film superconductors at ultra-low temperatures, and that I enjoyed the work of. I liked doing the fabrication, putting together pipes in the fridge. Maybe I just like the gross physical things rather than the fine-tuned physical things, but working with the big systems and the magnets and stuff I found much more fun.
To the extent that a graduate student is capable of such grandiose thoughts, what did you see as your contributions or findings in your dissertation?
Yeah. So in terms of the physics of the topic itself, I was looking at what’s called a superconductor to insulator transition. So it’s an effect in a material where, as you lower the temperature, it starts superconducting, but then as you increase the magnetic field or disorder or some parameter that tunes the ground state, the superconducting pairs should get localized. And so it has a direct superconductor to insulator transition.
This had transition had been hypothesized. It is something that you may not expect. You may expect the material to become a metal or to always go superconducting as you lower the temperature, but the superconductor-insulator transition tells you about the influence of disorder and other properties on a ground state. It’s about collective behavior and studying this lets you study how materials transition from one phase to another, which I found really interesting.
So my job was to examine this transition and sort of build upon some previous experiments. What I found is that instead of going directly from a superconductor to an insulating state, the material actually had an intervening metallic state, which was predicted not to be possible, theoretically, because in theory, as you introduce disorder, everything gets localized. And so it shouldn’t still be conducting as you lower the temperature.
My contribution was discovering this metallic state and finding out that for one, there’s a new phase that can appear at low temperatures, and for another, that somehow there’s additional dissipation beyond what’s predicted that enters into these systems. So this is something that’s now become well-known—the paper that we wrote is really well-cited now because the idea of dissipation and metallic states, you know, suddenly everyone started finding them, right? Like, “Oh, we didn’t really notice this, but we also have a dissipative state.” People realize it’s extremely common in superconducting systems and have been trying to understand the theory behind it.
Right. So on that point, how did you see your dissertation being responsive to some of the broader research questions that were part of the field at that time?
Yeah. So there’s a couple things. One is simply: what are the behaviors that are possible in a low-dimensional superconductor? This is important in general to the field if you’re trying to make superconducting coatings or superconducting devices, which were then becoming more prevalent. Also as things get smaller, which is what was happening then with the advent of better and better nanofabrication, what are the behaviors you see as you make devices thinner and smaller? What sort of ground states appear?
I think that technologically, the work was important, but also just from a fundamental perspective, it addresses an incredibly big fundamental question, what is the ground state of a superconducting system? Superconductivity itself is a huge field, and if we don’t know the ground state of a 2D superconductor, what the possibilities are, that’s a huge lapse in knowledge overall. And so I think it’s a big contribution to understand what the ground state and possible ground states of a superconductor are. And as I said, this opened up entirely new avenues of theory and thinking that have been applied since then to other sorts of systems, thinking about what sort of ground states thin disordered materials can have and why.
Did you ever consider entering industry after this? Did you see some of the commercial viabilities or applicabilities of this research? Is that ever something that you considered?
Well, I’ve really always been driven by the fundamental questions. I kind of wish that I did like to do engineering a bit more and that I was willing to just work on improving devices because I think it’s important and useful. I’ve been actually trying to encourage my kids to go into engineering rather than physics because I think that you can achieve a lot. I just like thinking about the physics. I think in a very kind of cartoon ways about what electrons are doing and why and I enjoy that.
So for me personally, I really always wanted to do more fundamental research. And I feel like if you don’t do the things that are interesting to you, then you’re not going to do them well or for long.
Was the startup and entrepreneurial culture at Stanford that’s so pervasive nowadays, did you feel that during your time there also?
Oh yeah, not only did I feel it, but that was the beginning. I mean this was the startup time. Elon Musk started as a graduate student in my class at Stanford in physics—he was there for like a month. Or I think he never even officially started—anyway, a friend of mine’s like, “I remember seeing him at a party once.” So this gives you a sense. All of the internet was starting. My friends took classes with the Google cofounders ‘cause as they’re starting their company, they’re trying to recruit by teaching classes.
We were in the thick of the startup culture, of the online culture. My friends worked at Ask Jeeves for the summer, you know, writing programming and stuff. So for sure, I was aware of this. I just wasn’t personally interested. I wasn’t really driven by making money at that stage, even now I guess.
You could just say you were a real scientist. That’s what you were looking for.
Yeah. I wasn’t interested. And so it’s not that I didn’t recognize the importance or wasn’t aware that that area was growing, it was just that I was interested in the science and I wanted to pursue it.
So now the obvious question, Nadya. You couldn’t get out of Harvard fast enough, and then right back to Harvard you go. What happened there?
Yeah. So [laughs] it’s not as easy as that. I’d always envisioned going back to Bell Labs, I mean that was the place I’d always wanted to work. When you ask about industry, that’s the closest I got to industry. By the time I finished graduate school, it had been six years since I’d last been there or eight years since I’d been as a sophomore there and a lot more had shut down. The last people who I had worked with were leaving at that stage.
And so I did interview there and I did figure out how to do a joint postdoc between Bell Labs and Columbia and we were thinking of how that would work, but it really didn’t seem as viable at that stage. In addition, at the time, I was engaged and my fiancé wanted to get a master’s in creative writing, and he had waited four years for me to finish my degree while taking jobs in California.
So at this stage, I said, “OK. Why don’t you find a place you want to be first and then I’ll see if I can get a postdoc there.” And so he narrowed it down to New York and to Boston. And so I only looked for postdocs in those place. In New York, I had figured out this joint Bell Labs/Columbia thing, and in Boston, I called the only person I knew, Charlie Marcus, who was a former faculty at Stanford. And he worked at Harvard now. I said, “I may need a postdoc in Boston. Do you know anyone who’s looking?” He said, “I’m looking. I’ll offer you a job.”
So then I went back and my fiancé decided that he wanted to be in Boston and so I called Charlie and I was like, “OK. I’ll take the job.” So it just worked out. It wasn’t that I wanted to go back. Charlie was the person that I knew and he offered me a position. If you’re graduating and someone just says, “You can have a postdoc. It’s ready for you,” it’s very easy to do.
I love the joke of the two body problem.
And how important it is for so many of these decisions. It’s really remarkable how many careers turn on these decisions.
It’s true and I tell people this because it’s a funny thing to say that Harvard wasn’t my first choice. It’s not that I wanted to go there, it’s that I had a connection there and I had to be in Boston. So it was a solution to my two body problem. When I got to Harvard I applied for this Junior Fellowship, and then I ended up getting that and staying for it, which was an amazing and fantastic experience. But yeah Harvard was not—would not have been—my first choice. But actually going back as a postdoc was a great experience for me. It was a very, very different and more freeing experience for me being there as a postdoc compared to as an undergraduate.
How much was that about the culture had changed at Harvard and how much was that about you being at a different stage of your career at that point?
Oh, it was just me. I don’t think it was the—
It wasn’t—Harvard’s the same.
As far as I could—
It’s been like that since 1636 and it wasn’t going to change in the few years since you have gone, right?
I mean, look, I don’t want to—this is going to be on the record and people like Howard have worked extremely hard to improve Harvard, and they’re part of the reason that I ended up doing ok there as an undergrad, and as a postdoc.
And Melissa [Franklin], Melissa talked a lot about that.
And Melissa, right. So there are people there who really made it viable. So I don’t want to give it too hard a knock.
But, you know, this is the culture of the place as a whole. It caters to the best and if you can prove that you’re the best, then you do well there. If you can’t prove that you’re the best, then you don’t do well there. Now, proving—you can’t see—I’m putting prove in quotes because “proving” that you’re the best doesn’t mean that you’re actually the most successful, the most creative, going to succeed the best at your field, it just means that there are some metrics that can be used to rank people who succeed in those metrics.
And that’s the nature of the place and it works really well for some people and not for others. Didn’t work that well for me. And I think it doesn’t work well for a lot of people who would otherwise succeed, right? But anyway, yes. I think going back as a junior fellow and being happy is more that I was at a different stage in my life.
And going back to the postdoc—even then, I think it wasn’t until I got this fellowship and was able to work independently that I was really, really happy there.
To what extent did moving back to Harvard present you with new opportunities for new research and to what extent were you looking to continue to improve and refine the work you had done as a graduate student at Stanford?
Yeah. I was looking for a new opportunity and that’s also part of why I took the position. When I graduated, I had done this superconductor insulator transition and metallic state, and at the time, I felt like it was a topic that 20 people in the world cared passionately about, and no one else did. Now, interestingly, another 20 years later, it’s come back full steam and it’s a huge topic again, but back then, it felt like no one else cared about it. So I really wanted to do something that felt a little bit more current.
I was also thinking about future jobs and what areas I wanted to work in and decided that mesoscopic physics was an area that had a lot of potential for the future. So small scale structures, things like carbon nanotubes and nanowires and quantum dots and low dimensional objects were things that I thought had a lot of legs for at least the next 10 years or so. So I ended up working on carbon nanotubes quantum dots. For the project I took carbon nanotubes and cutting them into small sections of electron puddles and then saw how those interacted.
So for me, it was a very new area of physics, but I also used the skills of some lithography and nanofabrication and low temperature measurements that I knew before. So it was a hybrid of taking some old skills and combining them with new materials and new physics.
Was the society of fellows—did that feel like a finishing school to you? I’ve heard that term many times applied. I’m wondering if you felt like the same way?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think—it might have changed over the years. I think my partner at the time described it as a reward for people who had no fun in college.
[Laughs] That’s great.
The idea is that we worked our way through college and now we were finally able to reap the rewards of that. I think it’s preselected for certain personalities who like to dress up for fancy dinners and have wide-ranging discussions. People who were finished to some degree already I would say, in a very specific way.
Did you take advantage of all of the amazing opportunities to interact with people from other disciplines?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I went to every lunch and every dinner, at least for the first two years. The third year, I went on the job market and then I had a baby and so that was a wash. Once I got pregnant and couldn’t drink, it wasn’t quite the same thing.
Yeah, right. What’s the point?
Yeah. So I went to all the things. It was a really great experience, I mean, hearing about people’s work in Asian studies, in history and even in biology and genetics was really great. In fact, they’d have these once a week dinners, you probably know about these I guess, right? And so they’d start at six with sherry and appetizers and then you’d move on to this four course dinner that had a cheese course and a chocolate course. And then you had an appetizer wine and a main course wine and then a dessert wine. And they had this really fancy wine cellar and then they’d bring the liquor out afterwards.
And so the first hour or two of discussions would be really fantastic and interesting and wide-ranging, and then it just degenerated into gossip after everyone got drunk. So it was a good combination of everything [laughs].
How was the job market when you got involved? What were your prospects?
It was pretty good that year, thankfully. It was a pretty good year. And I didn’t mention this, actually, but I do remember this in college, I think one of the reasons that I also thought about not going on in physics is that I remember working in the Mazur lab my junior year of college, which must have been—when was I in college? I don’t even remember. I guess I was class of ’95.
’91 to ’95.
Yeah. So it was like ’93 or something like that and this is when there was this depression and after 1989, there were a lot of physicists coming from the former eastern European countries trying to get jobs in the US. It started in 1990 basically around then. And then there was an economic depression, and so it was incredibly hard to get jobs in physics and I remember being around this lab with these senior graduate students who were just incredibly depressed, just super depressed about the job market and that really impacted me at the time. That’s why I kind of thought about not going on in physics if I couldn’t get a job.
When I finished my postdoc, the job market was pretty good. I was very fortunate in that I had this longer postdoc because I had a one year plus a three year fellowship, it was four years, so I went on the market after my third year with the idea that if I didn’t get a job then, I could always go on the market again the next year. So it was a very fortunate situation for me that the first year I applied, I only applied to the top jobs that I really, really wanted and could see how it worked, and then if I didn’t get them, I had another year to just broaden the search and look everywhere.
And at that point, I did want a job in academia. I wanted to continue the research. I had been able to even have some of my own projects, using funds as a junior fellow, so I had my own undergraduates that I hired for just my own direction of research, I had my own team that I directed, and I’d enjoyed that experience.
And so I just applied it to places that had really great condensed matter resources and faculty. I thought that if I didn’t get a job, then I would do something else, right? Or I’d apply next year. I really knew I wanted to do R1 research, and so if I couldn’t do R1 research, then I probably would have looked for an industry job or something else or maybe a labs job or something.
How did the Illinois opportunity come together for you?
So I got a few offers. There were some places that I considered seriously, that I really enjoyed visiting and had strong condensed matter programs. But at Illinois, there was just something a little bit different. When I went to Illinois, when I met faculty for my interview, it was less like they were interviewing me and more like we were planning for collaborations.
At least with two different people, we actually started outlining grants that we’d write together during my interview. It felt like a much more collaborative environment. I mean, a really friendly collaborative environment. It felt like it just clicked in a different way with an atmosphere where I thought that they really wanted me to be there because they wanted my skills scientifically and they just liked me. And I liked them.
And that combination was very powerful for me. In contrast, there was one place that had a strong program, but I did definitely get the feeling that they liked me and they wanted me, but they also just didn’t want to miss the opportunity of having a black female scientist in their department. And I get it, right? I’m on faculty committees now and I wouldn’t want to miss that opportunity either. But it felt like I kind of overlapped scientifically with other people that they had and they weren’t as invested in me as a scientist.
And at Illinois, I felt like they were fully invested in me as a scientist and even me as a person, and that was the environment that I wanted to work in. And it was true, and I felt like that since I came.
This message was coming from the department as a whole or there were a few faculty members who really represented that impetus?
From individual faculty. And I would say at least five different faculty. And again, I’m not saying other places were unfriendly, but that level of personal and scientific investment I felt from at least five or six different faculty members was unusual.
It made it a pretty easy decision for you, it sounds like.
Well, you know, we had to decide if we wanted to be in Urbana-Champaign and even that was an opportunity, so I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was clear at the end.
What were your impressions of both the department and the university once you got yourself situated?
The impression I had about them being invested in me I think was true. I did feel like they wanted me to succeed at what I did and they wanted to give me resources and collaborations and opportunities to help me succeed. I definitely felt that way. Even the university as a whole, I should say that since I’ve been here, I feel like even when I was in the younger, in the junior stages, they’ve tried to put me on committees and put me in positions where I could get to know the deans and the provosts and the presidents and people at different stages along the line, so I’ve definitely felt very connected to the different structures at the university.
You know, when I came, I started the job with a five month old. My husband at the time, he had two jobs and we had this five month old and I was trying to set up the lab and get tenure and then I had another kid in my third year. I’m saying that because it’s a little bit of a blur, the first six years.
I can relate. I know.
I was extremely focused on raising these very young kids and setting up the lab.
Yeah. And I guess Urbana-Champaign is probably a nice place to be able to do that.
It is. And also that mattered too, because I came for my second visit and I was seven months pregnant before I started and I was to come and look at lab setups and stuff and I actually felt like people were genuinely excited. It wasn’t like, “Oh my god, she’s pregnant. How is she going to do the work we need her here to do?” It was actually like, “Oh good, she’s going to stay here,” which is kinda how I feel now when I see people coming with young kids. I’m like, “Oh good, they’re going to stay here because they know that this is a good place to raise kids.”
So I definitely felt supported in that way, in the sense that they expected people to have family. After the fact, I realized that I was the first junior faculty woman in the physics department to have kids before tenure, which I didn’t know beforehand. That tells you how late things have changed. Since me, there have been multiple women who have had kids before tenure. I don’t think it’s me, I think the times have changed, but I was actually the first woman to have kids before tenure in physics at Illinois, which is interesting.
Yeah. Challenge accepted.
Yeah. So my impressions of the university, as you said, it was a little bit blurred by the fact that I was just really mono-focused for some number of years.
And that vibe that you initially got about how supportive the department was going to be about you, they came through in terms of resources for the lab and getting together everything that you needed?
Yes. I do feel like that.
Was this the first time that you were sort of charged with building a lab from scratch? Had you done that before?
I had not done that before, so it was my first time and it was a challenge. The thing is, I did defer, like I said, I deferred for a year because I could. And so I had extra time to set up the lab and to think about it, which was very nice. So it ended up being OK. Of course now, I would have set it up totally differently, but it worked OK.
So what worked and what would you do differently if you had a second chance for this?
Well, there’s a couple things. One is that I do low temperature physics and we have these big what we call dilution refrigerators that mix helium 3 and helium 4 to get things to very low temperatures, and they need—
So you’ve come back to helium 3 actually.
Helium 3, but these are commercial instruments. So exactly. At this point, they’re just commercial, you buy them, but you have to fill them with helium 4 at least to keep them cold, and helium 4 is expensive. If you run these things full-time, it’s 100,000, 150,000 a year to run them full-time with helium costs.
When I started, there were new technologies called dry dilution refrigerates, which recirculated the helium 4, but they cost twice as much and they were a new technology, so I opted not to invest in those. And about four years later, that’s all anybody bought. And so I definitely regret not waiting or investing in the newer technology ‘cause it’s taken me another maybe 15 years to get to the point where I have enough of the newer dry systems that I can retire the wet systems.
The other thing I did is I kind of compartmentalized the lab into different linear sections. I think now labs are really much more open—it’s like the open office concept has come to the laboratory. I think I would have done it in a much more open office concept with desks on one side and the opened spaces on the other, then everyone intermingled rather than private cubicles of lab.
Did you take on graduate students right away?
I did, yeah. I took on two graduate students even before I got there. They were there.
Oh, so you inherited them?
No, no, no. I arrived in June and they started in May or something like that. I hired them but they started—the minute I got there, they were there.
I’m curious how the experience of putting together a lab from scratch might have influenced the kinds of research questions that you were asking that sort of chicken and the egg relationship between your academic interests and the instrumentation and experimentation that’s available to you to carry out those questions?
These come hand in hand. I started out with three or four projects I knew I wanted to work on and I knew what equipment I could get to work on these problems. And so in that case, I recognize equipment as an essential part of the project. So you put together a list of what you want to buy, and you make sure that everything that you buy or what they have is part of what you can use to measure.
One of the key things is—because I do a lot of fabrication and materials characterization—it was important to me to go to a place that had strong materials characterization and fabrication facilities. And Illinois has really great facilities in all of these areas, in a space that’s just adjacent to my lab, in fact. Or in the same building. It was important that they also agreed to purchase, for the labs, a big electron beam writer to make better nanofab facilities devices.
I had to work with them to make sure that I could get the equipment needed for my projects. So I don’t really see it as a chicken and the egg, but rather as one chicken.
Nadya, who have been some of your most important collaborators in the field, both within the department and beyond the department over the years?
I’ve mostly had a lot of internal collaborators. We have really big departments here. I would say probably two stand out. One is my colleague Dale Van Harlingen. He was department head when I started. We have very complementary skills in superconductivity, so we’ve been writing collaborative grants for years. He’s one of the people who I wrote a collaborative grant with the first year that I arrived.
It’s interesting, we always wrote grants about sharing students. It turns out that we’re very bad about sharing students, but we’re very good about sharing concepts and ideas. And so just talking to Dale, he’s been sort of a private mentor to me. He was department head and I could ask him about all sorts of things as I started, plus he’s a research mentor, he’s extremely well-established in National Academy and things. He’s really an expert in this topic.
So working with him on superconductivity, thinking about his perspective on the different phases of superconductors, what sort of underlying physics is important, has been really impactful for me. It’s interesting ‘cause one of the stories I have from Dale is that I came up with a project that I’d been wanting to work on for a long time, which involved making these nanostructured arrays, and when I told him this, he said, “Oh, that’s been done. That’s an old project. It’s been done 30 years ago.”
And I had a really hard time—I never convinced him that it was an interesting project, but I pursued it anyway because it was something interesting to me. And then we got these really great results on it and so I was invited to give a talk in Illinois about this topic and I was going to say, “Dale told me not to do this, but I did it anyway,” but he introduced me and he said it himself. As he introduced me, he said, “You know, I told her not to do this ‘cause it wasn’t interesting and lo and behold, it was really interesting.” And so he’s been a great collaborator—but great collaborators are also fallible.
My other collaborator has been with a theorist in engineering department, Matthew Gilbert, and he does device theory, and he’s been really probably my strongest collaborator over the years in terms of grants and results—almost I would say 50 percent of the grants I’ve been on have been with him and probably some big fraction of the papers also. His group does quantum simulations of devices and device transport devices.
So that’s been really great because sometimes we’ll measure something, you know, you get these materials and you don’t quite know what you’re going to see. So you measure something like, graphene connected to superconductors or something and we’d get this oscillations and we’d have no idea—literally, this has happened—we have no idea what the oscillations are. We rule out every common behavior and every common phenomena that we know, and we still have these oscillations, so what are they?
So then we go to Matthew’s group and we just brainstorm, “What are these things?” And then his group can try to simulate them putting in different parameters and say, “OK, we think that if you have this effect, you can get these oscillations.” And we’d go back with the data and try to test it a little bit more and work with them very closely to try to get convergence between what they think it is and what it actually is. We can say, “OK, we’ve disproved this. What else could it be?” And we’ve managed to get a lot of really interesting results over the years from that.
Nadya, to bring the research chronology up to the present, what have you been working on in recent years?
So I’ve kept this combination of mesoscopic low dimensional materials with correlated materials. I still work on superconductors and now we’ve introduced more magnetic materials combined with interesting low dimensional materials like topological materials and nanowires and graphene and things like this. The question we ask is: what is the interplay between these materials? Some of these materials have unique properties, like you can use a gate to tune their carrier density, for example, or to even tune them in and out of more disorder or less disordered phases. In that case, the question is, what happens when you connect that to a superconductor? Can you now get a superconductor that could be tuned by a gate that could be more or less disordered that shows new ground states?
So we’ve been focusing mostly on that topic these days. We have a bunch of topics, that’s one main one.
It’s the one that sticks out in your mind.
In what ways did achieving tenure sort of free up the kinds of projects that you were able to work on, if at all? If that played a factor at all. Another way of asking that is did the security of tenure sort of allow you to be more adventurous with your research agenda?
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I mean the problem is—I think the answer is it didn’t and the reason for that is I never felt constricted, constrained by tenure. I’ve definitely felt constrained by grants. The research that we do takes a lot of money—it’s not just students, but it’s fabrication, it’s helium and it’s all these things. And the grants can be pretty specific. I mean you can get sometimes NSF and DOE grants which are broader, but then DOD grants tend to be very constrained on one thing.
And so I think I’ve definitely felt more constrained by what can I get funding for and what I can get papers on, rather than what I need to be safe for tenure.
What’s been more productive for you, NSF or DOE?
Both. They’re really equally productive. When I started, we had a big DOE grant, which was really a mainstay of our funding at Illinois condensed matter. That big grant went away, but then I got a three person grant that continued for years after that. So DOE’s been really strong supporting quantum materials, which is what I do, and they’ve been very open about wanting the best ideas in quantum materials.
NSF has been also great in other directions, so I have been able to expand in other directions. I got a grant from the NSF engineering directorate for a new area a few years ago. We were looking at strained 2D materials, and I had not done that before and they were able to fund me, even in their non-condensed matter directorate, to do something new. I also run a big center through the NSF right now, which is—I find—incredibly valuable for fundamental materials research. So NSF has definitely been a mainstay also.
Have you worked with foundations or other grant-giving organizations that want to support the kind of research you do?
Yeah. So the Moore Foundation funds quantum materials. I’m not currently funded, but it’s funding that I think is really valuable. I’ve talked to them and I’ve reviewed for them. I’d say Moore is probably the biggest one right now for quantum materials in terms of foundation.
I work with the Heising-Simons Foundation, but for something else. I have a Women in Physics grant through them that they gave me. The other big agency is the Department of Defense. For condensed matter, they fund a lot of fundamental research. They are a huge source of large materials research funds, and I’ve been making better inroads recently and getting some DOD funding, but that’s also very topically specific.
Because this research has military applications?
Not directly. The military cares about quantum materials because the military cares about materials. And so they have what they call six-zero research, which is fundamental research. Let’s take the example of topological materials, which are a new discovery in the past 10, 15 years. They’re materials with new functionalities. For example, currents can move without dissipation, and you can have new electromagnetic responses.
The military, in general, cares about lower power, lower weight, new electromagnetic responses, right? All of the things that we care about for fundamental reasons, they care about for military applications, not just for weapons, but even for shielding of things. For improved detection of radiation. So they will support fundamental research in new materials if they think that there are functionalities there that haven’t been explored. It’s a big source of funding in condensed matter.
Now I know for you with the research, the science is always first, but I’m curious if you’ve ever explored patenting any of your research or looking into the commercial viability of any of the things that you’ve been working on?
I haven’t personally for any of my research. I’ve worked with people who have patented some of their ideas, but I haven’t. I would definitely do that if I thought there was something that could be made into a useful device, that’s something I might be interested in doing, but I haven’t done it so far.
Nadya, I want to ask you about one aspect of your career we haven’t talked about yet is your achievements in teaching—both undergraduates and as a mentor to graduate students. And so first with undergraduate students—and particularly come from elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford—obviously the University of Illinois is going to have a much broader range of students in terms of aptitude, right? I would assume that some of the most talented undergraduates at Illinois could hold their own anywhere else, and on the other end there are people that probably are much less prepared who wouldn’t fit in in a place like Harvard and Stanford.
And so I wonder in terms of teaching undergraduates, in what ways does that range present challenges and in what ways does that range present opportunities as a undergraduate professor?
Yeah. I guess one of the things that I would say is Harvard and Stanford students present very well, but I think there’s a wider range than people expect. And one of the problems I found when I was an undergraduate there is I remember I was taking an undergraduate statistical physics class, the professor came in and said, “You guys are too smart to have to use this textbook. I’m just going to teach you what I feel like teaching you.” And so no one in the class learned anything. Rather than starting from the beginning, he just assumed everyone knew everything and then didn’t teach anything. At Illinois, that would never fly. You just couldn’t get away with that.
So you think that these distinctions are overblown, actually?
I do. I really do. I think that good teaching is good teaching. I think that most of the understanding comes when students learn on their own, right? They have to learn on their own, but you can help them along by providing resources, by providing some hands-on experience, and at least explaining once or twice so that they get the context of what’s going on until they can get that ah-ha moment of, “This clicks, I get it.” And I think that’s pretty universal wherever you are.
One quantitative difference though of course is that Illinois is just a much bigger place and there’s an opportunity to positively impact just a far greater number of students than at smaller places like a Stanford.
Sure, and I actually really value that. I very much value the fact that Illinois is a public institution and that people are coming from all different backgrounds from all around the state and from all around the world and don’t either have to go through the Harvard admissions process, for example. There’s greater opportunity here. And don’t have to pay the tuition fees, in some sense. So yes, I value being able to teach a much broader section of society here than at private institutions.
But yeah, in terms of the pedagogy, I think that it’s pretty similar. One of the things I try to do is to not assume that people know things. To make sure that I step through the information in a way that people can follow, and as I said, that gives context for them to go back and have that ah-ha moment themselves.
Our big undergraduate classes are huge. We have a thousand people in our undergraduate E&M class, it’s for majors and all engineers and everyone. These are largely designed by our physics education group who does their best to make it feel like a smaller class. I’ve lectured these big classes, but in addition to the lectures, they have small recitation sections, small lab sections. There’s one on one, effectively, tutoring every week and homework sessions and rooms they can go to to meet with teaching assistants and faculty every week to ask questions.
And so despite the fact the lecture is relatively large, there’s a lot of opportunity for one on one meetings with all the students, which I think is what’s most valuable for them.
It must be difficult with all of those students to make yourself as accessible as you want to be for all those students.
Sure, but not all of them come to office hours. In some sense, they’re much better off with a TA. Again, lecturing is a tricky thing. How much do people really learn from lectures and what is the role of lectures? You can argue that maybe the role of lectures is to excite and interest people and motivate them to go further. So when I lecture, I try to make it clear because it’s a terrible lecture if it’s not clear. Exciting because I usually care about the stuff that I’m doing, and interesting through demonstrating things, through proving what it’s relevant to, to making a connection to the students.
If you can make a talk clear, interesting, and exciting, then I think—and by a talk, I mean a lecture is a talk of some sort—if you can do that, then I think that’s enough to get them on the process of where they need to learn the material.
What are some of your favorite courses to teach undergraduates?
I’ve mostly taught electromagnetism. I feel like a one note wonder here ‘cause this is what I do for my research and I also what I like to teach. I really love teaching both freshman and upperclassman electromagnetism. I love both courses, especially the freshman one because in that one course, you can explain so much of the technology that students interact with, right? So you can explain credit cards, you can explain motors, you can explain power generators, you can explain electrical circuits, you can explain touch phones. All of this technology which seems like a mystery, you can really get very close to a full understanding of just through one introductory E&M class. And so I really enjoy that for that reason.
The upper level E&M class I enjoy just because I never really understood it as an undergraduate, and then when I taught it, it just became so clear and interesting. So that’s for a different reason.
Now on the graduate side, I don’t know if you would be hesitant naming some of your most successful graduate students out of fear of leaving someone off the list, but perhaps a better way to ask the question is maybe if you could talk about some of the shared characteristics that your most successful graduate students have, no matter their background or their aptitude or their personality. What are some things that all successful graduate students in physics exhibit?
To me it’s more important that they’re really interested in the physics. But when we say successful, there’s lots of different ways to be successful, right?
So maybe I want to revise this question because when I say they’re really interested in the physics, this is for students who want to do academic research or research in some way. And again, by interested in the physics, I mean that they see a problem and they want to understand it more. That’s it, right? If you see a problem, you want to understand it more. I’m assuming everyone who gets in has the physical capabilities of doing the work. So all that’s really required is the mental focus and the desire to learn and to do more. To think about what’s going on as you go through it and to think about how to improve it, about the physics behind it. If students can do that, then they can be extremely successful in research and I definitely find that in the successful students who want to go on in academia.
Now I’ve had students who clearly didn’t care as much about thinking about the physics, but really enjoyed making devices, and those students went on to work for device companies. I have a student who’s very successful making equipment for quantum testing of things, several students who do that.
So it really depends. I have a student who went on into medical physics because she just, you know, she cared more about sort of understanding things that were known than about discovering new things, if that makes sense. So I think of all of them as successes, actually. I think there’s much more understanding these days that academia is not the only success in physics, even with a PhD.
The only student I had who had to leave, who didn’t pass his qualifying exam and ended up leaving without a PhD, is someone who just didn’t care at all about the physics, and he admitted it. He said he just liked working with his hands, but he didn’t want to study for the qual ‘cause it wasn’t interesting to him. And that’s a student who it was a good thing that he left after two or three years because why get a PhD if you’re not interested in the science?
And obviously this is a person who was not well-advised going into a graduate program.
Yeah. He was good at it and he just thought he’d continue.
I want to ask you—for the last portion of our talk—a few sort of broadly retrospective questions and then a forward-facing question. So first, obviously physicists have very long careers and you’re young in the field, right? And so are you comfortable looking back at your career and thinking about contributions that you’ve made? Or is that something that you prefer to preserve as a sort of, “Well, let’s see where all of this is.” In other words, are there aspects of your research agenda that are sort of book-ended and you can look at them as defined contributions and you’ve move on to other things? Or is it still like sort of part of a bigger narrative that’s unfolding for you?
I guess I think of it as part of a bigger narrative, and I am comfortable looking back and saying that there were steps along the way that opened up new areas for other people. One of these was this dissipation work and the superconductor insulators transition. And then we also—this is something that I then worked on as faculty—we made strides in developing a new system to study that transition, that many, many people use now. So these are things I can say, “Yes, these have been influential in their field.”
We discovered a new mesoscopic behavior that ended up being—that predated these Majorana modes and topological materials, but led to the understanding of what these Majorana modes were. I could say yeah, this was influential too. So I can stop and say that there are influential things in the field, but I don’t feel like anything there has closed off. There’s still open questions in many of these topics that we actually continue to work on in different directions.
Condensed matter, a broad historical question is that earlier on, obviously before your time, condensed matter or solid state was looked down upon by theoretical physics and things like that. And I remember Bert Halperin, he shared with me that it was even called like schmutz physics at Harvard, right? And there’s different ways to historicize this, but obviously condensed matter not only became accepted, but it became something that was some of the most important and exciting area in physics.
And so I’m curious, within that broad narrative, where do you situate your own career in terms of that trajectory of where condensed matter was and where it is today?
I think that by the time I started, which was the mid-90s really, condensed matter was pretty highly thought about. I mean this is, again, this is 10 years after the advent of high temperature superconductors, which many people agree was really game-changing for all of physics because it showed a totally not predicted, not understood phenomena that could have some use to it.
So after that discovery—plus a couple other things like the Quantum Hall Effect, you mentioned Bert Halperin—things that were not predicted, not understood that occurred in condensed matter systems—those helped prove that condensed matter could lead to new phenomena. And yes, it’s schmutz because it involved disorder. On the other hand, it was really beautiful. Some of it could be described by beautiful theories, which the theorists liked, and were new.
And I think in other fields—especially those that required high-energy super-colliders—it became harder to find new things. Suddenly more and more new phenomena were appearing in condensed matter and I think this really did happen in the early 90s. I think that the field started transforming because if you’re going to go into physics, you should look at the new things, right? That’s what’s exciting about it, what’s unknown. It’s a discovery process and there are new things in condensed matter.
So, that’s biased on my part, but I do think that that’s how I felt about it and I felt like that was kind of the culture when I’ve been in the field.
So in situating this narrative by the mid 1990s, there’s this transition or turning point that’s pretty well-established, who are the people in your mind who were really the drivers of this broader acceptance in physics? Who are those people that really stand out in your mind?
The acceptance of condensed matter?
Yeah. The people that did the research to make this what it is today.
I don’t know. This is hard for me, this is hard to come up with names [laughs]
You get a pass on that one. That’s fine.
OK. Yeah. Let’s pass on that one.
OK, no problem. The last retrospective question I want to ask—and it’s sort of to bring it up to the present, of course—is we’re only a month and a few short days beyond hash tag shut down STEM and all the things that that represents, and at AIP, I’m very proud to be a member of an organization that’s really been on the front lines with the Team Up report and working on inclusivity and diversity issues. And I think one of the big takeaways of that day is that if it’s just a day on the calendar where people sort of took a break and then it’s back to normal, everybody just missed the point, right?
And so I want to ask you, first, there’s the identity that you have about yourself and there’s the identity of the outside of just people looking at you and assuming whatever it is that you’re assuming. So I want to get your perspective in terms of why, in 2020, we needed to have a day like that? And what kind of reckoning that should mean for the field and how we might use that reckoning to move forward in as productive and positive a way possible where it’s not just like another seminar on sensitivity. Where we’re talking about implementing real, durable change. I’d like to hear your perspective on that.
Yeah, sure. Thank you for asking that. Of course as you know the ShutDownSTEM came in the national context of the killing of George Floyd, of the black birding incident in New York city where a white woman called the cops on a black man who was birding. And Breonna Taylor and others – there’s more people of course who come into this.
Unfortunately the list goes on and on and on, there’s no shortage.
Yeah. The list goes on and on, but these two, to me, these came on the same day or the same week and they were really the immediate catalysts where it became undeniable to many people that, for one, many white people in this country were explicitly using their power racially at the expense of black people. And two, that the killing of black people had become something that was so—not just prevalent, but that was so reckless. That was recklessly prevalent that it was, again undeniable at that point.
Before, everyone could say that blacks were harmed for this reason or that. But these two events when they combine become this undeniable recognition that there is explicit racism harming black people in society and it was pervasive and it is pervasive. So when you come to that realization culturally in the country that racism is pervasive, then it’s no longer possible to exclude one field or another. And within academia and within physics, we still have people saying, “I’m not racist. I don’t do anything.” But that’s become harder to say.
You know, for many years the line has been: physics is physics, it’s not about culture. We’re not keeping people out. We welcome people, we want them to be in the field, but they have to reach some standard, they have to do something. But now I think that even within physics, there’s some recognition that even by not doing anything, we’re not doing all that we can. And that the implicit racism and explicit racism within our society and within physics is harming people and harming us and keeping us—people of color—out.
So I think that that’s the context in which shut down STEM happened, that people in physics are starting to recognize that they are part of society, that we have individual responsibility to be anti-racist and that being anti-racist is an active thing. And shut down STEM is supposed to be part of that recognition.
So I think it was important and the timing is important. I’m sorry, I can’t remember the rest of your question.
Well the importance is what’s the difference—where does the lip service stop and the real change begin?
So, this has been a little mystifying to me because I think things like shut down STEM have already made an important point. When people ask me about it, I keep emphasizing—as I heard you emphasize—the individual responsibility part. Shut down STEM was supposed to be a moment where people self-reflect and think about their own attitudes, their own actions, and how to be more active in terms of really reaching out to others, in terms of welcoming, in terms of stopping micro aggressions, in terms of changing culture, in terms of changing assumptions.
The challenge is that people don’t take individual responsibility seriously. I can tell you that when the ShutDownSTEM was announced, I got a phone call from a well-known faculty at a top ranked physics—maybe the top ranked physics department in the country, tenured, famous—who called me and said, “OK, Nadya, we want you to talk to our graduate students on this day, on the ShutDownSTEM day.” And I said, “Actually, the purpose of the day is so that the black people who have been talking the whole time don’t have to continue lecturing to others. You guys need to self-reflect and educate yourselves.” And he said, “But I don’t know where to start. I don’t know anything about this. What do I do?” And I said, “Well, there are links. Use them.”
And he seemed really flustered and really upset and just basically said, again, “I don’t know anything about this. I don’t know what to do.” And so it’s mystifying to me how people who are in physics, where we educate ourselves about everything, where we do research and think for ourselves, and yet when it comes being anti-racist and making a better society, suddenly physicists are finding it difficult to think for themselves.
And that’s a cultural shift that has to happen. Physicists have to take it upon themselves. Everyone should take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Read the resources, think about how you think, what actions you can take. And that cultural shift is challenging, honestly. Taking that time and making it a priority is a challenge. So when that will happen, I can’t say. I think it’s something that you have to keep pressure on and you have to keep peer pressure on, but it has to be accepted within the culture of physics that time will be taken out for this, that we have to change the way we do things.
Do you ever feel competing impulses, like on the one hand, you just want to do the science and not like have to have all of this on your shoulders, and on other days where like you really want to be active and be out in front and be involved on social media, do you feel those competing impulses or do you try to integrate all of these things into sorta one career framework?
I will say that it’s not competing in the sense that I separate it from my view of myself. I see myself as an African American physicist. And I’ll give you a story: I was with someone once, a white male faculty member, very senior, and I was complaining about the DOD being an old boys’ club, a white male club—and he said, “Come on, you’re part of the old boys’ club. For all practical purposes, you’re a white male.”
And it was very upsetting to me because in order for him to think of me as accepted within the field, that he’d think of me—
Did he mean that as a compliment, do you think?
He did. What he wanted to say is, “You are accepted.” He meant to say, “You’re part of the club.” But to be part of the club, you have to be a white male, right? [Laughs] And so these are these pervasive attitudes that I’m confronted with all the time. I don’t think of myself as a white male. I think of myself as a black female in physics.
And so as a black female in physics, I care about giving back. I actually really care and I consider it part of my mission and when I think back on what I’ve done, it’s part of what my goals and achievements are, not just research, but trying to make sure that others behind me have had some of the same opportunities or even more opportunities than I had. Trying to see what I can do to make the field more inclusive, to change attitudes, to help other people who might need it to improve physics as a whole and improve the environment and improve society by giving people these opportunities.
So, for me, giving talks, mentoring people, hiring people, lending my voice is part of my job as a physicist. It’s an important part of what I do and it’s an important thing that motivates me. And I said that in the beginning, when I considered going into physics, this was a motivator for sure. And so I’ve taken that as an important part of my mission.
It has been hard to balance both of these things sometimes. I did recognize of course before tenure, you get tenure on research. That’s it. And if you want to do research, it has to be pretty all-encompassing. So I’ve definitely felt like in some years, that’s really the all-encompassing things and then I should have said—when you said after tenure did I feel more freed up—after tenure, I definitely felt more freed up to do more work toward inclusivity than I had before.
That is one big change. And also to do more leadership things after tenure, not in terms of research, but in terms of other work. I would say these days, the hardest thing is just feeling a little exhausted with everything. There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of—you know, it’s exhausting being confronted with racism, with aggressions, macro or micro, with the needs of society to change and the realization that people have a hard time without help. And that they want my help and I want to give my help because I think it’s important, but I also need to balance that against the other activities and other things in my life and it’s tiring because at this point, many of us have been doing it for many years.
I’ve been in this field—I started this as a grad student. It’s been 20 years already. So anyway, to answer your question, for me it’s not really a question of balance, but it’s really a problem with containing the whole while making sure that I stay focused on the things that are important to me and have time to do them.
I want to ask you about your identity. You’ve said repeatedly you consider yourself a black physicist, and a quote that jumps out at me—I don’t even remember when he said it—but I remember once someone asked President Obama, “Your mom is white and your dad is from Kenya and so why do you call yourself an African American?” I don’t remember the tone of the question, if it was an attack question or it was a supportive question, whatever it was, but I remember so clearly he said, “You know, when I try to hail a cab in midtown Manhattan during rush hour, I know exactly who I am.”
And so I want to ask you how do you balance the—in terms of establishing your identity, how important is it to allow outside perceptions of appearance dictate internal expressions of your identity and how you present yourself
I agree with Obama on this. In this society, outside perceptions of appearance determine how people treat you. It’s not like I’m wearing a physicist’s tattoo or “I went to Harvard,” or something like that as I walk down the street, I am a black female in this society. And I grew up in America. It’s not that I grew up in another country and then came here with different cultural attitudes. I was born in America, I’ve lived my whole life here. My mom was born here and my dad. They lived their lives here. I’m ingrained within American culture, as a black person in American culture.
So unfortunately within America—this is the sad part of our society—the way that I’m perceived is the way that I’m treated, right? At least for first impressions, first assumptions and other things. So my race is not a distinction that I have to think too hard about.
It’s made for you, you’re saying.
It’s made for me. Now, when you say, “What does it mean to be black in America?” I’m not saying that there’s some hegemonic view that if someone perceives you as black, then your entire personality is driven by that. Of course everyone has their individuality, just like you have individuality as a white male, which is how you are perceived. It’s not that you can change it around and say, “Well, I’m not really a white male because I care about these things,” that doesn’t matter, right? That’s what you are within the society and then you live your life in that context. And I understand my life and my individuality within that context.
Let’s end our talk on far happier stuff. The research. So going forward, there’s obviously so much for you to accomplish. There’s so much time, there’s so much science, there’s so much discovery, there’s so much opportunity, but there’s still limits in terms of time and resources and particularly on the exhaustion level of dealing with everything, right?
So I want to ask you both in the near term and the longer term to the extent that you think so strategically in terms of decades if that’s even possible in your field, what are the things that excite you most in terms of what’s on the cusp of discovery in the near term that you can sort of feel that’s like it’s on its way, and what are some of the longer term goals about things that are mysterious or not really well understood, but because of all of the opportunities with increasing technology, all of the resources that will be poured into these projects because of ongoing government and industrial support, long-term, where do you think the field can go that will make what’s happening today seem really basic relative to like 20 or 30 years from now?
So as I said, I work at this intersection of correlated materials plus new materials and mesoscopic devices, and I think that what’s really exciting right now is that we are just beginning to make progress in coupling to new material discoveries, things like 2D materials and topologic materials were discovered in the past 10 years or so. Combining those with superconductors and magnets and even with each other to see new behaviors is something that’s just really starting, that we’re researching in my lab also.
And so I think that for me, for example, we’re working a lot on combining topological materials with magnetic materials, which can create new sorts of devices where you can control electric fields with magnetic fields and vice versa, but not in the usual way of circulating fields, but for fields in the same direction, which is something completely new in physics. And so the near term results could be really exciting in terms of new types of switches and new types of sensors that didn’t exist before, and also just understanding the new physics of it.
Long-term, you know, I hate to revert to a lot of the machine learning and computer science and stuff—and I know people have been talking about materials discovery by machine learning and stuff and whatever for a long time—but I think we really are on the cusp of being able to categorize and understand many, many, many new classes of materials’ behaviors. And this is really due to some advances in both materials, computers, and analytical understanding of how to characterize materials by their symmetries and not just their crystal properties.
So the symmetries of material tell you, you know, if you look at the excitations, are they mirror symmetric? Are they totally isotropic? If you go one way, is it the same as going the other direction? So characterizing things by symmetries is newly relevant in terms of understanding their functional behavior and by functional I mean electric properties, magnetic properties, piezoelectric properties.
And I think combining that with new advances in growing materials and machine learning can lead to entire classes of materials that maybe even exist already, but that we didn’t know have interesting properties and how to access them and I think on the horizon, we’ll suddenly see—I think that the newest and most exciting materials will start popping out at faster and faster rates in the next 10, 20 years, let’s say. How’s that?
Something to be excited for.
Nadya, it’s been so fun talking with you. You gave really important and sharp and insightful answers on so many topics that—so it’s really just going to be so important to include in the historical record, so I’m so glad that we connected and I really appreciate the time you spent with me.
Well, thank you. It’s been a good discussion. I feel like it’s been all over the place and there’s things that I missed or didn’t say, but I’ve definitely talked enough.
Not at all.