Marta Dark McNeese

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Jeanette Lewis, Spelman College Department of Physics

Interviewed by
Joanna Behrman
Interview date
Location
Atlanta, Georgia
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Interview of Marta Dark McNeese by Joanna Behrman on March 3, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45108

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In this interview, Joanna Behrman, Assistant Public Historian for AIP, interviews Marta Dark McNeese, Associate Professor of Physics at Spelman College. McNeese recounts her childhood in Maryland and early interest in science. She describes her decision to attend the University of Virginia and to major in physics. McNeese discusses the climate she experienced during graduate school at MIT and her support network. She further elaborates on her graduate research with Michael Feld on the ablation of biological materials by lasers. She describes work as a postdoc at the Naval Research Lab and how she was drawn to join Spelman College. McNeese recounts how Etta Falconer was instrumental in growing the physics department at Spelman. McNeese discusses mentoring students at the undergraduate level and the importance of women’s colleges and HBCUs. At the end of the interview, she describes the development of her research in biophysics and her involvement with APS and NSBP.

Transcript

Behrman:

It’s Tuesday, March 3 of 2020. My name is Joanna Behrman, and I’m in Dr. Marta Dark McNeese’s office in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Maybe we could start with your childhood. Could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

McNeese:

In the early years, we did move around a little bit, as my parents were pretty young. I lived in Chicago, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, all up until 1st grade, and then we moved to Maryland. And so, from 2nd grade until high school, and then going into college, I lived in Maryland in Prince George’s County, so I’m not very far from where the American Center for Physics building is. And I consider Maryland to be my home.

Behrman:

Do you have any siblings?

McNeese:

I have one brother. He is an emergency medicine doctor. He’s younger by about eight years, and so we both grew up, I think, liking science, although different fields. He was into biology, and I, of course, was more into physical science.

Behrman:

How early did you know that you were into physical sciences?

McNeese:

I would say — that’s a good question. Definitely by middle school, for sure. I do remember my middle-school teacher, Mrs. Goodwin. I was at Martin Luther King Middle School, which is in Beltsville, Maryland. And she was my physical science teacher in 7th grade. I remember her giving me some of the toys and demonstration type material that she had, in particular, I especially remember magnets and iron filings. And that was the coolest thing in the world to play with those. And I don’t remember her necessarily giving that to anyone else. So, maybe she noticed something in me in terms of my interests. Earlier than that, I was definitely into astronomy, and I would say around the same time, I pestered my parents into giving me a telescope for Christmas, so that might have been around 11 or so. But definitely, I was into physical sciences and astronomy probably from elementary school. I know we wrote some sort of book, maybe in 3rd grade, which we had to illustrate ourselves, and mine was The ABC’s of Space. And I may still have it somewhere in my house. Yeah.

Behrman:

Since you lived in Prince George’s County, you grew up actually pretty close to NASA as well. Did you take advantage of any of the museums, then, in the D.C. area?

McNeese:

Definitely the Smithsonian, and we would go to Air and Space every now and then. The Natural History Museum — definitely their crystals and geology collection was one of my favorites to visit. In terms of NASA, oddly enough, I never went there until I was in high school. Our AP physics teacher took us there on a field trip, so that was one of — I think the only time, maybe, I’ve been to Goddard. And so that was definitely exciting, although we really didn’t do much besides just a very general tour and see what was happening. I think that would be the main thing. We would visit, like I said, the Smithsonian, some of the nature centers quite a bit with Girl Scouts, but not NASA. I had been to the Kennedy Space Center on a visit. We were in Florida for vacation, so of course, we went there, and we’ve been to Huntsville for Space Camp. My brother actually went to Space Camp, so I would have been probably in high school at that point. So, that was pretty cool.

Behrman:

What did your parents do when you were growing up?

McNeese:

My mother is a nurse by training, so she’s worked in the hospital as well as— as a homecare visiting nurse. My father’s background is applied mathematics, so he worked for a company called Singer, and then Link, and they would make simulators for the Navy, for training for submarines. So, he worked with the software for those simulators. So definitely, both of my parents have somewhat of a science leaning. I’m old enough to remember punch cards. My father would bring those home from work, and for some reason, you know, I would play with them — counting them, things like that. But yeah, I remember punch cards. [laughs]

Behrman:

It sounds like they encouraged your interest in science, both you and your brother’s.

McNeese:

Definitely, they did. If I would take things apart or ask for tools, they would not have a big problem with it as long as I would put it back together. Again, the telescope, and they would buy me little kits, microscope kits, things like that. So definitely, they would encourage me there. I do remember at some point in high school, I was interested in going to school for fashion, so that’s where my father did discourage me [laughs] a little bit, since I didn’t necessarily show much experience with sewing or designing. Although, I think I’m a decent person in terms of drawing.

Behrman:

Did you expect, from an early age, to go to college?

McNeese:

I think so. Both of my parents are college graduates. My father certainly is first-generation college graduate. My mother, in terms of her immediate family, I think she’s also a first-generation college graduate. So yes, it was expected. And then when I had my first job in high school, working fast food, certainly I knew that was not something I wanted to continue with, so I knew I would have to go to college. So, I would say yes, that was certainly something expected.

Behrman:

How did you decide to go to the University of Virginia?

McNeese:

I had actually [laughs] — I wanted to be in a school that was in the Atlantic Coast Conference. So, Maryland of course was just down the street, and it was a little bit too close. I definitely — college basketball was a bit of an interest of mine. My family is from North Carolina, so you have Duke, and you have UNC, and Wake Forest there. And I think once I narrowed it down and visited, UVA was perfect in that it was beautiful. It’s a beautiful campus. It was close enough to home that I could get home without too much trouble, but not so close that I would see my parents every day. And when I visited, it was the perfect place. It felt like, this is the place to be. I wanted to also go somewhere that was a large enough campus where you’d have the chance to do whatever you wanted and get involved in any activities and have different experiences. So, that was important to me. And I also ended up receiving a scholarship, so that certainly didn’t hurt.

Behrman:

[laughs] Of course not. At what point did you decide to major in the physical sciences?

McNeese:

I think when I applied to UVA, I applied to their School of Engineering initially, and then at some point, I became a little insecure about: would I get in or not? So, at some point during the application process, I said, “Put me into the College of Arts and Sciences,” and I was thinking about astronomy originally, because that was something I had been interested in forever. But I switched to physics my first year because — I think it was our Astronomy 101 — or I don’t know the sequences now — but the introductory astronomy course, the instructor was talking about quantum effects, neutron degeneracies. It was a bit much for a first-year student, so I decided to minor, and then stick with physics, because I had taken AP physics. I was comfortable in physics. I liked it. And so, I stuck with it and just did the astronomy minor. So, yeah. Who knows? If there had been a different professor, I may have gotten the astronomy major.

Behrman:

What was it about engineering that made you nervous about getting in?

McNeese:

I think it was more, again, just insecurity with myself. Also, the reputation that getting into the College of Engineering was tougher, and I know at some point my guidance counselor, in talking with her about my choices, I had applied to Northwestern, I had applied to Princeton, I applied to Maryland, and I applied to UVA and also Spelman. And so, I remember having a conversation with her about those choices, and I remember her saying I might need to lower my expectations, because I was shooting too high in terms of the schools I was applying to. And although — I also remember thinking to myself: well, I’m never going to come and talk to you again. I wonder if maybe that played a role, too, in those months where — again, I applied to the most difficult school to get into, and in order to help my chances — since they also made it sound like, since you’re from out of state, it’s going to be super tough to get into. But at the same time, I was a pretty good student. I was coming from Eleanor Roosevelt, which had a great reputation. So, I think it was just general insecurity and not necessarily having a lot of support amongst the school. My teachers were great, but to have the guidance counselor say that probably influenced me a little bit. I did get into Princeton, by the way. Yes. [laughs]

Behrman:

[laughs] Congratulations. It’s interesting that you applied to Spelman, and you now work here as well. Have you ever thought about: what if you had gone to Spelman instead?

McNeese:

One of the reasons I didn’t go to Spelman was because at the time, they didn’t have a physics department. So, at that point, I knew that I would have to take the majority of my courses at Morehouse, and so that was a big reason for not wanting to come here. I have a cousin who’s an alumna, so I’d heard of it, and it seemed like a great place. But I didn’t want to do the major elsewhere.

Behrman:

I see.

McNeese:

Yeah. That was, I think, the main factor, plus it seemed kind of far away at the time.

Behrman:

And it’s not in the Atlantic —

McNeese:

It is not in the ACC. That is correct. Yes. That is true.

Behrman:

Were there any of your undergraduate teachers that really made an impression on you?

McNeese:

Bascom Deaver. He was the person who taught, I think, Physics I. He was also my academic advisor, and he was pretty nice. I mean, when I came in, I don’t think there were a lot of female students. There certainly were no black ones in physics. So, he just seemed to treat me like any other student. He was pleasant. And so, I think of him in that way. You know, he just saw me as another major. He didn’t try to dissuade me. And I ended up doing fine in Physics I. So, he would be one. Also — and I can’t remember her name, but she was a graduate student who worked for Steve Schnatterly. I can’t remember her name, but she worked with me my senior year on a project, and I got to go to NIST.

We did some experiments on these coatings for ultraviolet detection. And she was probably the first female kind of role model in physics that I had ever seen, besides my high school teacher. So, I think she was very helpful in seeing a working graduate student. Or, she may have been a postdoc. But just in seeing a working physicist who was also a woman, I think that was helpful to see. And then Louis Bloomfield. He was my quantum teacher, and he was just so excited about the topic, and we all really liked him. And as you know, he teaches a How Things Work course, or he used to. So that enthusiasm really influenced all of us. By that point, there were probably 10 physics majors, so it was a very small kind of situation, which was nice. We were, for the most part, pretty close, and studying and working together, as students. So, I think it was a good atmosphere, a good community.

Behrman:

Did you have a study group that you worked with?

McNeese:

There were a few students that I worked with, so again, it was very small, but we would study together. Kevin Edwards, Teresa Rivellino, who I believe is a physics teacher now in Pennsylvania. I’m not sure if it’s a private school or public school. But I keep in touch with her a little bit. So yeah, there were a few of us who would work together and study.

Behrman:

Who would you say was in your support network in college?

McNeese:

My college roommate, although she was not a physicist. She was a double major in French and Spanish, so she was — we were roommates for basically all four years. She was a good support system, and still is. You know, we’re still good friends. College, honestly, to me it wasn’t that stressful. I mean, my second year, I had a kind of bad roommate situation, so that was the most stress. Academically, it wasn’t too bad at all. By the time I got to my senior year, I was able to take a somewhat light load that spring, which includes condensed matter, which was a graduate course. So, that was really the only stressor. So for me, college was — when I think back on it, I did some fun things. They had a new radio station, so I worked as a volunteer DJ. And college, to me, wasn’t quite so stressful. That would be graduate school. But for college, probably — just my friends who weren’t necessarily in physics. Teresa, who was in physics, and my mother, I think. We, of course, as teenagers do, have it a little bit tough, but I think by the end of my first year, I was like: wow, you’re not so bad. So, that was a good thing. [laughs]

Behrman:

At what point did you decide you wanted to make a career out of physics?

McNeese:

That’s a good question, because again, when I graduated, early ’90s, I believe there was a recession. So, coming out of UVA, it seemed like graduate school was the natural thing to do. The job market maybe wasn’t the best, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do at that point. So for me, going to graduate school was just a way to maybe not quite make that decision. And I did really like physics, and at that point, I had done an REU at Lehigh University, and it was in laser applications. So, I really enjoyed that, and I thought: let me find something to do that has to do with lasers.

Behrman:

Were you already, then, thinking of a physics career as being research oriented?

McNeese:

I think so. I definitely think so, because at that point, I had done, like I said, a couple of REUs. After my senior year, I did an internship with IBM. So, I was looking into research. Now, whether it would be more academic versus more industrial, I guess at that point, I wasn’t sure.

Behrman:

So then, perhaps this is a natural transition to what sounds like the tougher part of your life: graduate school. [laughs]

McNeese:

Yes. [laughs] Oh, boy. Yes. So, MIT — again, everybody hears about it, so it’s this great place. If you can make it there, you’re really at a top place for research. And one of my inspirations was Ron McNair, and so he went there. I know he worked with lasers. And so, in a sense, I wonder if that was how I was introduced to it, in a way. And so, I applied. I really didn’t think I would get in, but I did. So of course, I wasn’t going to say no.

Behrman:

Were there other graduate schools that you had applied to?

McNeese:

Let me think. I did apply to Lehigh. Actually, they offered a graduate slot there, since I did the REU. I think I applied to Yale. I did not get in. I can’t think. Maryland, maybe? But again, MIT was really the place. So, I got in. I didn’t even visit it. I just went. I think actually, I visited after I was accepted, and after I said, “Yes, I’m going to come.” So, we probably went up there the summer after I graduated from college. Now, had I seen that first, who knows what my decision would have been, because [laughs] when I was visiting, there was a person who was fleeing the campus police on foot through the infinite corridor, so we literally saw the foot chase. And you know, you’re thinking: what an interesting place. And, I’ve agreed to do this. And then, Gillian Reynolds, who graduated from there also in physics — I met her. She handed me a stack of diagnostic exams, because they used to do that when you would come in. Take the diagnostics. See where your weaknesses were. Take those courses. She handed me a stack about an inch thick and kind of ran back off to her lab. So, it was that introduction to like, whoa. This place is a little strange, but okay, let’s see what happens. [laughs] Yeah.

And you could just tell, again, Gillian was probably pretty stressed out at that time. And then I learned, yeah, it can be a stressful place. So, I packed my stuff in a couple boxes, shipped a couple boxes, and I took the train up there with some suitcases, and that was that. Yeah. And I think my first winter, I was in Tang Hall, which is all the way — you know, the far end of the campus, along the river. I think there was a huge storm in that first winter, where you literally could not get out of the building, because it was about two to three feet of snow. And I just remember this feeling of being in my dorm room, by myself, working on these almost impossible problem sets. And that first semester was tough. It was really tough. So, yeah. [laughs] I didn’t have the study group that I had at UVA. I think that incoming class for physics might have been about 80 graduate students, and I think there were only four women.

Yeah. So, it was different. People weren’t the most friendly, but I found support in — there were two African American women who were there ahead of me. There was an Italian woman, Caterina Riconda, who was in the class with me, and Shep Doleman, who was a graduate student a few years ahead of me. And we ended up in the same office, because it was sort of an office for students who didn’t quite have an advisor at that point, or a lab. And he was really cool. So, I have to say, it was nice to see the success he has had with his research [laughs] on black holes. That’s what’s really cool, because he’s — again, he was a great guy, and a lot of people just — it could be a cold place. Not just temperature-wise, but in terms of the people. And there was some feeling that — well, I was told I was there to satisfy a quota by at least one other graduate student. I remember him saying something to that effect, and I remember thinking: I took the same exams you took, but okay. Yeah, okay. So, some people felt comfortable saying things like that. So yeah, it was tough at first. My second year, two people came in. Sandra Brown, she was from Jamaica. And we still text every day. She’s one of my very best friends. And Ibo Matthews, who is now out at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. He started in physics, and then there was a woman, Tica Valdes. She ended up leaving physics and, I think, doing a master’s in nuclear engineering. But the four of us became a tight group of support, I think. And even though I wasn’t necessarily in classes with them, it was like: well, at least I found some people. So, that helped quite a bit. But yeah, it was a tough place. It was a tough place. As I joined Michael Feld’s lab, then of course, made connections that way. That certainly helped a bit. [laughs] Yes.

Behrman:

How did you decide to work with Michael Feld?

McNeese:

Well, of course, lasers. You know? That was his research area. I did have — I guess they called it a minority fellowship for my first two or three years, so I didn’t have to have funding from a particular lab, and so I could just join in. He was also Ron McNair’s advisor, which I didn’t quite realize until after the fact. But Michael was very supportive of minority students, and so I didn’t feel any different. I mean, I felt like he pressured everybody, not just me, or nobody was meeting his expectations, not just me. So in that sense, I always felt like Michael treated me like, you know, like everybody else, which I appreciated more, I guess, as an adult [laughs] than I did at the time. Because again, Michael could be tough on us.

Behrman:

Were there other research groups you considered when you were looking around at labs?

McNeese:

I considered possibly Professor Dresselhaus’ lab, because again, of who she was, but after meeting her, she just — so intense and so impressive to the point where — wow, no. This is just — wow. No. You can’t possibly live up to Professor Dresselhaus. So, no. But actually, that’s who Sandra and Ibo both worked with and got their Ph.D.’s in her group on nanotubes. So, I would spend a lot of time visiting over there, but I think for me, I really liked being hands-on with the lasers.

Behrman:

Was it in Michael Feld’s lab that you first encountered biological applications of lasers?

McNeese:

Of lasers, yes. At UVA, I had done an REU, probably after my sophomore year, where it was applications of magnetic heating as a possible application for biological tissue, I think destroying tumors, using heating — I guess radio-frequency heating of a little seed that would be implanted. So, I did some research with possible biomedical applications there, and I did like that aspect, too. So, the combination of lasers and the biomedical was something that was very appealing to me at the time.

Behrman:

How did you come by your dissertation topic?

McNeese:

That’s a good question. Honestly, I think that Michael would just assign people to graduate students based on probably major. So, I went in with Doug Albagli. He was also physics. I believe he was physics, and he was looking at ablation of materials using lasers. And at that point, he was fairly close to finishing, so I was put with him. And it just stuck. So, instead of looking at ablation of materials, I started looking at interactions below ablation levels, and softer tissues, while Doug was mostly looking at bone and hard tissues. So, I kind of took the apparatus that we developed together and directed it more toward soft tissue.

Behrman:

Was there anyone else you would say was a big influence on you in graduate school?

McNeese:

Research-wise, or just in general?

Behrman:

Research-wise, or in general, I think.

McNeese:

Peggy Berkovitz was the graduate administrator at that time, and I would say that she probably helped keep a lot of the physics students from having [laughs] major crises. I mean, she was very nice and friendly, and you know, she would invite us over to her house from time to time for dinner. So, she was a big influence, someone that if I could find, I would be so happy to find her and say hi. Ramachandra Dasari. He was also in the spectroscopy lab, so of course, he was definitely an influence, and I would say he was someone who helped — be a little more supportive when we may have been feeling the stress, in terms of the expectations of what we needed to be doing. He was kind of there to keep pushing, but also be encouraging. So, I think he gave a good balance to Michael. Blanche Staton. Now, she was a dean in the graduate school. She would be very supportive to, I would say, minority students, you know, when she would see us. And you could always duck in her office if you were feeling a little stressed out.

So, I would say there were several people in the administration you could talk to when things would get a little stressful there, which was often. But for the most part, I would say it was other graduate students. You know, like I said, there were women graduate students, other graduate students in the physics department, and we would just all support each other, and I think that was a critical thing, for me at least, getting through that [laughs] time of my life. Because there was a time where, especially after I finished the qualifying exams, where I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to keep going, and I flirted with maybe going into science writing, because I think at that point, I realized it was really up to me. I wasn’t going to get pushed out. I had to do it or move on. And so, it was a good six months or so before I said: I’m going to stay, and I’m going to do this.

Behrman:

What were you thinking as you reached the end of your Ph.D.? What were you thinking would be the next steps for you?

McNeese:

I think at that point, I was a little tired of research and all of that, so I had at that point done a TA. I didn’t have to ever do one as part of my graduate school finances, but I did volunteer to do one. So, I was a TA for 8.01, Introductory Physics, and I really liked it — the teaching aspect, and working with the students, tutoring the students. And so at some point, between the high-pressure research environment and finding a love of teaching, I think that’s what changed my mind. So, when I left MIT — well, I did stay there for about two months after as a postdoc in the lab, just writing up some stuff for publication — and then I went to the Navy Research Lab for a postdoc and continued research. Different area. I was looking at liquid crystals, but still looking at optical effects. And it was fine. I probably could have continued there, but the people weren’t the most pleasant. It was kind of the same high-pressure, you know, “What are you doing? What are you doing? Are you producing anything? You need to be doing this.” Well, I was still in a more exploratory — liquid crystals, I hardly know anything about them. I need to read a little more, then I can get in the lab. So, it was this mismatch, I guess, in terms of intensity and expectation. And so, that was probably the final straw in terms of — I need to do something different, where I just don’t feel this constant pressure from other people, or people who seem to think I’m not capable or not doing what they feel I should be doing.

And in retrospect, I almost feel like there was some — I hate to use the word “microaggression.” I really do, because that wasn’t a thing back then. But in retrospect, probably that’s what it would be considered. There was another woman there, and I forget — I think she was chemistry. But it was almost a daily thing. It’s like, what’s wrong with these guys here? Why are they so obnoxious? And it was daily. We’d go eat. We’d talk about the lab, and you know, we’ve got to find something else to do, because this is — you feel almost mistreated, in a sense, for no reason. So, that didn’t help. That did not help. And so, both of us left within — I think within a year of getting there, I think we were both gone. She ended up going to a consulting firm, and then I came here.

Behrman:

How did you find out about the position at Spelman College?

McNeese:

My last year of graduate school, I saw it listed somewhere, and I actually applied, because again, it was Spelman, and I thought it would be cool to come here. You know, it’s a women’s college. It’s an HBCU, and I felt like I could kind of maybe be that role model that I really never saw in college. So, I did apply, and I did get at least a letter back. You know, “We’re kind of interested in bringing you in,” but at that point, I said that there was no way I could leave without finishing, because I figured if I left, I would never finish, and I was just too close. So I think somewhere, while I was in the postdoc, I wrote them, and I said, “Hey, I’m finished. Is there going to be an opening?” And, “I would love to apply again.” So, I think that’s how it happened, and so I kind of let them know I was available, and they brought me in. And I came in on a one-year position. And then they opened up a tenure-track line. So, that’s how I got here.

Behrman:

Could you go a little more into what it was that attracted you about working at Spelman College?

McNeese:

Again, the teaching, and the focus on teaching, was definitely something I was looking forward to. Also, the sense that you would be growing a department, because at that time, there were three faculty members — one, two, three. Very quickly, it became five. They had — because as I mentioned before, they didn’t have a major where you could do all the courses here, and even now — although we offer all of the courses, sometimes they still will need to take a course or two at Morehouse, just due to the scheduling. But the thought of being able to help grow the department and develop courses in optics, that was interesting to me. Developing a biophysics course also was interesting. But I think the thought that I could bring my experience and just bring it here and really see if I could get other women and other black women into physics, again because I loved physics so much, but at the same time, it was hard to be in the culture of physics. So, I think maybe also trying to get away from the culture of physics and then try out the culture of Spelman. You know, because that’s not anyplace ever — you know, that I’ve ever been in. So, I think that may have been part of it, too. And in retrospect, now I look at that as a possibility. You know? Was the culture of physics so unattractive that it brought me here? And that might be part of the reason. But at the same time, you know, I’ve always felt this draw to Spelman.

Behrman:

It’s unfortunate now that a lot of smaller liberal arts colleges are trying to cut down on their majors including, unfortunately, physics.

McNeese:

Right.

Behrman:

How did it happen that Spelman was actually growing their physics major?

McNeese:

At the time I came in, Dr. Etta Falconer, who was a mathematician, she really established the physics department, and that was something that she wanted to grow. We had a president — at the time that would be President Manley, so she was coming from the medical field. I think there was an emphasis on STEM at the time from the administration. But Dr. Falconer especially wanted to push physics at Spelman. And so, I think that’s one reason. I believe at the time, they may have also gotten some funding from NASA, not just for students, but also for an additional faculty line or two, because I think they had some funding for chemistry faculty. So, they were bringing in quite a few people, and I believe it was due to some of this funding that they had just recently gotten.

Behrman:

How do you recruit students into becoming physics majors?

McNeese:

We try to recruit as they come in as high school seniors. They have certain events, and parents will come in with the students, and we’ll talk to them then. When they come in certain summer programs, I have in the past worked with our — why STEM — Women In STEM summer program, where we bring students who are graduating, coming into Spelman in the fall. We would bring them in for six weeks, and they will typically take two courses: math, computer science, or maybe math and the English composition, and they’ll do some hands-on projects with different faculty. So, I’ve been a part of that as well, and so you can recruit a little bit there through the projects. I myself don’t get out as much to some of the high schools or local events in Atlanta, but we have sent some of our students there — science fairs, STEM fairs at churches, that kind of thing. So, those are some of the things that we’ve done. And then of course, once they get here, I haven’t taught the physics for physics, chemistry, and engineers lately, but Dr. Oakley, our — he’s our newest faculty member, and I think he’s really good at being enthusiastic and really sharing that excitement about physics. He does a pretty good job, I think, of bringing in some of them who might have an interest within Physics I, and then convincing them to think about the major.

Behrman:

And once they decide to become a physics major, how do you then support them in their undergraduate time?

McNeese:

I think Spelman is a very supportive institution in general, so we’re open to the majors. We try to have at least yearly get-togethers with the majors and the faculty, a potluck dinner, or just pizza, and let’s talk about things. We try to encourage them to go to conferences, like CUWiP or NSBP or even the general March meeting, or April meeting. So, I think we try to have that funding available for them when we can, and again, I think it’s just the one-on-one interactions that we have make this a nurturing place. So, I think that’s a difference, for one. At least, from my experience at UVA, it’s very different. We also try to work with other institutions, because of course, the students are heavily recruited for RUs or internships, so we really try to vet institutions where the students will be successful, but they’ll also be supported as well, because we know there’s a little bit of a culture shift when they come from physics at Spelman, and then they go to Michigan or Columbia University, or even UVA. We do have a bit of a collaboration with the astrophysics department there, so several of our recent majors have gone there for a summer and done some work there. So, I think that’s another way we try to support them to really find those places where they will be supported and welcomed.

Behrman:

It sounds like you are drawing from your experiences in undergraduate and maybe graduate student as well, when it comes to your mentoring and how you see nurturing this community.

McNeese:

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think — certainly, the physics community has changed in terms of what they emphasize, whether it’s women in physics or coming up with family-friendly policies or diversity in physics. Definitely the physics community has shifted quite a bit. So, hopefully our students are not walking into situations like I would have walked into — definitely Navy Research Lab, and some of those interactions I had there. But then on the other hand, I definitely feel that generational shift where some of the things that they talk about and that I see physics students posting about on social media, it’s amazing that they can talk about these things, because when I was coming up, you wouldn’t even envision it, talking about it publicly. You know, maybe with your parents and friends, but just talking about it, whatever you’re dealing with, within interactions within the physics community. It’s just — they’re putting it out there, and these are some problems we see, and this needs to change. And that was not what you did back when I was a student. So, I feel a little hesitant to kind of weigh in, because things were seen very differently — how women were treated. You just kind of do your best to work within the situation, and you don’t have to do that anymore. You can call out the bad apples.

Behrman:

When it comes to your mentoring style, are their particular people that you draw on for inspiration?

McNeese:

I would say some of my colleagues here, who are in chemistry or math, just to see how they mentor. I think for me, it has been a challenge. I’m a pretty introverted person, reserved. I think when I first came here, some of my student evaluations would say that I was hard to approach, things like that. So, I think that after I became a mother, my approach may have changed for the better. I think. You’d have to ask the students who were here [laughs] years ago. But I think things have changed based on how — I can be more open with the students now than when I first came here, and I’ve adapted to Spelman in that sense. You know, I didn’t come from an HBCU. So, that was an adjustment, coming from MIT to an HBCU, I think for me, just how people interact. It’s a warmer environment to me, and that was something I had to adjust to.

Behrman:

Could you tell me more about the differences and similarities with Spelman and other HBCUs or Spelman and predominantly white women’s colleges?

McNeese:

That’s hard for me to say. I mean, I don’t know a lot of people from other women’s colleges. I do have some colleagues at Agnes Scott and also Wellesley, and I think there are similarities there in the sense of that nurturing environment. I think it helps at a single-sex college, because again, comparing my experience to what I see here as a professor, I think that when you bring in the male influence — I’m trying to be careful here — sometimes the women can be silenced, and the men will talk more.

Very early on when I came here, I taught a large section of physics for premeds. And the first semester, I believe it was about 40 students, plus one guy from Morehouse. The second semester, I guess he talked, and then it became maybe six or seven from Morehouse. And they would all sit in front, and they would dominate the discussion. And that’s just a dynamic that you very quickly see change, when you have maybe two or three students from Morehouse. The women kind of quiet down. The guys, just the three or four, will take over. Also in lab. If you’re having a physics lab, and there’s a group where there’s one or two guys, it just seems like the women might sit off more to the side, and the guys are actively doing the lab work. And I don’t know if that’s something you would see at Agnes Scott or Wellesley, should men come into the class. But I think that a single-sex college for women, it’s something — again, you’re not going to find in physics ever again in life, most likely. And so, it’s a valuable place, especially for women who might be a little more introverted. So, I think it’s a good thing to have and to keep. Now, I would like to see more interaction with our students and Agnes Scott students. I think that would be a good thing. And that’s something I would like to work on, given the time and opportunity, which is always a challenge.

Behrman:

Yeah. Time is always a precious commodity.

McNeese:

Right.

Behrman:

So, one of the advantages of a small liberal arts college is certainly this one-on-one attention, this community and everything. How easy is it, or how do you involve undergraduates in research projects?

McNeese:

Basically, for me, if there are students who are interested in doing biomedical or some physics with some possible biological applications, that’s the best way to attract them. And it’s more a sense of getting them early on. You do have to train them. Some of the research I’ve done lately with students have involved hydrogels and looking at physical properties, mechanical properties, and so a student that I’m thinking of, recently when she started with me as a freshman, she hadn’t taken physics. So, you kind of have to teach a little bit of physics along the way: force, stress strain, things like that. And so, if you can get a student who is just coming in, there is the training level that you have to work on them with, but then on the other hand, if you can hold onto them for a few years, and once they’ve been trained, and they can really do some research more independently — so it’s a bit of a challenge for me, because they have so many opportunities once they are able to apply to those RUs and they can go wherever. So, it really just depends on what they want to do, but I think for me, I tend to get them as freshmen or sophomores — can get them trained to do a few things, or perhaps a senior-level project, where they’re doing something during the academic year. So, it can be a challenge to get a student, keep a student, and have them do research for a year or two. But just trying to get them to do what they can do in a few months, or maybe six months, and then we have a Research Day every April, where students can present. So, that’s something that they will often do to present at Research Day here in the spring.

Behrman:

That’s really nice.

McNeese:

Yeah.

Behrman:

How do you fund your research?

McNeese:

Well, smaller grants that I’ve had over the years, whether it is something internal or whether it’s a larger project type of grant, and you have funding going from it to different faculty projects. We’ve had, as a department, some money from the Department of Energy in the past to fund some research as well. So, different sources. And of course, I’ve applied for some larger funding or research for — research at undergraduate institutions as well, but for me, it tends to be little, smaller areas or smaller pots of money here and there.

Behrman:

Getting to some of the specifics of your research work, could you tell me a little bit about some of your projects, maybe beginning with your work in knee cartilage?

McNeese:

As part of my graduate work, or more recently?

Behrman:

Either.

McNeese:

As part of my graduate work, I was looking at nanosecond pulses and how they affect tissue, and we had an interferometric system, a Michelson interferometer to basically probe the surface once you sent a pump pulse in. And we would look at the resulting deformation of the surface. So, that was something that could possibly have had some diagnostic applications had it continued. You know, if they were interested in doing that. Then here, I was looking more into continuous wave heating of tissue. Could you weld it, either with the laser alone, or with some sort of protein glue? So, we did some experiments there some years ago, and that was a project where I had a student for a few years. So, she was able to really help move that forward. Now, more recently, we’re just looking at hydrogels and possibly can we use those as a base to grow tissue? So here, we’re just looking at the hydrogels, and then if we can come up with some with certain mechanical properties, then we might say: well, let’s see if we can collaborate with someone who can grow cells, and what will happen there. But right now, we’re still looking at the hydrogel here.

Behrman:

Do you collaborate with people who are more coming from the biological side of the work, or materials science side?

McNeese:

More materials science side. I did work with Martin Guthold at Wake Forest. I was there several summers ago, and looking at some of the things he was doing with electrospinning of nanofibers as a possibility for scaffolding for tissue growth. So, at this time, I don’t think we’re really ready to actually grow cells, but that could be a possibility in the near future. So right now, we’re just trying to look at the scaffold itself. So, sticking more with the materials side.

Behrman:

Are you still working on luminescent materials as well?

McNeese:

No. No, I haven’t done that in quite a while.

Behrman:

My research is a bit out of date, then. [laughs]

McNeese:

Yeah, that may have been from that project at NIST, I think, back at UVA, probably.

Behrman:

With benzimidazoles?

McNeese:

Oh, that one! Okay, so that was with Dr. Winfield here in chemistry. She was synthesizing them, and then we were testing them, so the thought was this iridium compound would cause it to have some sort of luminescence, but we really didn’t see any. So, she was making the compounds. I was testing them. Yeah. But we tried that out for a few years, and it just didn’t — at least, nothing measurable in terms of luminescence.

Behrman:

I see. Do you have any other collaborations going with other professors at Spelman?

McNeese:

That’s the main one. Now, we’re kind of thinking about some teaching and learning kind of studies, and so I’ve been working with Dr. Oakley in our department. And so, we’ve been looking a little bit at just how group work and team-based learning affects students’ learning, particularly in the premed courses, because that’s where we have our largest number of students. And so, we’ve been looking at some of their thoughts on working in groups. Does it improve their outcomes compared to when we had them doing solo projects? So, that’s something we’re in the middle of now.

Behrman:

That’s very interesting.

McNeese:

Yeah. So, [laughs] even though the students don’t necessarily like it, I mean, obviously they’re concerned about grades and sharing the grade with someone who may not be sharing as much of the work. But I think they do see the purpose of it, even if they don’t necessarily like that connected grade.

Behrman:

What journals do you read regularly?

McNeese:

American Journal of Physics, The Physics Teacher, I would say Physics of Medicine and Biology are the ones that I look at most regularly. And occasionally, Phys Rev E. Yeah.

Behrman:

Biophysics is sort of interesting in that it’s one of maybe the youngest research subdisciplines in physics. How have you seen the field change in your years of working in it?

McNeese:

I would say — again, we were kind of always on the periphery of it, but in terms of all of the studies with proteins and folding and membranes and things like that, I would say that has really grown in terms of where people are interested and where they are actively researching. Because again, typically when I was involved with the research, especially in graduate school, it would tend to be stuff that was off to the side of optical research. So, Optical Society of America, and SPIE, those things would have larger numbers of people doing biophysical type of applications, but it seems that at some point that may have split off. So, now you have more optics for medicine types of conferences, and journals, and the optics is more, I guess, pure. That’s one thing I would say. And now, in terms of the biophysics, I’m not sure, because again I tend not to go to biophysics types of meetings. So, it still seems as if there’s a bit of a split between biophysics and then these optical biophysics connections.

Behrman:

Right. Would you describe yourself more then as more of a soft matter physicist, or what sort of discipline would you say you identify with?

McNeese:

I guess you could say — again, soft matter, but optical applications to soft matter. So, I feel more as if I’m an optics person, and I could apply the optics to different systems, soft matter or not necessarily soft matter. But definitely, I think of myself more as an optical physicist, looking at soft matter systems. I guess that would be the best way to describe it. Yes.

Behrman:

Got it. [laughs]

McNeese:

[laughs] Yes.

Behrman:

So then, taking a turn, could we maybe talk last about the types of work you’ve done for various scientific societies?

McNeese:

Okay.

Behrman:

You’ve served in a number of different capacities.

McNeese:

With APS, I served on COM first, Committee On Minorities, and that was back when they had the scholarship for students. So, a lot of the activity there was reviewing the applications and mentoring some of the students. I did a short — I guess the three-year term as general counselor, which for me — although it was interesting to see what all of the APS business was about, it was such a large gathering with lots of people, I didn’t necessarily feel that I contributed a lot to it. I was also on POPA for a while more recently, so I did participate in terms of some of the statements that they crafted on different issues, and of course, I’ve been a member of NSBP, so I’ve worked with them in terms of their chemical and biological physics sections in the past. So, planning conferences and abstracts related to chemical and biological physics. I’ll probably be getting more involved with them now that they’re kind of re-establishing themselves as an organization. I have worked with AAPT, but more of a volunteer, so again, with their committee on diversity, committee on women. And typically, that’s helping plan topics for future meetings, things like that. And also, right now, I am on the editorial board for The Physics Teacher, and that mainly involves just looking at certain publications, reviewing certain things and thinking about the direction of the physics teacher and how we can improve AAPT in some sense. You know, one of the things that — and I think we’ve seen a little bit of movement there, but is supporting high school teachers, so that they could come to the meeting, because it’s certainly expensive, just in general. And certainly, if you’re a high school teacher, it’s probably even more so. So, some of the things that we were trying to push is: do they have grants for high school teachers, or could they do more outreach to local high school teachers when they’re having a meeting in that city? Let’s see. What else? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

Behrman:

You’ve done a great deal.

McNeese:

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of stuff. Now, we’ve also had — with the south Atlantic coast section of AAPT, we’ve had a meeting here that we hosted, so that was quite an effort to get that kind of meeting out and hosted. I know there’s been some talk about possibly trying to host a CUWiP here, which is a bit intimidating for me. [laughs] You know, that would be something I think would be nice, if it could be hosted maybe between us and Agnes Scott. Just, again, a CUWiP and have it at a women’s college. I think that would be nice.

Behrman:

Yes, it really would.

McNeese:

So, those are some of the things I have done in terms of physics.

Behrman:

When did you first encounter or get involved with the NSBP?

McNeese:

Well, I first got involved in graduate school, probably my second or third year. They had this conference called National Conference of Black Physics Students, and it was — I’m not sure how it originated, but it was more independent from NSBP, although a lot of the same people would be involved. And this was, again, hosting a conference for students. You’d have recruiters from graduate schools, national labs. You would have technical talks, and also less technical sessions, talking about careers and academia and industry, things like that. I would say I’ve been involved with that since mid ’90s. Then at some point, that conference stopped occurring. I know we hosted one at MIT in the late ’90s, so that was a big effort. We probably had 400 students, plus professionals, that came. Yeah, that was interesting. I mean, it was very hectic, but it worked out well, I think. So, I’ve been involved for a good 20-plus years for sure, and I think again that was one of those things where I met other graduate students and developed a support network, people that — some of them I still keep in touch with today. And that was also just a good place to kind of get away from MIT and the stress of it all and just have fun, because I think that was a particular meeting and community where you just felt like you could be yourself, and you didn’t have to be a certain way. You could be completely yourself, and no one would have any suspicions that you were not good enough, or you didn’t belong, or whatever. So, I think that was a great environment to be in. And also, just to recognize, there are other black physicists, other Hispanic physicists out there too, so regardless of where you were, there were others in the community who were experiencing some of the same things that you were. So, I think that was a nice thing. And I also think CUWiP is a good place, at least for women in physics, to kind of get some of the same benefits and just see there are others. And you may have some of the same difficulties, and you can be real about it.

Behrman:

Is there anything that we haven’t touched on yet that you would like to talk about?

McNeese:

I don’t think so. I mean, I think I’m just pleased to see how the physics community is opening up and moving beyond this idea that physicists have to be a certain way, or they have to have certain interests, and that they can be diverse in how they think about things and what they do, and they can have fun, and I want to say be silly at times. And that that’s okay. So, I’m happy to see that. I’m happy to see some appreciation of diversity and equity, and including people from all walks of life. That is definitely something I’m pleased to see, because it didn’t always look like that.

Behrman:

Right.

McNeese:

And I guess one thing I would like to see more of — and there is movement on this too — but just having physicists really reach out and do more PR, I guess, for physicists and for physics, because I think physicists can do so much, and they have so many opportunities career-wise, but I don’t think we’re necessarily doing the best job of saying that, especially to students. You know, if you want to go into coding, you can do that from physics. You know, finance, I think that’s where we’ve seen a lot of connections there. But other things, you know, and so I think I would like to see as people move forward, moving in this direction, where physics is something where people from different walks of life can come in. They don’t have to follow that one little track, and they can do many different things, and that physics is a good path to do that. So, I think that’s something that’s important, and that I think we need to do better.

Behrman:

Well, thank you so much for your time this morning.

McNeese:

Okay. No problem.