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Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory
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Interview of Ruth Van de Water by David Zierler on June 12, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Ruth Van de Water, Scientist I at Fermilab. She explains the hierarchical system at the lab to explain her title and she recounts her childhood in Northern Virginia. Van de Water describes her undergraduate experience at William & Mary where she developed an interest in physics and was mentored by David Armstrong, and she describes the considerations that led to her admission to the graduate program at the University of Washington. She discusses her early involvement in the Atlas program and her thesis research that focused on computational and numerical physics and lattice QCD. Van de Water discusses her postdoctoral work at Fermilab, and she describes the state of play regarding the Tevatron and the D0 and CDF collaborations. She describes her ongoing work in lattice QCD research and the opportunity that led to her second postdoctoral position at Brookhaven, where she pursued a new approach to discretizing quarks. Van de Water describes Fermilab “poaching” her back to work on quark flavor physics and become involved in the G-2 experiment. She discusses the negative impact on a decreased budget, and her current leave from Fermilab to be a visiting professor at North Central College, and she shares that she is conflicted about continuing on a strictly research path and focusing more directly on teaching. At the end of the interview, Van de Water discusses the impact of #ShutdownSTEM and the issue of inclusivity in physics and why solutions to under-representation are not easily achievable.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 12, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Ruth Van de Water. Ruth, thank you so much for being with me today.
So, to start, please tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
I am currently on leave from Fermilab. I’m a theoretical- I’m a Scientist I at Fermilab in the Theoretical Physics department, although I’m on leave there right now, and then I am also a visiting associate professor at North Central College in Naperville.
Alright. Most of the people I have talked to at Fermilab worked there in the sixties and seventies, so this is a unique opportunity. First, administratively, what is “Scientist I”? What does that mean?
At the National Laboratories, you don’t have tenure, but you do have something that is in the same vein as tenure. So, Scientist I is the lowest tenured level, and then there’s Scientist II, which most people make it to if they stay in the lab and are scientists. And then there’s Scientist III, and Scientist III, very few scientists in the lab make it. Like, Scientist I and Scientist II go through a committee for scientific appointments, and it’s very much like a tenure review committee. I mean, I was on it for a couple of years. You know, we read people’s portfolios, and we get letters of recommendation from people in the global physics community and look at their record of publications, and blah, blah, blah. Scientist III, to get there, there’s a committee of- basically, the director sort of selects other Scientist IIIs and then they just decide. So, it’s a little bit more of a- I don’t want to say, “boys’ club.” There are women in it, but it still is a little bit- you know, you have to know the right people, and what-not to make it to that point (laughter).
So, it doesn’t perfectly correspond, to the extent that assistant to associate is tenure in an academic system, except for Harvard, which, you know, they do their own thing there.
But Scientist I is more like associate, in the sense that that’s the level at which you are tenured.
Right, exactly. And had I not been on leave, I would most likely be a Scientist II as of this year. That’s sort of where I am with the pipeline.
Okay. What’s under, if that’s the right word, Scientist I?
It’s either Assistant Scientist or Associate Scientist. And I don’t remember, because at Brookhaven, I think it was Assistant, and it was actually Assistant Physicist. And then I think at Fermilab, it’s Associate Scientist (laughter).
So, each of the labs have their own idiosyncrasies.
Yeah, exactly. So, the point is, I think it’s Assistant at Brookhaven, which is where I was a postdoc, and then I was there for one year as, I guess, an Assistant Physicist. And then I came to Fermilab as an associate physicist, but of course it wasn’t an actual step up. It was just a name change.
Right. So, in the academic system, getting tenure means all kinds of things. You can be sort of more fearless in your research agenda. You don’t feel a certain amount of pressure to publish particular things. You can work on things that you want to do that might not be so interesting to the field that you’re trying to impress. Do those kinds of things roughly translate in the National Lab setting, as you move into that Scientist I designation?
A little bit. I mean, one thing I would say is that if you’re, say, thinking about moving into a new area, like, for example, quantum information science is getting really big now. But maybe you don’t know about it, but you think: oh, that seems really cool. I’d like to get involved. You would probably want to wait until you were Scientist I, because you don’t have- you know, before that, you’re getting your publications counted and your talks counted, and what not. And so, it gives you a little bit more breathing room for- I’m going to maybe have a year or two where my publication count is really low, because I’m trying to break into a new field, or something of that nature.
Some people use it as an opportunity to start spending some time teaching or doing more outreach work. It does allow you a little bit more of that buffer. But that being said, at a national lab, no one is going to force you to work on research that’s targeted towards the experimental program, but you are strongly encouraged to do so.
Right. Well, let’s get back into that more as we develop the narrative. But since I already know, let’s start with where it all begins. Tell me about your childhood in Alexandria.
Okay. So, let’s see. Actually, I was born in D.C., in the old GW Hospital that’s now torn down. It doesn’t exist anymore. But I grew up in Alexandria my entire life. So, yeah, same house, the whole thing. My parents just sold it like, six months ago or something.
Where are your parents from?
My dad was originally from northern New Jersey, and my mom was actually originally from Monmouth, Illinois, which is a small town closer to the Mississippi. But her parents are originally from New England, like Rhode Island, and so my grandparents on my mom’s side had a cottage up on Cape Cod. Totally a summer cottage. Like, don’t picture it nice, and what-not. I mean, like, no air conditioning. Not winterized. Like, literally, we have a gas stove and a gas fridge from like, the 1940s, which is awesome in a hurricane, by the way, when you lose power (laughter).
So, that’s where she’s sort of from originally. And then on my dad’s side of the family, his father immigrated from the Netherlands and ended up in Brooklyn, which is where he met my grandma. So, very East Coast, very European. Then, my dad ended up- my parents met in graduate school. My mom was going to Harvard Divinity School, and my dad was getting his Ph.D. in economics from MIT. And they met in grad school, and then my dad ended up in D.C. working for the federal government. He worked at the Social Security Administration for a few years, and then most of my childhood, he was actually at the Congressional Budget Office. So, that’s how they ended up in the D.C. area. So, very much, like, the civil servant life.
Was he working as an economist at CBO?
Yes, he was. He was.
Did he like that work?
He loves it. He’s still doing it. He’s not at CBO anymore. He retired. He went to work at the Social Security Administration for a couple of years, where they needed an interim person to do some stuff, and now he’s actually working for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You might have heard of that think tank.
And he does research in healthcare, economic policies. So, occasionally you’ll even hear him on like NPR or something.
He’s really dry (laughter). He’s really well-informed, and really dry.
(Laughter) Okay. And what about your mom? Did she pursue a career after graduate school?
Yeah, she did. She had a part-time job at our local church. So, my grandfather, the reason they were in Monmouth, Illinois, is because he taught at Monmouth College, which is a small Presbyterian college. So, he was a minister, and he was in their religious studies department there. So, my mom, that’s- you know, so I was raised Presbyterian. But, like, liberal progressive Presbyterian. My mom actually worked at our church. She was the director of Christian education there. So, she arranged all of the adult programming there, and so she really took it from, “Let’s just do a Bible study” to, she would actually invite speakers from all over the area, you know, from different denominations and with different viewpoints. She turned it into more of an actual educational thing. But it was part-time, so she was always home when I came home from school.
Did you go to public schools?
I actually started out kindergarten through third grade in private school. Virginia schools are a little complicated because of the history of segregation in Virginia. You’re probably-
Yeah. People think Alexandria is King Street, but it’s actually much, much bigger than that.
Right. And so, in particular, Virginia still has mandatory- or at least, when I was growing up I don’t know if they do now, had mandatory bussing to integrate schools. So, my neighborhood school was half the people who lived in my neighborhood, which was, of course- I don’t want to even say “predominantly white.” I think it was all white. Like, literally all white. And then half of the students were actually from the projects, that were bussed in. And so, when my mom was looking at kindergartens, one of the issues was the fact that- so, I already knew how to read coming into kindergarten, and they just weren’t going to have any support for that whatsoever. So, my mom ended up sending me to private school for the first couple years, just because academically, they weren’t going to be able to provide the support that I needed. But then, in fourth grade, Alexandria, at least, that’s what they did then, starts what they called a “Talented and Gifted” program where, at least in fourth grade, there were, of course, then divided into groups, which is both good and bad (laughter).
So, it was a gifted program at a-
A gifted program within the elementary school. So, you’d get pulled out for reading, and you’d get pulled out for math. So, I went back into public school starting in fourth grade, when they started pulling out for reading and math.
Did you stay on that kind of track through high school?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So, I stayed in the track through high school. You know, high school, Alexandria does AP classes. Not like IB. Probably they offer way more of them now than when I was taking it. But I took the normal biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, U.S. history, English, blah, blah, blah. Sort of the basic ones, not all the ones they have now in all these different complicated fields.
Now, did you stand out in math and science in high school?
Well, I certainly did well in them academically. In physics, it was interesting. My high school physics teacher was crazy, and I don’t say that lightly. And he was also sexist, although I didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time, because I was in high school.
And it was a different time.
I would say, nowadays, maybe a high-school girl would recognize sexism because it’s just a lot more prevalent in the culture. People are more aware of what it is.
Right. But it was not even on my radar screen.
So, he was actually interesting. He was Indian, like from India, and he had a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and was teaching high school. Very smart. Really knew his stuff. Taught the class, in retrospect, grading it like it was college or graduate school or something. So, I was regularly getting C’s on all of his exams, which made me think I didn’t know anything about physics.
Was anybody getting B’s and A’s?
Not really. I mean, somehow, we managed to get A’s in other grades. Presumably, he factored in homework and everything. But nobody did well on his exams. Like, nobody. So, needless to say, I did not love physics. I did not think I was any good at physics. The whole thing was just kind of like, bleh.
I wonder also, with your parents’ background, economics and divinity school, this is a very liberal arts kind of heritage you’re coming from.
Right. Very much so. So, it was kind of interesting, but then I took the AP exam anyway, because why not- and I ended up getting a five. So, my conclusion after the fact was: I guess I actually knew something about this, which was nice (laughter). I mean, it was reassuring. The other thing that my instructor did was, he called on the boys, and I was the only girl in the class. And he called on the boys, and he referred to them all as “chief.” Now, I mean, I’m kind of horrified when I hear that, but at the time, again, who knew. Right? Now, all I can think of is how offended a Native American person might be, or what-not, if they were in that room. Right? There’s so many things we look back on and think, “Ooh, gosh, that was-”
Did you ever ask him about the disparity between your grades in class and your performance on the AP exam?
Honestly, not really. Not really. I mean, it’s funny. I was in the same school for the next year, because I didn’t graduate that year. But I kind of just did my own thing. You know? It just didn’t seem- at the time- it’s high school. At the time, you’re just trying to fit in and not rock the boat.
I can’t say I was the most popular student at school. Right? Like, I was totally a nerd. I figured out way too late in life that you don’t always have to raise your hand just because you know the answer.
(Laughter) I wish I’d figured that out a lot earlier. I mean, I hate to say that I wish I had figured out how to hide knowing things, but I do, because it would have made things a lot easier in some ways.
As a woman?
Yeah, especially as a woman. Anyway, so I was always good at math and science. Like, I got fives on all of my AP chemistry, biology, physics, calculus. Calculus was interesting because my junior year, I took precalculus, and our precalculus instructor was one of the football coaches that just clearly had to teach something. And so, the room was in a computer lab, and he just kind of sat at the front of the room, and every couple days, he’d give you some work to do, like, some math work, and then you’d have the class periods to work on them. And when you were done, you would just do whatever. You’d play on the computer, or you’d chat, or you’d like (laughter)- it was utterly bizarre. I didn’t learn anything. So, I was actually really behind when I got to calculus, because there were some people who had real pre-calc teachers. But my calculus teacher was awesome, because he stayed after school every single day to help people, and I stayed after school every single day for months, and he helped me. Like, just awesome. Like, a totally amazing guy. Totally amazing guy. And the thing is, it’s like you couldn’t- at the end of the day, whether you’re good at math or not depends on the time and the effort and the support.
Where did you apply for undergraduate?
I actually only applied to one place, which was William & Mary, which is where I went.
Yeah. Early admission?
Yes. Yeah. I had gone to William & Mary the summer after my junior year for the Virginia Math and Science Governor’s School. And I absolutely loved it. I loved the campus. I loved all of the faculty there. Like, some of the graduate students in the different departments were the RA’s, and helped us with other things until actually- one of the physics graduate students there, Jessica Clark who worked for APS for a while, actually, later on, she befriended me and really encouraged me to apply and think about physics. So, that was really good. And it was an amazing cohort, because tons of my friends from Governor’s School all ended up at William & Mary. In fact, one of my friends, we even ended up being roommates in graduate school (laughter). Anyway, I would say that was a very formative event.
And you went there intending to study physics?
No, because I still thought I hated physics, from high school. But I intended to do chemistry. So, I ended up taking physics my first semester, because it was a requirement for chemistry. And actually, I did not end up taking chemistry, because I had already AP-credited out of gen chem, and organic wasn’t offered, which would have been the next thing to do. So, I ended up taking physics, and the second time around, I absolutely loved it. I absolutely loved it.
It was about the professor this time.
So, this time, we had- and a lot of schools do this- we had a big lecture course with 500 and something students in it, and then we had one-hour recitation sections with smaller groups each week. And one of the things that William & Mary does, which is awesome, is the recitation sessions for the intro classes are led by the faculty. They’re not led by graduate students. So, my lecture instructor was fine. I mean, he wasn’t bad. He was just kind of like, eh. Not the best teacher, not the worst teacher. Had an adorable, cute, Swiss-French accent. It just made everything sound extra funny to us, as college students (laughter). You know, in retrospect, oh, I don’t know. Maybe, it was all good-natured. Anyway, but my recitation instructor was amazing. He was just really, really nice, and really encouraging, and I could come to his office whenever if I had questions.
Do you remember his name?
David Armstrong. He is awesome. So, he is still at William & Mary. He was a department chair for a couple of years, but he’s not anymore.
What’s his focus?
Nuclear physics. He’s an experimental nuclear physicist. He’s originally from Canada, and so a lot of his experiments were at TRIUMF in Vancouver, and then also at Jefferson Lab. But he’s wonderful. I mean, I still keep in touch with him.
Oh, that’s great. That’s great.
Oh, he’s great.
Was he formative to you thinking of yourself as a future physicist?
He definitely was. I would say he was, and then my instructor my sophomore year in the fall was the other one that really- that was what cinched, like, clinched the deal. So, my freshman year, what was great was my recitation instructor, and then also, I was doing a lot of my homework with my peers, and I found a really good group of people to work with. Actually, it started because my friend from Governor’s School, the one I ended up rooming within grad school, he was in a different dorm than I was. He was actually in the honors dorm. I was in the honors program, but I was in a different dorm. And I would go over to his dorm, and at the end of the hallway, there were these lounge spaces that had a chalkboard and stuff. And he and I and a couple other people would get together regularly and work it out, work physics problems out, on the board in the evenings. And it was fun. I’m a people person. I like people. I like engaging with people. So, if physics wasn’t involved, if there was no interpersonal interaction, I wasn’t going to do it. But I found a really great cohort, which was really-
Was William & Mary welcoming for women who wanted to be scientists? Was it a good environment?
I would say yes. I mean, definitely I had to work on the students. The fall, you know, working with the boys, definitely it was a process of me suggesting something and getting ignored; me suggesting something, getting ignored, and somebody else saying it like five minutes later and having it paid attention to; to finally, by the end of the semester, me getting listened to. So, I mean, it was a real process where I had to get past the- but that was the students. Right? I mean, look. They’re eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys. Eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys are dumb. And I mean that in the nicest way possible, but they’re dumb (laughter).
Well-meaning. You didn’t get anybody that was not well-meaning.
No. They had no idea what they were doing. Like, they did not recognize that they were ignoring me. It was not conscious. It was just a thing that somehow happens. Right? And it still happens where- yeah, I mean, it still happens in meetings. I say something, and then nothing happens, and then finally later, someone else says it. And it’s like, well, yeah. I said that. But the point is, they’re all great guys, really great guys. And the faculty were super-duper supportive. I mean, I was able to start doing research the summer after my freshman year.
I’ve heard it said of William & Mary that it’s a great blend between- you get the small liberal arts feel, but the professors are also operating in a research university environment.
And so, they’re very much in the field. Was that your experience?
Yes, it’s very much an R-1 institution in terms of the caliber of the faculty, the fact that they’re active in research, because they’re not teaching a full load the way you would at a small college. But that being said, yeah, it’s very- at least when I was there, you still had to take lots of varied courses and varied disciplines, and everybody was very supportive of your doing extracurriculars, even if they took time away from your major or what-not. And I mean, some of my professors were involved themselves in different activities. So, for example, one of the professors I had for- my quantum mechanics professor, who was amazing too, his name was Keith Van Der Linden, and he and his wife are of Dutch descent, and they both went to Calvin College, which is a Dutch school up in Michigan. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
Anyway, so that’s where they met, and they went to Calvin, and they both ended up at William & Mary, and he was in the physics department, and his wife was in the music department. And they’re both fabulous musicians. So, his wife was actually in charge of the early music ensemble, and he would sometimes play with them. And I actually sang in the early music ensemble. So, I had his wife too, in music. But the point is, I mean, this was just- this was not an infrequent phenomenon, where there were people that were both into some sort of liberal arts or humanities, and also STEM. I mean, it’s not mutually exclusive at all. It was a really great place for me. Talking to some of my friends, some of my friends in the gay community and some people of color, it apparently was a lot harder for them, and I honestly wasn’t totally aware of it.
Maybe we’ll return back to that later in the conversation, since we’re so close to #ShutdownSTEM. You can reflect on that a little bit.
How well was your identity as a physicist formed as an undergraduate? In other words, when you made the commitment to pursue physics in graduate school, did you know- were you interested more in theory or experimentation? Did you know the kind of physics you wanted to work on, or when you were thinking about graduate school, it was still sort of wide open for you?
I definitely was leaning toward theory. My senior thesis was with a theoretical physicist, so that definitely swayed me in that direction. I have always loved particle physics. Back to what got me hooked. The fall of my sophomore year, that’s when you take modern physics. So, the point is, you’re stuck with Newtonian mechanics, which- look, I like Newtonian mechanics. I teach physics. But it’s not that exciting. Right? Like, fundamentally, I understand why my students roll their eyes at these completely artificial problems that I can give them so that they can draw a diagram and then solve something.
Do you try to convey that, while boring, it’s also foundational, and you need it to get to the good stuff?
I literally used the word “foundational,” I don’t know how many times, because I actually primarily teach engineers. So, yes (laughter). It is one of my favorite words.
(Laughter) You need to know this anyway.
It’s like, guys, it’s Newton (laughter).
Right. But you know, needless to say, it’s the modern physics that sparks a lot of people who continue in physics.
And so, I had my sophomore year, the modern physics class, where we did some relativity and some quantum mechanics, but really low-level. You know, like hydrogen atom and Bohr model, and blah, blah, blah. And my teacher there was a theoretical nuclear physicist, Dirk Walecka. And he was amazing. I mean, he was one of these people who’d clearly- I don’t know how many dozens of times he may have taught this class, but he had his lectures down to a science. He carried with him, in his pocket, he had colored chalk of all colors. And his lectures, he would change the chalk color to accentuate things or draw diagrams. I mean, they were works of art. And he was inspiring. I mean, he was just totally- he made everything super exciting. And that was what clinched it. That was really what clinched it.
What was your senior thesis, and how did you develop it? Was there a professor who had a research problem that they gave to you, or you pursued something on your own?
It was a professor who gave me something. Previous summers, I had worked in different- after my freshman year, I worked in an atmospheric science lab, so we were developing a canister that would be deployed on a balloon and collect air that we would then analyze afterwards. Not really that exciting. Like, really not that exciting. After my sophomore year- what did I do? I think though- I don’t even remember what I did. I did something. See, this is the funny thing. Right? I don’t even know what I did.
I believe after my junior year was when I went to Florence. I went to Florence for six weeks- study abroad, because with physics, it was just too hard to actually do a real semester studying abroad. So, I did a summer study abroad instead. I took Italian and Art History in Florence. It was amazing (laughter). Like, just amazing. And then after that, I came back to start working on my thesis a little bit. So, as I said, my thesis instructor was a theoretical particle physicist. It was actually his first year my junior year, so he was totally the new guy. And he was teaching the graduate level quantum field theory course. And so, my senior year, I sat in on field theory that he was teaching, and he gave me a project which was, you know, a very typical model-builder type project of: imagine that we have this type of particle that has this type of interactions. Might we be able to detect it? And we used Jefferson Lab. Well, at that time, Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. So, he sort of suggested that this type of interaction and what-not was motivated, and then I had to figure out how to do the calculations. Which, of course, in retrospect, were so simple, and he could check them in like, a day or something. Right? But it took me like, a year (laughter).
Yes. Exactly. But it was nice having a little bit of field theory under my belt when I took it again in grad school, like when I really took it.
Yeah. At what point did you know you wanted to commit to graduate school? Was that pretty early on, or later in your undergraduate?
I think I wanted to go to graduate school. I can’t really remember not wanting to go to graduate school, once I was old enough to have realistic goals. You know? Once you’re past the, “I’m going to be a novelist,” or, “I’m going to be in the Olympics,” or whatever, and you start thinking about things that might actually occur- at least, statistically likely things- (laughter) because obviously, someone becomes an Olympian. I always just assumed I would go to graduate school. My parents both went to graduate school. My mom’s parents both went to graduate school. It’s just this kind of thing my family does.
You were not breaking any barriers by going to graduate school.
No. No. I mean, my younger sister is like, ABD with a master’s degree, and my parents are just utterly baffled. Like, why couldn’t you take the two or three months to just write all the stuff you did down, and get the degree? (laughter)
(Laughter) The slouch with an ABD. That’s great.
Yeah, exactly. Right?
What schools did you apply to for graduate work?
I didn’t know much, frankly, so I asked my undergrad advisor where would be good, and then I also had this idea that I wanted to try out living on the West Coast, and that it would be easier to do that as a graduate student, because that’s inherently temporary.
So, I asked for recommendations up and down the West Coast. On the East Coast, I applied to BU. I may have applied to Harvard or Princeton or what not. I honestly don’t even remember, because I mean, they were so not in my league of places I could get in, particularly with my GRE score. But I applied to Stanford. I applied to University of Washington. I applied to Santa Cruz. I applied to Berkeley. I really wanted to go to Berkeley. That’s really where I wanted to go, but my GRE scores didn’t actually make the cutoff for them to even look at my application, so (laughter).
Seattle, here you come.
So, right. But then, I went to the graduate student visiting weekend in Seattle, and I fell in love. I mean, it’s gorgeous. Right? If you’ve been there, I mean, it’s gorgeous.
Yeah. I talked to Eric Adelberger last week, and he kept talking about how throughout his career- I mean, he’s a major, major person. Right?
Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Right.
And so, throughout his career, he would just get these calls from the best programs, inviting- and he said, “I’m in Seattle. I’m in Washington. Where am I going? This is it. This is it right here.” So, yeah. It’s a good place to be. I get that.
Oh, yeah. I mean, of all the places I’ve lived, it’s my favorite. Anyway, the funny thing is that I met my husband in graduate school, so if I had been let into Berkeley, it would not have happened.
There you go.
And in fact, he wanted to go to Berkeley independently, and they lost his check in the mail for his application. So, like, somehow the stars collided, and (laughter)- so, right now we’re -
You were meant to be, and you were meant to meet at Washington.
It all works out.
So, you got there, and you knew theory. You were going to pursue theory.
So, I knew particle physics, and I knew that I didn’t really know enough to do any real theory at that time.
When you say, “particle physics,” were places like Brookhaven and Fermi- were they on your radar? Were you aware of the National Lab system?
I was, a little bit, because of William & Mary’s proximity to Jefferson Lab. So, I had actually done some work at Jefferson Lab, did the atmospheric science stuff, so I was at least aware of it. Yeah, and the point is, I knew about more of like the particle physics standard model, you know, things like that. And that’s what I found really exciting. So, I specifically asked my advisor to recommend places that had good people working in particle physics. And at University of Washington, they had a group at the time working on D0 at the Tevatron, and also working on ATLAS, which was in the construction phase at that time. So, I managed to make connections during the visiting weekend so that I could actually move to Seattle in the summer before my first year of grad school and start working on ATLAS construction.
What was exciting to you about ATLAS?
I mean, certainly the prospect of looking, you know, finding the Higgs boson was just- right? I mean, that’s like, finding a particle. When you’re a young physicist, and you’re still that sort of starry-eyed like, you know, your eyes light up when you think about these things. I mean, that’s just amazing.
And ATLAS had those ambitions? That was a theoretically achievable result at ATLAS?
Yes, for sure. Right? I mean, that was the big selling point, right, was you go to the higher energy, and you hope that you find the Higgs boson.
So, that was a really good fit, because it got me out to Seattle early, which I felt like was also going to be good for me to get adjusted to the location before I also got thrown into first-year graduate courses. I got to meet more faculty in the department. I got to meet some of the older graduate students. It was very good for sort of getting me adjusted beforehand. So, I actually worked on the muon tubes. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the muon tubes. You know how they work? They have these tubes, and then the string that goes down the middle, and there’s gas in it, and when a particle goes through, you know, it produces a current, basically. And so, the muon tubes, you have to know exactly where they are to be able to actually use them to track the particle, and so University of Washington was in charge of making a certain number of these segments of these muon tubes. So, before you glued them, you had to make sure they were in the right spot. What I was actually doing was, I was analyzing CCD camera data to figure out whether the tubes were aligned before they got glued.
How big was the research team at ATLAS?
Well, at University of Washington, at the time, there were two people that were full-time ATLAS, and one person that was sort of foot-in-the-door ATLAS, but younger, so still on D0 to get publications. So, the person that I was working with, I mean, he retired maybe a year or two after I wasn’t working with him anymore. But he was really great. He was really great. Very, very nice.
How broad-based was your coursework at Washington? Were you taking courses all over the place, or were you really trying to concentrate in particle physics?
I mean, besides the normal first-year courses that you take, like E&M, and what did I take quantum mechanics. I took something else. We didn’t have graduate level classical. I must have taken another class. Thermodynamics. Ugh! My brain does not work that way (laughter). But beyond that, most of the upper-level courses I took were particle physics related. You know, if there were special topics courses offered, like, there was one on QCD and string theory that I took. There was one on group theory for particle physics that I took. You know, I took a numerical methods class, which was totally useless. It’s funny, because I’m a numerical physicist, you know, a computational physicist, but what we learned in that class was not in any way helpful (laughter).
Who were some of the professors that you became close with?
My first year, my quantum mechanics professor was really, really interesting. His name was Lowell Brown. He actually has written a field theory book.
Yeah. I spoke to Lowell three weeks ago.
Oh, really? Lowell is so fascinating.
And he’s one of the most super eminent people around.
So, Lowell’s lectures were perfect. We had these lecture rooms where there were six boards. There were three, and then you could push them up, and then there were three more. His lectures were somehow magically timed so that by the end of the lecture, there were six boards all laid out with what had been said.
It was amazing. But for me, the big thing was he was really receptive to my coming to his office and asking for help. So, I spent a lot of time in his office learning quantum.
How many women were in your cohort?
Oh, in my cohort.
Was it like a super minority, or was it more balanced?
There were- the cohort, it’s a little interesting, because it’s like the couple people who were sort of in my cohort, but they maybe came in with master’s degrees, or some of them actually came in but from smaller schools, so they were taking senior-level undergraduate courses instead.
I mean, more generally. You were definitely not the only woman graduate student around.
No, but it was- I mean, probably fewer than five. And the only one I ended up being really close to who- she’s amazing, she was in physics education. And I mean, I hate to say that, but it was very stereotypical. A lot of the women at UW end up going into physics education research.
Is that because of Lillian McDermott?
Probably not (laughter). I mean, Lillian’s amazing too, but she has the somewhat abrasive personality that a lot of women of her age group in physics have, which they developed obviously to have to deal with all the crap that was thrown at them in their lives. But like it or not, they have a little bit of a shell or a little bit of abrasiveness to them. And it’s not- because I totally understand what they- but Peter Shaffer and Paula Heron had just been hired pretty recently, Paula had, and so a lot of people ended up working with Peter and Paula, who were very, very- I mean, I love Peter. He’s just so easygoing and great to talk to. But yeah, it was just kind of a group that was more somehow female-friendly, or at least perceived as that. And honestly, to some extent it was true, because certainly some of my female friends, who ended up in different labs, had some pretty awful experiences.
How did you go about developing your dissertation topic?
I would say I didn’t really develop my topic in the sense that with theory, a lot of times it’s not really one topic. It’s more of a- you do a couple papers on interrelated things.
And then you stitch together (laughter). Like, you write an intro. You write a conclusion. You sandwich your papers in the middle.
Yeah. Sure. The stapled dissertation. What I meant was: what was the theme that tied these papers together that sort of exemplified the things that you were interested in?
That’s a good question. Probably, the best place to start is actually to backtrack and talk about how I found my advisor, because my advisor, of course, played a key role in what I worked on. So, as I said, I was thinking about doing particle physics, still leaning theory. ATLAS was really exciting but given the timeline for when it was going to actually have data, it wasn’t really viable.
I could have done D0.
Did you know that going in, or was ATLAS sort of a longer process that you realized as you were there?
No, I realized that pretty early on, that that was not- I mean, it was all very understood within the group that I was not committing to being a graduate student with the group, I was helping them with stuff for the first year or two. You know, it was all really very no pressure. Right? It was very much: look, we know you’re still figuring these out. We love having you around, but we also want you to find what’s working for you. And so, I did not do ATLAS because of that, and I didn’t want to do D0 because I didn’t want to move to Illinois, and also because the person who was working on D0 at the time, Gordon Watts, he’s a wonderful person too, he was working primarily on the software side, on the data acquisition system, and at the time, I was really, really not a computer person. So, that just didn’t seem like it was going to be a good fit.
So, I actually did a reading course with Steve Ellis, who was another theoretical particle physicist. I mean, he is, I don’t know if you ever- he wrote a book. What is that book called? I don’t remember. It’s a book about Carlo Rubbia and discovering supersymmetry, but not- but it was a fake, and all that stuff. I can’t remember what it was called. It was a very readable book. I mean, he’s sort of a cross between a sportscaster and a comedian and something all rolled into one. You know, from Detroit, so he wears a gold chain (laughter)/ So, super cool. All the students just thought he was really cool. You know what I mean? So, I tried doing a reading course with him. It was not a good fit. Like, it just wasn’t a good fit. I mean, he was frankly not very positive, I don’t know- of sort of- it didn’t feel like- it wasn’t a good fit. I think he sort of expected me to be able to figure more things out on my own and be more independent at that time.
Anyway, it just wasn’t a great fit. So, I actually wasn’t sure what I was going to do at this point, the middle of my second year (laughter). But I was friends with some of the people in the theory group, including one of the postdocs. You might know him: Zackaria Chacko. He’s at Maryland right now.
No, I don’t.
So, he’s awesome. He and I had lunch one day, and I was talking about how I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or who I wanted to work with, and he said: “I think you’d really get along with Steve Sharp.” And I was like, hmm. I might, but he does lattice QCD, and that’s all computers, and I don’t even like computers or know anything about computers. And he was like: “no, no, no. Steve is not a computer code-monkey kind of person, and honestly, I think you guys would be a really great fit.” So, I was like, okay. Try a reading course. Right? So, I approached Steve and asked him if I could do a reading course with him, and it really was a great fit. I mean, we just- we get along really well, both personally and professionally. It’s funny, because he tells me, at one point, after I graduated obviously, he told me that I reminded him of his wife in some ways. You know, anyway- so, we gelled very well, and what I came to learn was that he doesn’t do the numerical calculations for lattice QCD. What he does is supporting pencil and paper calculations that are needed to interpret the numbers that come out of the computer. So, that was actually a really good way of getting my feet wet in this field, because it was fundamentally field theory. It was pencil and paper field theory. It was not programming or anything of that nature.
And your sense was that you had a greater appreciation for what Steve did, or he sort of put together something for you that would be more in line with your interests and strengths?
I would say, like with anything, I feel like- yeah, so I think it was sort of part of it was the phenomenon where I think once you get more in-depth in pretty much any field, you start to see the interesting aspects of it. Right? Like, I feel like with a lot of things, the more you warn about them, the more you realize: oh, that’s really interesting, too. And that’s really cool, too. And I think that I actually could have been interested in a lot of different types of physics, or frankly not physics at all, had I had different circumstances and different people in my lives and what not. I certainly don’t think that somehow, I was destined to be a physicist. I mean, I was destined to be academically inclined. I am an academic. I wear that badge proudly (laughter). I grew up in that family and what not, but I don’t think it was ever predetermined that I would do physics, or what I would do. It was very much a sort of sequence of events, where this person helps sway me this way, and this person helped sort of move me in that direction.
So, to get back to the question of the theme that ties your dissertation together, with that backstory of Steve and how you developed that relationship with him: what, in the end, was that theme?
So, this theme was, at the time, lattice, I don’t know how familiar you are with lattice quantum chromodynamics.
For the benefit of the wider audience, you can go ahead and explain.
So, QCD is the theory of quarks and gluons. So, quarks are the particles that make up the proton and the neutron, and the proton and the neutron are, of course, what make up the atomic nucleus. So, quarks and gluons interact, and their interaction strength is very large compared to, say, the electromagnetic coupling or some of the other ones we might be more familiar with in what we can see. And they interact at very, very short distances that we can’t really comprehend. But because the coupling is so strong, you can’t use very traditional pencil and paper methods to do the calculations of these composite particles of quarks that are bound together. So, you have to do them numerically, and at this point, you do them numerically on supercomputers. The point is, you do these numerical computations on supercomputers, but fundamentally, when you’re putting a problem on a computer, you’re going to make some approximations. So, for example, spacetime is infinite. Right? There’s no beginning and no end. But if you want to put something on a computer, you can’t put an infinite thing on a computer. Right? So, you have to make your space finite, but big enough that it holds whatever stuff is going on.
Now, is that because infinity doesn’t work as a dataset, or because the computer itself is finite, and so by definition, it cannot deal with something that is infinite?
You have to store things in memory. Right? So, imagine that you take space, and instead of a continuous set of points, you just approximate it as discrete points, but they’re really, really close together. You have to put all of those points in memory, and there have to be [laughs] a finite number of them, otherwise, what do you do? And then you have to do calculations with them. So, again, you wouldn’t want infinite loops. Right? Because if you ever had a loop that was running over an infinite number, it would not end. And so, it’s literally to make it so that you can store the information on a computer and so that you can do calculations with that information.
Can you explain how the approximations at the beginning don’t just mess up the entire experiment, the entire data?
Yes. Good question, because that actually ties into my thesis project. The first thing that I’m talking about is that we just have to say spacetime is a finite size, and since we’re talking about quarks and gluons, spacetime, our boxes only have to be a few fermis across. Okay? Like, I mean, when I say, “a big box,” I’m still talking a few fermis, which is not big in some normal sense of the word. And to figure out whether the size of your box affects your calculation, you do the calculation from multiple box sizes, making it bigger and bigger, and then you just see whether something changes. But of course, that’s not really very satisfying if all it is empirical. So, what you want is you want theoretical calculations that tell you how you expect it to change with the size of your box. There are effective field theories. I don’t know if you’ve heard that language before, but the point is, where the particles in your model, they’re not the fundamental quarks and gluons, they’re the pions and the kaons, and sort of the composite particles instead. And you can do calculations in this chiral effective theory to try to understand the effect of the box size.
Then the other thing that I was mentioning was the idea that you have to discretize spacetime. Clearly, in real life, space is not a bunch of points that are separated. Right? They’re infinitely close together. So, just like you did multiple calculations with different box sizes, you do multiple calculations where you shrink the space between points, and that will allow you to extrapolate to zero spacing between points. To guide that extrapolation, you again want some theoretical input. Right? If you think about it mathematically, you’re going to use some sort of function. And is your function a straight line with the lattice spacing? Is your function a quadratic with the lattice spacing? Does it suggest something more complicated with the lattice spacing? Because depending on what it does, that’s going to affect that endpoint.
At the time that I was starting to get into this field, there were people on the numerical side who were doing calculations making a specific type of approximation for how to deal with the finite lattice spacing, and they needed people to do the theoretical calculations to try to understand that limit where you approach zero lattice spacing, where you approach continuous spacetime. So, my thesis was actually doing calculations of formulas that were needed for people who did these calculations to understand: how do I take my results and non-zero lattice spacing and turn them into results for the real world? It was entirely a theoretical calculation, but it was directly applicable for things that were going on at the time.
What does that mean, translating into the real world? If it’s all theoretical, what is the real world?
To me, the real world is spacetime is infinite, and spacetime is continuous. So, when I say, “the real world,” yeah. Right. That’s what I mean.
Right. “Nature.” Nature with a big “N” (laughter).
Was there a philosophical component at all to your thesis, in sort of dealing with this, either implicit or explicit?
Not particularly. And quite frankly, when you’re a graduate student, most of the time you’re in the weeds.
Right? Let’s be honest. I’m in the weeds. You’re trying to figure out how to do the calculation. I ended up having to learn a particular kind of group theory that my advisor hadn’t actually ever learned. It’s not one that’s commonly used, so it’s a special part of group theory where you’re not going to find it in textbooks, because it just isn’t that level. So, I actually was going to do original research papers and what not. So basically, I discovered how to take the group theory that mathematicians had figured out and apply it to our physics problem at hand. I wrote a couple papers on this. I became an expert in this, so that was my niche for graduate school and my first year or two as a postdoc. Right? Because you know, you sort of develop a niche, and you put out- once you know how to do a calculation, you can do lots of them. Right? So, for example, you can do a calculation first, where you say: okay, how do I extrapolate the pion decay constant to zero lattice spacing? And the next one could be: what about the neutral kaon mixing parameter? You can start some — cranking out the same idea, but for different physical quantities. I don’t want to say I became a factory, but a little bit. Right? Because you’re still young, and you’re not really able to think like big-picture research program. Right? But you’re like: I have a skill. I know how to do these types of calculations. Like, what would be useful? (laughter)
Now, it’s another grandiose question, and I know you’re already talking about being in the weeds as a graduate student. But what did you see as your contributions with this work?
Quite honestly, I’m not even sure I ever thought about it in that way. I mean, I was much more-
I mean, isn’t that a question that you’re going to get in the oral exam?
Yeah, I guess so (laughter). I mean, certainly- I don’t know. I mean, I guess the problem is, I was not thinking of it in that way. I mean, even though that’s what I was doing. Right? I’m much more able to now, to- even when I’m in the weeds of a project, I’m much better now able to step back and provide the context and understand how it fits in, and –
Well, you don’t even have to answer that in terms of putting yourself back into your mindset as a late-stage graduate student. Looking back at the dissertation, what do you think your contributions were?
Looking back at the dissertation, I would say that one of my contributions was helping to develop the effective field theory used to describe lattice QCD simulations with staggered quarks. So, this is a particular way to discretize quarks, and it’s popular because it’s reasonably affordable computationally. It’s a reasonably cheap way to go, so that allows you to gather more statistics and do more parameters and try different things. It’s cheap, but it introduces more complications in terms of these extrapolations to zero-lattice spacing. So, my contribution was helping to develop the effective theory to describe this, and then also doing calculations of the quantities that people were interested in numerically. And that was my graduate school contribution.
And then once I was older, I started learning- you know, once I was a postdoc, I started learning how to actually take data that people had generated on the computer and actually apply the formulas myself. Like, as a graduate student, I calculate the formula. I hand it off to somebody else, metaphorically speaking. Right? The thing in the box at the end of the paper, if there was a box, would be like: this is the equation you should use if you’re doing this lattice calculation of this quantity. But as I got older, I started being tied in more to the people doing the numerical work and no longer passing these things off, but actually doing the analysis myself. So, that was the path that I went on.
What was your next move after graduate school?
Then I ended up being a postdoc at Fermilab. This, again, all ties back into people. Like, my whole life, I feel like it’s really driven by people.
Like, as much as anything. So, as I said, I met my husband in graduate school. My husband ended up working on D0 for his thesis, and so roughly a week or so after we got back from our honeymoon, he moved to Illinois. So, I was in Seattle, and he was in Illinois. Not so great. Right? I mean, we worked it out, but we were grad students, so it wasn’t even like we had disposable income for flying back and forth that often and what not. So, I talked to my advisor, Steve, who was amazing, like I said, and we ended up coming up with a plan. I mean, I think he suggested more, but he said, “Hey, there are people at Fermilab doing lattice quantum chromodynamics. I will talk to them and see if maybe I can arrange for you to go out and be a visitor there for a while.” So, he approached Paul Mackenzie and Andreas Kronfeld, the lattice people there, and said: “hey, I have this graduate student. She has interest in being at Fermilab for these personal reasons. You know, would it be possible for her to just get a desk in the theory group and maybe start interacting with you guys and what not?” So, the stars aligned. They were happy to have me. I was able to rearrange my teaching so that I did double TA teaching on quarters when I was in Seattle, so that I could not TA at all when I was at Fermilab. Of course, that was how I was getting paid. And so, I went out to Fermilab for nine months as a graduate student.
Now, as a postdoc, you don’t yet have to ask yourself the big questions of: do I want to work in a National Lab, or do I want to be on a faculty somewhere?
That doesn’t have to be part of the consideration yet.
Right. And at that point, I wanted to be at Fermilab, because that’s where my husband was.
I mean, it was a no-brainer (laughter). But the point is, it was very fortunate, because had I not been a graduate student there for nine months, I’m absolutely positive they would not have offered me a postdoc.
But the point is, while I was there, I started doing a small project with Paul Mackenzie- also wonderful. I’m sorry. There are so many wonderful people, that just have helped me along the way.
They’re all men so far, Ruth. I want to point out.
Well, of course they are (laughter).
Right. So, I’m just curious. Have there been any women who have been mentors in your life, even to fast-forward to today? Or, has it just sort of been men through and through?
It has been mostly men. I would say that I have developed a very good relationship with Aida El-Khadra from Illinois. I don’t know if you know Aida.
Not only that, but when I asked Bob Sugar who I should speak to, he said you and Aida, the two of you. So, there must be some connection there.
She’s wonderful. She is wonderful. And so, Aida actually- I did not meet her early on in my career, because she was on family leave and what not when I was at Fermilab. And you know, it was the sort of- your kids are really little, and you slow down for a couple years, kind of thing. You know how that goes.
Very much so.
So, I didn’t actually get close to Aida until later. So, really, I would say the first female physicist that I would say was influential in my life at all was Ann Nelson. I mean, she was my field theory teacher, and a wonderful, wonderful human being. I mean, I wasn’t close to her, but at least she was a “here is a female theoretical physicist,” like somebody that I can at least see in that position. And also, she and David were married, and they had kids. So, they at least modeled the type of situation that I sort of envisioned for myself in the future. It’s funny. As I got older, I discovered that Ann will totally open up, would open up, once you got to know her, but at the time, of course, she could be very shy. Oh, it’s so hard to talk about her in the past tense. I’m sorry. Anyway, so, she seemed shy early on, but at one point, once you sort of get through that shell, she just- I don’t know. She was so kind and so warm, and she and David together modeled this ideal picture for somebody who was an academic and physicist who also still wanted a family and who was engaged to, and eventually would marry, a physicist herself, and whatnot. Ann influenced me in that way, in the “this is possible,” like, I see a person. She did it, and she even seems really happy about it.
What were your impressions of Fermilab when you first got there?
I admit, I thought it was really cool. I mean, I thought it was really cool. At the time, the Tevatron was still running.
So, there were no existential questions post-Tevatron. What was Fermilab to do when you had gotten there? That was still very much Tevatron-
No. So, the first time we got there, it was very much still active. Every week, we would have a wine and cheese seminar from somebody on D0 or CDF, telling us something that had been measured or was being searched for, like right down the road. So, it was just really vibrant. It was really vibrant and really active, and because my husband was on D0, also I knew people on D0 as well as people in the theory group, which was good, because the theory group was small. Right? So, that definitely helped expand my social circle a bit. Yeah. But at the time, I mean really-
And what was your work? What were you working on then?
What I was working on then was I was doing some more of those similar calculations to what I told you about before. I sort of was wrapping up some stuff with Steve. The year before I was hired, Fermilab hired as a postdoc Jack Anderson, who had worked at Brookhaven. I don’t know if you know him.
He is a character. Like, do you want to interview somebody that is just a character? I mean, crazy smart, total character.
Okay. Alright. I’ll put him on the list.
(Laughter) He was Jack’s advisor. So, Jack had actually also done some effective field theory calculations, and so he and I actually ended up starting to work together on projects, and so Jack and I ended up collaborating together for probably the next ten plus years. Right? I mean, he became that person for me.
Then I also picked back up with what I was starting to work on with Paul Mackenzie, and that transitioned into my first numerical project, where they had actually just had- okay, he overlapped with a year- so, my first year as a postdoc at Fermilab was the last year of the postdoc for Masataka Okamoto. He was a Japanese postdoc. But anyway, not a hundred percent sure. And Masataka was really hilariously quirky. Like, he would work horribly late hours and then not be awake during the daytime. It was like he was still on Japan time or something. But he generated a lot of data. He wrote the code. He ran the code on the computers available. He generated the data. He left the field. So, there was this data sitting around that hadn’t been analyzed. So, that was what Paul and Andreas and I were talking about things I could work on, and one of the things was: hey, we have this data. Do you want to start taking a look at it? So, that was my transition to the more numerical side.
I started out with entirely pencil and paperwork, and then the natural next step was, I didn’t generate the numerical data, but someone provides it to me, and I learn how to analyze and interpret it. And that really shaped my career in terms of what one would call my expertise now, because the Fermilab group has been working very much in B physics, like physics of particles with B quarks in them. So, I started working on a calculation of the form factor for a B meson decaying to a pion and a charged lepton and a neutrino.
Now, just to bring us back to the narrative, because you’re now describing your research, as it comes even to the present day- but at the beginning, these are things that you were even working on as a postdoc at Fermilab.
This was something I started working on as a postdoc at Fermilab.
In particular, the B to pion new form factor.
Did you have- I mean, not to be overly dramatic, but did you have a moment where you said, “This is my wheelhouse right here. This is what I want to be doing for my career”?
I’m not really sure. That’s a really good question. I would say that really came about more during my second postdoc, not my first postdoc.
Okay. So, let’s talk about that transition. You were at Fermilab for one year?
For three years.
Oh, for three years.
I was at Fermilab for three years as a postdoc.
Okay. Was that- is that how Fermilab works? That’s usually long- that’s a pretty long postdoc.
Fermilab theory postdocs are three years.
And that is one of the reasons it makes them very attractive, because it-
People like having three years as postdocs.
Right, because it gives you more of a buffer to get papers out. So, it’s a very nice thing to have a three-year postdoc and not a two-year postdoc.
So, I was there for three years.
Did you take advantage? Were you publishing?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I was definitely publishing, and you know, most importantly, I was working with the lattice QCD effort at Fermilab, because- I mean, that’s the bottom line, is you want to- wherever you go, you want to make sure that you’re working with people, local people. Right? Because that’s- from a sort of cynical standpoint, they’re going to write you letters. Right? And if everybody at Fermilab writes a letter that says, “Well, she seemed to be producing papers, but she didn’t work with any of us,” not so great.
And then, like I said, I’m really a people person, so I wanted to be engaged with the people there, because that was what was enjoyable for me. So, the fact is, I was working with Paul and Andreas, like, my senior colleagues, and then Jack, like I said, and I overlapped for two years. And I was especially productive because my husband graduated, and then he moved away, because he got a postdoc. He got a postdoc at Columbia University. So, there was a year where he was at Columbia and I was at Fermilab, and I got a whole lot of work done (laughter).
(Laughter) Right. Right. That’s one way to solve the two-body problem.
Right. But of course, we didn’t want that to continue, so that very much drove where I wanted to be for my next postdoc.
Which is why I ended up at Brookhaven.
Right. So, the point is, it all sort of- so again, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I really want to be at a National Lab.” It was never a focus for being in a national lab. It just was always what worked with our two-body situation. Right? But Brookhaven was a good fit. Brookhaven was different because I ended up taking more of a leadership role in starting a new program there. They had a lattice QCD group, but they hadn’t done any flavor physics calculations- well, any B physics calculations. So, my real contribution there was helping start their program in B physics calculations. You know, saying: okay, I have this expertise. I’m going to bring it to the table, and we’re going to use some of the methods that you have been using for other quantities to do some complementary work to what I’d done at Fermilab.
So, it wasn’t the greatest fit for me, because- so, the lattice group at Brookhaven, most of them worked within the context of the RBC collaboration, the RIKEN-Brookhaven-Columbia collaboration. And it’s a fairly hierarchical collaboration in terms of senior people suggesting things, and more junior people doing things. I don’t work well with that (laughter). Part of what’s so great about him is he’s fine butting heads. He does not take it personally in any way. Some people do, and really, he’s fine with that. I never really wanted to stay at Brookhaven long-term, plus the fact that my husband and I did not like Long Island. Like, we did not. But it was a good place for me to develop more independence, because of the fact that there wasn’t this group where I could just easily click myself in and say: oh yeah, I’m just going to start working on this thing you’re already doing. It was much more: I have to figure out how I can bring my expertise to the table and do something that I can take ownership of, but that still works with the people.
So, what did you do, and how did you do it, at Brookhaven?
You may remember previously in our conversation, we talked about how some of the theory calculations I’ve been doing were to interpret lattice calculations using staggered fermions, which is a particular way of discretizing quarks. But there are other ways of discretizing quarks, and so, the group at Brookhaven was using a different formulation.
Now, all of the formulations have to agree when you take the limit to zero lattice spacing, when you’re back at nature, but they don’t have to agree at a fixed non-zero lattice spacing, because you’re making different numerical approximations. So, I said: hey, Fermilab has done these really useful calculations of these important quantities for the B factories, but there’s no independent check. Let’s do an independent check. Let’s do our own independent calculation of these quantities, but using the fermion discretization that you guys at Brookhaven are experts in. So, that was my suggestion, and that was what we ended up doing when I was there. Then, I also stayed working with people at Fermilab because honestly, I liked them a lot, and it just made sense for me.
You mean, from afar, you continued working with them.
Were the projects at Fermilab and Brookhaven- I mean, there’s always- you have to be careful that the projects are not redundant. Right? You don’t want the same things happening at two different labs. So, I’m curious. In terms of how you fit in with those specific projects, how were they different in terms of the big questions that they were asking?
In this particular case, you should think of lattice calculations as more similar to a measurement. So, imagine if at the LHC, instead of having both ATLAS and CMS, you just had ATLAS. And ATLAS says: hey, we discovered the Higgs boson. How confident are you? Whereas if you have ATLAS and CMS, and it’s totally different teams with totally different detectors looking at it from totally different angles, coming to not only- we not only both see this Higgs boson, but we both see the Higgs boson with roughly the same mass, and with roughly the same properties. That’s what gives you confidence. So, with the calculations I’m doing, it’s not good enough to do one of them, because at the end of the day, since they’re numerical calculations, numerical uncertainties creep in, and you have to estimate the errors, and estimating errors is hard, and it requires judgment.
And what’s the feedback mechanism? How do you know you’re right, or wrong, for that matter, with estimating errors?
The first thing is you can validate your strategies on things where you know the answer from some other means. For example, take the pion decay constant. I can calculate the pion decay constant in lattice QCD. I can blind it with some factor, so I don’t even know the number. I can do all of my error analysis. I can finalize it, get approval from my colleagues, and then unblind it and see what it is, and then I can compare it with the pion decay constant from nuclear beta decay, which is a totally independent physical process, and I can see if they agree or not. And if my results didn’t agree, I’d say: hey, there’s something funky going on, either with my calculation or with my analysis, or with my error estimates, or something.
So, there’s a sort of process where you start out with calculating things where you already know the answer to validate the methods. Then, you start trusting calculations of things where you don’t know the answer. That being said, if one were to use, say, our calculation of the form factor and find a value of VUB that implied physics beyond the standard model, you would want more than one calculation of that, because that would be a really big deal. So, you still want two or more independent calculations, using different numerical approximations, different people doing the analysis, different ways of estimating errors. If you’re going to claim that you actually discovered physics beyond the standard model using this theory number as part of your input, you need robust confirmation, the same way you would need robust confirmation from an experiment saying we discovered a new particle. So, that’s why, I mean, there was occasionally a little bit of awkwardness because I was literally working on competing calculations with different hats. But, I mean, I actually make it work.
You mean serving two different projects using the same skillset?
Yes. So, actually at one point, I was calculating the same quantity with two different groups of people in two different ways.
You mean, socially awkward, or scientifically awkward?
Science typically was not hard for me at all.
How long were you at Brookhaven?
I was at Brookhaven for four years. At Brookhaven -
This was a second postdoc?
I was a postdoc for three, but I was a Goldhaber fellow. Brookhaven has these named fellows, and the named fellows are people who one could imagine being ready to get a tenured-track equivalent assistant physicist position after the end of this postdoc. So, after my two-year postdoc, as a Goldhaber fellow, I became an assistant physicist at Brookhaven. So, I was actually an assistant physicist for a year at Brookhaven. Then, during that time, I was poached by Fermilab.
Where is the two-body problem in all of this?
Well, neither of us liked Brookhaven, so we really wanted to get out of there if possible. It just was not- Long Island was not a great fit for us. As I said, the lattice group there, nice people, but I was butting heads constantly because of the sort of hierarchy mentality that was just really hard.
Oh, so the hierarchy was more rigid at Brookhaven than at Fermilab?
Oh, by far. By far. At least, in the group doing lattice QCD calculations.
I don’t mean generally in Brookhaven.
If I could have wrapped up Sally Dawson from Brookhaven and taken her with me to Fermilab, I would. Have you interviewed Sally?
No, but we’ll talk later about who you else think I should talk to.
Okay. She’s awesome.
And she’s such a straight shooter, and she will just tell you what she thinks.
Yeah. The point is, we really wanted to get out of Brookhaven, so we negotiated with Fermilab, and Fermilab actually offered both Thomas and I positions. Well, Brookhaven ended up counteroffering him a position too, but the point is, we didn’t want to be at Brookhaven, so we went to Fermilab.
So, we moved to Fermilab.
What year was this for your return to Fermilab?
2012. Yeah, so we returned to Fermilab with my daughter, who was two and a half at the time, so I had her during my second postdoc, while I was at Brookhaven. And the place, they were really great about that. Right? I mean, they were very supportive. No issues spending some time on leave. Really great. Utterly supportive. Anyway, so we moved out there, and I started up at the theory group, and for me, it was a very easy transition, because I had stayed working with people at Fermilab the whole time. So, I stepped right in.
For Thomas, it was much more challenging. He had worked on D0 as a graduate student, and then he had worked on ATLAS as a postdoc at Columbia. And then at Fermilab, a natural thing for him to do would have been to work on CMS. However, it was going to be politically awkward to hire him. But the point is, he was being offered a job because they wanted me. Right? So, there were going to be a lot of people pissed off, apparently, if he started working on CMS, because there were people in the pipeline of being expected to be promoted into CMS jobs. So, they said: but we would like you to work on some intensity frontier physics. So, something related to the sort of- at the time, just ramping up Fermilab’s program. Muons, for example. So, Thomas actually knew- he shopped around a bit, but he already knew Brendan Casey. I don’t know if you know Brendan Casey. He’s on the Muon g-2 experiment, and he was on D0. So, that kind of helped Thomas sort out what he wanted to do. So, he ended up deciding that he would work on g-2. So, Thomas worked on g-2 for maybe a year or two, and he just decided that he wanted to do something different. So, he actually has been doing data science in the private sector for several years now. So, yes. Much happier. Everybody’s good. Chicago’s a great place if you need a job. I mean, obviously not- probably now is bad.
But in general, a great place if you have skills. Right? So, that’s been good.
So, just to bring the narrative right up to the present, when you say that the work that you started for your initial postdoc at Fermilab is essentially the same work you’re doing right up to this day, obviously it has changed over time. So, I’m curious. Since you’ve gotten back to Fermilab- I mean, my first question is: did you just sort of hop back in, to the extent that you were able to, with your previous group and your colleagues, or it was an opportunity to sort of branch out a little bit?
It definitely was an opportunity to branch out. In particular, when I was applying for the Fermilab job, my application process was not like- I mean, it wasn’t an open search. It was a, you come give a wine and cheese seminar, and if the director likes you, we’ll be able to make you an offer. Right? So, I had a lot of time to think about how I might see myself supporting the experimental program as it moves forward at Fermilab. Right? And Fermilab was not actually working a lot on quark flavor physics, which as I said, was really my area of expertise. I mean, for example, I gave a plenary talk at Lattice 2010, no, ’09, on quark flavor physics. You know? The one where- you know, 400 people in a room, invited speaker, and that’s what I got asked to talk about. But I was like: how am I going to try to do something that’s more targeted toward the experimental programs at the lab?
So, that’s when I started learning more about the G-2 experiment and other things. Once I got to Fermilab the second time around, maybe about a year into it or something, I started working on calculating the muon anomalous magnetic moment, which of course, was really big for Fermilab, and something new. Right? Because it wasn’t just — at some point, otherwise it would have been, let’s repeat the same calculation we just did, but with better statistics. Let’s repeat the same calculation we just did, but with a finer lattice spacing. You can’t do that. At some point, that’s just mind-numbing. So, this was what you would call lepton flavor physics, and it was phenomenology, and it was particle physics, and it was tied to experiments, so it was all very related to what I was doing, but also different.
And to get back to- I think one of the first things we were discussing, going up to the equivalent of tenure, how did that influence your research, or the kinds of things you were working on, or your appetite to do things that you might not have done otherwise?
Oh, it definitely- the tenure process, and even more probably than the tenure process, but the DOE comparative review process. I don’t know how familiar you are with that (laughter). Definitely made me very cognizant that I wanted to make sure that I was doing things that were well-aligned with the experimental program.
And we- with part of my time. Not all of my time.
But I was very cognizant of that being important.
Now, do you feel unburdened now from those things, or there’s always a natural inclination to want to have that alignment, regardless?
That’s a really interesting question because of my current position. So, as I mentioned, I’m actually on leave from Fermilab. About two years ago, maybe a little more, I was just in a little bit of a research funk. Things just felt stale, and also for a variety of reasons, our group at Fermilab, the lattice QCD group, had shrunk. Paul, unfortunately, had an accident. He fell down the stairs and had a brain hemorrhage and was out for quite a while. Andreas got a fellowship at the Technical University in Munich, where he had to spend lots of time there.
Budget shrinkage meant that we had fewer postdocs. The postdoc that I had been supervising had a baby and went on maternity leave. Frankly, it just got really lonely. And I don’t do well with lonely (laughter). I don’t do well. And this sort of goes back to my whole theme of, people have very much affected what I have chosen to do. So, I was thinking really hard about what I wanted to do, because at the end of the day, working primarily with people that were at other places, like, you know, I was working with Aida. Aida’s wonderful, but she wasn’t there. Right? It’s not the same.
It just wasn’t cutting it for me. I don’t have enough of a passion for research that that, in itself, was adequate, at least not at this stage in my life.
You need some new blood to jazz you up for research, is what it sounds like.
And I always have loved teaching. I’ve always loved teaching. I mean, that’s what I always-
Which you were starved of, being in the national labs for so long.
Right. And the point is, that’s what I envisioned myself being, from the age when I had realistic ideas. Like, I didn’t know what I was going to be a college professor in, but my grandfather was a college professor. I idolized him. I mean, I absolutely idolized my grandfather. Really smart, but just caring and kind, and the epitome of what you would want a college professor to be. Right? Like, the person who you could go to their office and talk to them about anything. You know what I mean? Anyway, so that’s what I always wanted, you know, sort of pictured myself doing. I’d fallen into national labs because of, like, two-body problem, and national labs are easier places, typically, to solve those problems. I was thinking about what to do, and I was like: alright, maybe I’ll try teaching. Do you know Herman White?
I talked to him about two months ago.
His story? Amazing.
Like, amazing. He gave a talk at North Central’s Martin Luther King breakfast this past February. And of course, it was really short. But I’d worked with Herman a lot at Fermilab. We were on the same committee for a couple of years. But I had no idea of all his history with the Civil Rights movement. Anyway, Herman is on the board of trustees of North Central College. I knew that. And then actually, my neighbor- the people that moved in maybe a year or two after we moved into our house in Naperville, is the chaplain at North Central College. And he is wonderful. Like, a ray of progressive Christian warmth, like a beam of- I don’t know. Do you know what I’m saying?
Anyway, so I knew people at North Central, and North Central happens to be less than a mile from my house. I was like, “Well, that would be convenient” (laughter). But what are the odds of them even having an opening? Because it’s a small school. Right? Well, coincidentally, they actually had an opening. I was just looking on their website, and they had an opening for a three-year visiting position. So, I was like, okay. I’m totally unqualified. I have no teaching experience since being a graduate student. There is no way they’re going to offer me this job, but I will try. So, I got in touch with one of my friends, Elizabeth Freeland, who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. She teaches physics. She was at Benedictine for a year, which is also- it’s in Lisle, which is the next suburb over, but she didn’t like it, so she left. Then my friend Christopher Aubin, who is at Fordham University in the Bronx, so, I talked to them. I had them read my research statements and my teaching statements to at least get some idea of whatnot, and I applied, and I got the job.
In retrospect, they were like, “oh, my gosh. This person with over a decade of actual research experience in theoretical particle physics wants to come and teach here? That’s amazing.” Right? I mean, the dean was a little- the dean- hmm. Definitely was more of a, like: “why do you want to come here?” Like, more of a: “I’m suspicious. Like, something must be wrong” (laughter). But my colleagues in the physics department were just super excited to have somebody else who could engage students in research.
So, it sounds like returning to Fermilab is very much an open question for you.
Have you communicated that they need to revitalize the people that you would work with for this to be feasible for you?
Well, since I have been on leave, they have actually hired a new person, Michael Wagman, who is quite young. He was actually in his first postdoc at MIT. But I mean, brilliant. Like, totally brilliant. Actually, this past year- no, last year, we did this search. So last year, my first year at North Central, I was still half-time at Fermilab. I was teaching full-time at a small liberal arts college, so heavy teaching load, and I was half-time at Fermilab, which meant logistically, I was going into the lab one day per week, working as much as I could, and then using sick and vacation days for any hours that I didn’t make, because I was basically getting paid for twenty hours a week. So, if I worked sixteen hours, I would use- whatnot. That was not tenable (laughter). It was really, really hard.
So, this past year I was half-time, and during that year, when I was halftime at Fermilab, we did a search for another person in lattice QCD. So, we hired Michael Wagman, who came this year. And he’s super enthusiastic and super gung-ho. And he doesn’t have kids yet, so he’s got all the time in the world- at least, it seems like that to me. You know what I mean (laughter). So, I think he really is, in some ways, revitalizing the group, but he’s not really in the areas that I tend to work in. But he’d be great to interact with. The problem is, I fell in love with teaching. I mean, that’s really where it is right now.
Could this turn into a tenure-line position for you?
Oh, thank you, coronavirus. So, before COVID-19, the plan was that North Central was going to have a tenure-track opening, like a search this fall. So, that was actually going to overlap really well, because it was going to be the third year of my visiting position. There was going to be a tenure-track opening. So, in principle, I could apply for that, and there would be continuity. Right? Because my visiting position was over, and I could start tenure-track. And my colleagues, I mean, it has to be an open search, because the dean is just not willing to approve a target of opportunity.
But my colleague wrote the job posting- I mean, the job description, and it was: we want a computational physicist with ties to national laboratories that can (laughter)- I mean, we get along great. There’s only three full-time physics faculty. There’s one that’s older than me that’s tenured; one that’s younger than me, so, there was a tenure-track search the very first quarter I was there, and I just did not, at the time, feel at all experienced enough to actually apply. In retrospect, I think I could have, because they actually hired somebody fresh out of grad school (laughter). But she’s amazing too, and I’m really, really blessed to have her, too. So, the three of us are the department, plus we get help from adjuncts and things, and it’s great.
Would a “best of both worlds” scenario be where this became a career, being a teaching professor, but you still had a hand in research work at Fermilab?
Does Fermilab offer the kind of opportunity to dip in as you want to?
Certainly, they have visitors all summer. So, in an ideal world- I mean, what I did last summer- last summer, I went into Fermilab every day, and it was actually a blast, because I hadn’t been able to do that much research for a while, and it was really fun getting back into it, because I had- it was grounded in this- I had this wonderful teaching experience, and now let’s buckled down and get some research done. And it was really fun and engaging and using different parts of my brain.
So, let me ask you a difficult question. When Bob said to me, “You’ve got to talk to Ruth. She’s doing some of the most significant work in physics today,” see, he said that.
That’s very sweet of him.
I don’t think he was being sweet. I think he was being sincere. Right? So, you don’t have to hide behind your own humility or modesty. I’m just laying that on you. How do you deal with that if you sort of go full-on into teaching, and not even teaching at a research university, teaching at a smaller college? Right? How do you deal with sort of- I mean, is your response, “Well, I did all of the major contributions that I think I have in me”? Is it, “I’m just no longer interested in those things”? How do you deal with that clear momentum and trajectory that at least some very eminent people think that you’re on right now?
It’s hard. It’s really hard. I mean, I was talking to- I’ve talked to Aida, for example, who’s a real mentor to me. I was talking last week or the week before to the group leader at Fermilab, Marcela Carena, so another female. And it’s hard, because I know, frankly, I’m disappointing people- people who- women who have helped carve the path that has allowed me to do what I’m doing in an easier way than they had it. And I can see them just being disappointed at the idea that I might not continue along the, you know, just keep on getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and more and more important, in terms of status and what not, especially Marcela. Marcela cares very much about that stuff. She’s a very big name in the field, and it matters to her a lot.
So, why not square the circle and be at a research university?
Oh, do I want to move my children? (Laughter) I mean, that’s really what it is. I’m just not sure. They’re both in really good situations, in terms of friends and school and daycare and all of that. I know they’re kids. I know they would adjust. But that being said, you know, my daughter in particular, she’s an introvert. She’s probably on the spectrum, like, undiagnosed, but she has some moments that are socially awkward, bordering on insensitive. And just, the upheaval of moving is hard to-
What is your response for leaving aside the women’s issue and the pathbreaking issue, and just the physics issue, right? What is your response, if people are disappointed in all of the good physics that you might not do. Right? What is your response in terms of: “Don’t worry. Here are the people who are also working on this. These issues are in very good hands”? Do you have a good response to that?
I would say that’s it. The point is, for example, Aida has taken over a lot of stuff that I was doing, and she’s doing a fantastic job. The calculations that I was working on, they are still getting done. And honestly, had it not been for COVID-19, I would be doing research right now. I don’t know. The whole thing is just, it’s so hard. Right? And it’s very hard to focus at home nowadays.
in a way that- it’s really hard for me to find the motivation to sit at my computer and say: okay, first, let’s make sure that my password still works, and then let’s see where the data has moved now. It’s not in me. But had things gone according to plan, I would be going into Fermilab every day and still doing research.
But not being super happy about it.
No, it- I was going to be happy in the summer. The point is-
Oh, you mean as a summer visitor within your leave.
Yeah, exactly. I’d be totally happy with a summer visitor arrangement. But it’s not clear what’s going to happen because North Central is not doing a tenure track search, because of lots of financial hits. Although Marcela said she’d be happy to give me a third year, like an extension on my leave, so I could go back to North Central. That being said, a lot of institutions, including North Central, have not really informed anybody about how they’re going to make in-person classes happen logistically.
That’s the big question. That’s the big question.
And the point is, given that I have the luxury of not doing it, and the fact that I’m not convinced that it can really be done safely-
-I’m not sure I’m going to go back to the Lab.
Did you look at the news today? The coronavirus is way up in all of the places that are reopening.
It’s black and white.
I mean, I’ve talked to all my teacher colleagues. I have read countless articles. I’m on a Facebook group of academic mothers. The hive mind there is just so informed. And nobody has been able to come up with a way that’s affordable and manageable for a normal teaching college to safely have in-person classes. I mean, literally, how would you even manage walking in the hallway? That’s not six feet wide.
Everyone needs to wear masks, to start.
To start. And if it’s too crazy, where it’s like, well, we’re not all wearing masks, then school doesn’t open. I think that’s where it is.
Right. But do you wear a mask while you’re teaching? What about students with disabilities where they really need to be able to read your lips? What about the fact that when I talk for an hour, I get really parched and need to drink twelve to sixteen ounces of water? (Laughter) Like, just, and not lose my voice.
It’s really hard to imagine how that’s going to work. And then, I was slotted to teach a computational lab. I’m slotted to teach intermediate classical mechanics, which is really fun, because you get to do the Newtonian mechanics with the actual math (laughter) Like, the math that Newton and people came up with to do it. And we have a companion to our weekly computational laboratory course, and I taught it last year. I mean, that’s my wheelhouse: computational simulations. So, it’s so fun, and I was super excited about doing it again. But that involves me literally standing right over the shoulders of people’s laptops. Sometimes, I would literally type on their computer. I mean, it’s- you could probably figure out a way to do it virtually, because you can do screensharing. But certainly, I don’t know why you would even attempt to do that in person (laughter) Like, I can’t.
So, at this point in our conversation, there’s clearly a fork in the road for you personally.
And so, I know quite well, if I were to ask you a question: what do you hope to accomplish in your ongoing career as a rising star at Fermilab and things like that, I know the answer to that, and I think that the more relevant question is- because it seems like where you’re headed is in teaching, what do you hope to accomplish as a teacher? Not in a “where you might be in ten years,” but where you are going to be this upcoming fall, remotely or in person. Right? With these students who are not, these are not students, you’re not teaching at a place like Caltech or MIT. What are you hoping to accomplish as a teacher at this kind of a school? Are you encouraging students that they could reach the heights in their careers that anybody else can meet? Do you temper expectations? What is your style as a teacher?
We have students who run the spectrum in terms of career paths. For example, this past year, I supervised the senior thesis of a student who is going to be starting graduate school in the fall at the ETH in Zurich- the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich. So, he’s Swedish, and he wanted to go back to Europe. That is a fantastic school. So, he’s top notch. But you know, most of my students are just going to get a job after school, after they graduate. So, I very much try to make sure that I don’t dumb things down, that if there are grad school-bound students in my class, they’re going in being exposed to the things they need to be exposed to. It won’t be as in-depth, you know, we have a semester of quantum mechanics, not a year of quantum mechanics. We have a semester. There will be limitations, but to try to do my best to think about: what do I not want them going to graduate school not having seen?
But then, by the other side, I also think about skills. What are transferrable skills that my students should have when they graduate that will allow them to have various job opportunities in the workforce? So, I want them to have not just good problem-solving skills, but I’d like them to be able to document their findings reasonably well. Right? Give a presentation. Be reasonably savvy with computer programming and computer skills, like things like that. Because of the fact that we don’t have TAs to grade, I can’t always be as ambitious with my assignments as I would like, but I very much try to focus on skills, because my students are never going to use a Lagrangian again, like, most of them. They’re never going to need to solve the hydrogen atom. But if they can come out having a reasonable sense of how to use Python and how various numerical methods work, that is transferrable.
So, I very much- I don’t dumb it down, but I am selective about the content, trying to make sure that I’m focusing on the things that will be the most useful for my students, I would say, is sort of the way I do that. They have various abilities, yes. Some of them, occasionally, you have a student where you’re like, oh, child. Like, I’m not really sure how you got this far in this major. You’re going to get a D, because homework is worth a lot of the grade, but you know, that’s okay too (laughter). Right? I mean, that’s okay too. They’re just great students. I mean, North Central has- their most recent freshman class was over thirty percent first-generation college students.
Yeah, which is a very special thing.
Which is amazing. North Central has its own problems with minorities and people of color. That being said, because they pull locally, the next town over from Naperville, Aurora, has a huge Hispanic and Latinx population. So, we actually do have a pretty decent population of Latino and Hispanics who- so, there are aspects of diversity in the school. Not where I would like them to be, and this is another thing that I’m working on behind the scenes, trying to figure out some stuff to do on that page, too.
I guess the point is, I have plans. If I were to stay at North Central, I have a couple plans. Research wise, I really want to start doing academic research in computational physics instruction, because it’s really fascinating, but there’s not a lot of literature on the subject, and there aren’t a lot of great teaching resources available. In particular, if you’re a large school that can offer a dedicated computational physics course, there are textbooks that you can kind of make work. But if you’re a smaller school that can’t do that, that is instead trying to integrate computation into various courses, it’s hard to find the resources. So, I really want to try to work on developing resources that small schools can use to integrate computational physics into courses that they’re already teaching. Like, maybe you spend two or three days in quantum mechanics doing this computational exercise, or whatever. But it’s not like I’m going to take your entire class or make you teach something new. So, I had big plans for ramping that up this summer, because I had signed up for the AAPT workshop that- I can’t remember what the name is, but they have a division, the computational- what is the name? I’m forgetting the name. Pick-up. That’s what I’m looking for. I had signed up for the summer Pick-up meeting in Michigan, that was piggy backing with an AAPT meeting, and I had already made connections with Daniel Schroeder from Weber State University. I don’t know if you know Daniel Schroeder at all.
So, he actually co-wrote the most commonly used quantum field theory textbook around, Peskin and Schroeder. Like, he’s that Schroeder. And he teaches at Weber State University in Utah. And I ended up connecting with him, because he has a lot of resources online, and I wanted to use some of them for my courses last year. So, I got in touch with him. I was hoping to be able to connect more with him at this workshop and discuss more research-y type things, because he and I have both been talking about this lack of good resources for computational physics instruction at smaller institutions. So, this was my plan. It’s deferred. Then the other thing that has really been on my mind, it has been on my mind since my second quarter- so, we were on the quarter system the first year I was here. I taught the introductory physics, and it was for the engineering cohort. So, the engineering cohort started physics in the winter quarter to allow those of them that still hadn’t taken calculus to take Calculus 1 in the fall. So, they took Calculus 1 in the fall, and they took Introductory Physics in the winter. And a lot of them were underprepared, and unfortunately, most of the underprepared students were also Black and Hispanic. Right? It was a reality. So, I very much tried to- I mean, I have a completely open-door policy and tried to encourage them as much- you know, talk to people one-on-one, send out emails. One or two of them actually took me up on it and started meeting with me regularly. But at the end of the day, most of them, now a year later, are not engineering majors anymore.
Yeah. So, Ruth, I think that’s a great segue to the last thing that I wanted to talk to you about. I mentioned this just parenthetically in the beginning of our talk. You know, #ShutDownSTEM was only a few days ago, and it was very affirming and powerful to be a part of this physics-wide response in recognizing that, you know, these are systemic issues that don’t stop at the world of physics.
Like everything, science is a human endeavor, and that the physics community is not immune from these things. And in many ways, it might even be more problematic than other sectors of American society.
And so, one of my interests in the interviews that I’m doing now is that I think it’s very important that #ShutDownSTEM isn’t just like a day that was on the calendar, and that the whole point is that it’s an ongoing conversation. Right?
And so, a focus of our talk today has been a lot about: you’re a woman in this, and you’re a woman doing this. We haven’t really talked generationally. Right?
Because in my world, I usually talk to emeritus people.
So, you’re young. You’re very young.
So, I want to talk in generational terms, because wherever you are, and wherever you are in ten years, I’m sure, is going to look very different from where you think you might be in ten years. Right?
And the fact that you are, were, whatever, a rising star at Fermi gives you a platform and a voice, and you will retain that in one way or the other throughout the course of your career. So, in that spirit, what do you think are the ways that the physics community, I want to make this a real question. Right? Not just like a fun thing to think about. What are the ways that the physics community can really draw on its strengths, recognize where it has fallen short, but draw on its strengths, both in terms of- as you emphasized, it’s all about the people. Right? Draw on its strength in terms of the people, and also the fact that physicists look at hard reality. They look at nature. They figure things out. There are solutions to be found.
What is the most productive and positive response to this very important historical moment that we’re in right now, so that it isn’t just another repeat of more of the same, when the emotions and the passions from these past few weeks sort of die down?
Right. Well, I think there’s lots of angles that you can come in from, and I would say one angle that I spoke about when I was mentioning Ann Nelson is the fact that if you don’t have role models that look like you, if you don’t see somebody who’s already done it, then you just, it’s not conscious, but it doesn’t seem necessarily like a path for you. So, there are starting to be a fairly significant number of females in the field, and in terms of- there’s enough that there’s not just one. Right? I mean, it’s not good. I’m not saying it’s good.
But it’s enough that a talented young female undergraduate can look at the faculty and say: I can do this.
There’s enough- I can see this.
Right. And the point is, what I tried to do in my mentoring of younger postdocs is to- I would say that by and large, the biggest concern was family planning and family, and how do you have kids and make this career work, and what not. And you know, trying to talk to them about advocating for themselves, and how if you’re good, you know, people are going to want you. Like, trying to normalize having a baby when it’s biologically the time to do so, not like after you’ve gotten tenure, for example, which is something that a lot of women- you know, so that’s something that I’ve been trying to help with, is just talking to younger people and trying to make them realize: it’s fine. You can have a baby when you’re a postdoc. Frankly, you can even have it when you’re a grad student, and you can still have a career. You can make that work.
People are getting more accommodating, and people are getting more understanding. And frankly, if you’re working with people that are not accommodating and understanding, you do not want to be working with them (laughter). Like, full stop. Right? But I would say that there are just not the role models for people of color. There are more people outing themselves so that I think that it’s getting better for the LGBTQ+ community, simply because there were- look, statistically speaking, they were already there in the population.
And starting to get more comfortable being out. So, that’s actually something that’s been really good at Fermilab, I feel like, that that’s gotten better. Right now, there’s always this issue of pipeline, where we’re like, well, we want to hire a Black person, but there aren’t any. Like, we want to hire a diverse candidate, but we got the applicants we got. Right? That’s sort of the case.
Which is self-reinforcing.
Right. So, something that I have been talking to people at Fermilab about a while ago, and will probably try to bring up again, is intentional diversity hires. Like, hires of people that are diverse, specifically for- like, allocating funding specifically for diverse hires. And not at the senior level, because one, they’re not there, and two, it doesn’t do the larger community any good to poach so-and-so’s African American so that they can be at Fermilab. But the sort of place where we can make the difference is the transition from graduate student to postdoc, because there are lots of graduate students that maybe didn’t go- you’re probably aware of this. Students of color, graduate students of color, tend to go to different schools. You know, more of them go to Vanderbilt. More of them go to Hampton University. More of them go to certain schools, and we don’t take postdocs from those schools, because frankly, at least, in the theory group, they don’t necessarily produce particle physicists. They produce nuclear physicists. They produce condensed matter physicists, and what not.
But something that I’ve been trying to advocate for is to hire postdocs with experience in some similar field in their graduate work, and interest in what we’re doing, and to accept that you’re taking on a bigger role. This is not somebody who’s going to come in and immediately be able to get to work, but it’s somebody who has the capacity to do it, based on their letters, and talking to their supervisor, and what not, and giving them the opportunity to become a particle physicist, or whatever it is. I feel like at the end of the day, I’ve been in numerous meetings where we’re trying to hire a postdoc. We have three or four hundred applicants. We have enough money to maybe hire three or four. Are you going to take a leap of faith on somebody that you think could be really good, but you don’t know? No. Right? In the fixed budget reality of our times, nobody is willing to take a leap of faith on somebody with potential. They have to be an already proven quantity. So, yeah, so-and-so seems like they might be great, but I don’t know their advisor, because they’re from a school that we’re not familiar with. And then they’re just out. So, I would really like to see there being resources dedicated to diversity hires, so that it would allow people to not feel like they had to make a trade between a known quantity to get our work done and supporting somebody who has a lot of potential. That shouldn’t be a choice.
Like, that’s just a false choice.
Right. And that’s where the field is now.
That false choice is basically what ensures that things don’t get better, essentially.
Right, exactly. It’s the fact that we don’t have infinite money, and so we choose the postdocs who we know are going to be helpful in furthering our research program.
Was Fermilab and/or Brookhaven- was your sense that these were welcoming places for people who came from underrepresented groups in general?
It’s really hard to say, because there just weren’t any of them (laughter). I mean, I hate to say that, but it’s really-
I guess that’s the question. What’s worse: Being a welcoming place that doesn’t have any underrepresented people, or being an unwelcome place that has plenty of underrepresented people?
Right. I mean, Fermilab is interesting, because our group leader, Marcela, is Argentinian. And she, and also, independently, some people in the experimental division, have developed ties between Fermilab and South American institutions, so that we regularly have visiting graduate students from South America. So, there has always been that level of diversity in the theory group. We typically have one or two South American graduate students at any time. But the point is, these are not Mexican Americans from our own country. Right? These are not people generally from lower socioeconomic statuses and other things. They’re typically affluent South Americans. But you see what I’m saying. It’s just a different type of diversity, and it’s really great, but it doesn’t get at the heart of how so much of this is tied into socioeconomic issues. Yeah. But no Black people. Like, none. Zero, that I can think of. I mean, at Fermilab, there’s Herman, and there are people like- you know, in the HR department and things. There’s Brian Nord.
So, Ruth, I’d like to just point out, observationally, that the problems that you laid out in your first response are just sort of perfectly represented in your second. Like, that’s it.
That’s where it is.
Yeah, and it’s really bad. And the point is, we’re at the point where it’s not going to happen naturally or organically. It has to be done intentionally. And some people I know are very, very opposed to any idea of anything that’s not a pure meritocracy. I reject the idea of a pure meritocracy. I mean, I would argue that-
Well, is it a truly pure meritocracy where everybody has the same opportunities to establish their abilities? Right?
Right. You’re talking about an actual, equitable society. Right? You know, an equitable society is where everybody is given the same opportunities and the resources that they need in particular to succeed. And we don’t have an equitable society. So, to somehow use the product of, you know, what grad school they went to and who their advisor was, as the criteria for whether or not we hire them-
Because at that point, there has already been so much winnowing, the hoops to jump through are so much smaller from opportunity to opportunity to opportunity. It’s easy to say, well, you know, “the pure meritocracy,” but who’s making it through that process to be able to show what they’re capable of?
Right. Exactly. Of course, the other problem is, you don’t want to bring in just one person of color. Right?
The #ShutDownSTEM movement specifically said something like- I don’t want to misquote, but there was the issue of- they raised the issue of tokenism, that tokenism is not a solution.
More than it’s not a solution, it’s actually isolating and harmful to the individual. And people don’t stay, necessarily, when they feel like tokens. So, it’s not even good from the sort of morale and overall, developing a-
Right. Right. So, I mean, the difficulty in where this conversation is headed is that the places where the physics community might be very proactive in terms of the things that it can do, in terms of hiring, in terms of having more mentors. Unless there is that broader social response, so that there is that next generation that is encouraged to think that this is something for them, there’s only so much that physics as a community can do. In other words, physics cannot solve these issues independent-
It might be hard for physics to be so out in front of society.
Right. One thing that- I mean, you’re probably already familiar with this, but the APS has this bridge program. You’re familiar with the APS bridge program. More institutions need to get involved in the bridge program, and more faculty members need to be willing to take a hit to their research productivity to mentor students in the bridge program, because that’s the other problem is that everybody likes the idea of diversity until they feel like it’s going to hit them at some level, like personally, professionally. So that’s, for example, a great program, but very few institutions actually participate.
Right. Well, maybe the hope with what’s happening now is that this is a wakeup call at the institutional level, that things are actually going to change structurally.
Right. But the point is, I mean, it is also a pipeline issue. So, going back to that, I have more engineering students than actual physics students, in terms of my cohort. But thinking about ways of improving retention of people that we have, because that’s the other problem, is that if people don’t feel welcomed, if people don’t feel comfortable, if people are experiencing microaggressions or just don’t feel like they fit in, they leave.
So, actually what I- last week was a very hard week for me. A lot of crying involved, and what not. So, I actually spent a while at my neighbor’s house, the chaplain, talking about things (laughter). And something came up, and something that I’d been doing some preliminary research on was how to improve retention of people of color, but, you know, all students that are underprepared that come into our institution wanting to do engineering or STEM fields. I don’t remember what the engineering professional society is, but you know, whatever the APS is for engineers, there are documents of studies of: these types of things have helped improve retention.
So, one of the things is to have summer programs in advance of people’s first year, where you bring the students in early, where you do some remedial teaching, where you some social activities, where they make connections with each other, with the faculty, and what not. And then you sort of continue a mentoring relationship throughout. And studies have shown that those help, especially students of color. So, I would like to try to see if we can get one started at North Central. So, I mean, that’s a very concrete thing that I believe that I can work on locally, because there’s so many- I mean, that was part of my conversations. What do you do when you feel like the world is just so messed up, and I can’t stop police officers from killing unarmed Black people. Like, what do you do? How do you even deal with this? And Naperville, it has great schools and all sorts of great things, but it is also, it reeks with white privilege. I mean, it just- ugh. Anyway, I have good friends, but sometimes the words that come out of their mouths, I don’t know (laughter)- you know what I mean?
Ruth, this has been a remarkably real conversation we’ve had, and I think for that reason, it’s been a remarkably valuable conversation.
Well, I’m glad. I’m glad. So, what will you do with all of this?
Well, let me do the official “end of record” right now (laughter).
So, thank you very much for your time, and I really appreciate hearing from your perspectives on a variety of issues. And it’s been, I think- it will be instructive for all of the researchers who will use this for any number of reasons for their own research. So, once again, I want to thank you so much for your time.
Thanks. It really was enjoyable. Very much so.