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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Kate Kirby by David Zierler on March 2, 4, 8, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview with Kate Kirby, recently retired and now CEO Emerita of the American Physical Society, Kirby surveys the many challenges in leading APS during the pandemic, and she recounts her early childhood in Washington DC and then Chicago. She describes her early interests in science and her decision to attend Harvard-Radcliffe for her undergraduate education. Kirby discusses her gravitation toward physics after her initial intent to be pre-med, and she explains her decision to pursue thesis research in chemical physics at Chicago under the direction of Juergen Hinze before returning to Harvard for her postdoctoral research at the Harvard College Observatory which soon merged with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. She explains her decision to take a full time federal position at the Observatory and she describes her merging interests of chemical and atmospheric physics. Kirby narrates the steady advances in leadership positions she took on at the Observatory, and she describes her increasing involvement in APS activities. She explains the circumstances of becoming Executive Officer of APS in 2009 and she describes the central issue of corporate reform. Kirby describes the process of taking a broad view of the entirety of physics research from this vantage point and the value she places in growing APS membership. She discusses her emphasis on diversity and inclusivity in physics, particularly after the events of 2020, and she narrates her considerations about when to step down from leadership. At the end of the interview, Kirby considers some of the key challenges and opportunities as APS charts its future, she specifies science and ethics and a key area for APS to focus on, and she reflects on the gains women in physics have made over the course of her career.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 2nd, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Dr. Kate Kirby. Kate, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Great to see you, David.
To start, would you tell me, please—and, of course, this is hot off the press—your most recent title and institutional affiliation, and your current title and institutional affiliation?
Ok, sure. My most recent title was CEO of the American Physical Society. And at the end of my tenure there (December 31, 2020), the APS Board of Directors gave me the title CEO Emerita, and so I can use that in various roles. I'm still working on ethics issues, actually, for the Society, which has been a longtime interest of mine, and we have an ethics committee now that's very active within APS. And then, I also am using that title when I thank various donors or help APS with philanthropic outreach.
[Laugh] Kate, have you retained any affiliations with Harvard?
No. Only as an alumna, but not related to my former employment at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). I've been busy trying to tie up a whole lot of loose ends from my time at APS. But I certainly look forward to being in touch with my CFA colleagues.
Kate, a very in-the-moment question before we go back and develop your personal narrative. Of course, like everybody else, coronavirus hit you like a ton of bricks and APS like a ton of bricks out of nowhere. I'd like to ask, from your vantagepoint of leadership, what were some of the key challenges during this time and also what opportunities did you see that, once we get out of this, might put APS on a stronger footing going forward?
Well, I certainly never expected my last year at APS to be spent working from home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My husband and I were commuting between Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts during my whole tenure at APS because he couldn't relocate his architectural office, and so we kept our Cambridge house. Starting in mid-March when pretty much everybody who could began working from home, I decamped from our Washington apartment to Cambridge. I think APS has been able to pivot remarkably well to working totally remotely. We had a pretty robust business continuity plan in place, and we tested it. People had all the devices they needed to work effectively from home. And I think that was probably the case for AIP, as well. There was total agreement among the three organizations occupying ACP (APS, AIP, and AAPT) that we had to close down the building in mid-March.
The biggest challenges, of course, immediately were our meetings. Now, we had had to cancel the March meeting really in the nick of time. And I can't tell you how many people have been so grateful ever since when they realized ultimately that it was absolutely the right decision. But it was a difficult decision in the moment because you had the CDC saying, “oh, this illness is no problem to the American public”, and yet at the same time they were advising against travel to Italy, to Japan, to China. I was already in Denver on Saturday, February 29th as we were considering whether to cancel the meeting which started the next day. And my concern was that the WHO hadn’t yet declared a pandemic, and therefore were we getting too worried about this? But all I had to do was look at how many of our participants were still planning to attend the meeting and who were traveling from Italy, from China, from Japan. It was really frightening to realize that there were more than 1,000—more than 10 percent of our participants who were traveling from hotspots around the world. And that realization meant that we were potentially putting other participants in harm's way, together with our staff and the Denver community.
We agonized over this decision for about four hours on Saturday, February 29th, and finally just said, “we shouldn't do this”, realizing, however, that a number of people had already traveled to Denver. We just had to cancel, for everyone’s safety.
Kate, and the possibility of going remote in that short time span, that was not feasible?
[Laugh] The March meeting is about 12,000 people.
And almost everybody gives a talk. It's not like there's just a couple of plenaries.
And so you really have to have a platform that can accommodate so many invited and contributed talks taking place simultaneously. So you need to have time to restructure a meeting to be in asynchronous mode sometimes and synchronous other times, in order to accommodate the numbers of people. It was not possible to do this immediately. Certain subsections of the March meeting—like our Division of Soft Matter—sort of self-organized and had some Zoom sessions subsequently during that week. In Denver we were just still trying to deal with vendors. Most of the APS staff who were there stayed for about three days in Denver taking things apart, trying to work things out with the convention center, and with the hotels. It was really a difficult time.
Kate, and the question of opportunities, one of the big questions now is—to the extent that COVID has allowed us to rethink how we work and where we work, right?
Going forward, obviously, this is a question more for your successors. But to the extent that these conversations started during your tenure, what do you think the long-term legacy of our response to the pandemic is in terms of how we work and in terms of how scientific societies like APS go about their business?
That's a great question. Let me just sort of finish out on the March meeting, because as I said, there wasn't time to make it all virtual. For us at APS, however, the issue was that we did have the April meeting coming up a short three to four weeks later, and we did get everything in place for that. I mean, really huge amounts of effort went into putting that on virtually. The April meeting is about eight times smaller than the March meeting, say 1600 participants or so, and we were able to engage with our AV folks who usually work at our meetings to put together a platform that could support the April meeting virtually. And that was really interesting. We did not charge any registration fee for participants, as we regarded this as an experiment, so all of the development behind that platform was totally paid for by APS. And we were able to have a meeting that actually registered more than 7,000 people (for free) to participate in the April meeting. I think it was an incredible accomplishment of APS's IT and Meetings Departments, working with one of our vendors, to supply a virtual platform that could support multiple Zoom sessions synchronously. And then, ever since then, we've been holding all our meetings virtually. We've been exploring different platforms. So you had asked were there some positives here in terms of the situation that COVID threw us into? When you're served lemons do you make lemonade? Yes, we found out that doing a lot virtually often meant that more people could participate. And so APS’s outreach becomes broader.
On the other hand, ten months in, I think now we're seeing that people are getting so tired of Zoom that it's not clear how much you can increase your audiences over those who traditionally want to be a part of these meetings.
So I doubt that we'll see five times the usual number of participants for our meetings like we did for the April meeting. But we've hosted at least 10 totally virtual big meetings. Our Division of Fluid Dynamics often has over 3,000 participants, and it definitely had that number this year, but it was all virtual. I think the biggest challenge with virtual meetings continues to be: how can you support the attendee networking that is a really important part of a meeting?
And the interactions between people who happen to see each other in the hall are so important. Seeing each other in the hall virtually is a little more intentional, and people have to be willing to try the software solutions and test them out. But I think we're also discovering that, in terms of a lot of our committee meetings and our governance meetings, the attendance has been so much greater than we usually would get by holding these in person. And whereas everybody misses the in-person part because that's generally the most enjoyable part— getting to see your colleagues, have dinner or a drink together—but still at the meetings themselves, the attendance is great, with very few people absent. It's because nobody is traveling so there aren't the conflicts that often arise. So there are some really good things that we've learned, valuable things. It's also actually given everyone on staff an opportunity to become more innovative and think about what's really positive here, what can we learn from this situation?
And so I think it depends on what kind of program you're talking about and what your goals are. But everybody is realizing there have been some real positives that have emerged. One may be that it may not be so important to have everybody in the office all the time. And I know that's being talked about by the ACP board as they look at: what does return to the office look like?
And is everybody doing pretty well working from home? And then, does return to the office look like two days a week or several times a month or whatever? It's just not clear yet A) what people are going to be willing to do, and B) what is going to be necessary to establish the best working relationships. Can you be as effective as a team engaging almost entirely virtually?
Kate, another in-the-moment question: You've been involved with APS in one form or another for so long, obviously when you decided to assume leadership you had no illusions about the extent of the commitment—
—and probably the likelihood that the scientific and research aspect of your career would, in large part, have to be put on hold. As you say now, you're working so much on tying up loose ends, are any of those loose ends research oriented? Are there any physics that you want to get back into? Is your muscle memory there or are your interests now more in the policy and science community realm?
You know, it's pretty hard to just plunge yourself back into research after 11 ½ years of not doing research. Physics research fields evolve rapidly.
You step away from it for that long and it can be pretty challenging to get back into research. Quite frankly, when I stepped into the Executive Officer position at APS, I did not miss the research to the extent that I thought I would, just because there were so many other interesting things I was doing at APS.
So at this point, I don't anticipate returning to research, especially right now, during the pandemic, because you can't even go and sit down in a group and start discussing research topics.
When I left CfA for APS, I was surprised at how little I missed the research part, probably because I had been doing a lot of administration, writing big proposals, and overseeing a lot of work.
Yeah. Kate, then perhaps as an armchair observer, what are the kinds of literature that you read to stay on top of what's going on in the field? What's most compelling to you, just out of your own curiosity, developments in physics these days?
Oh, on a weekly basis I'm looking at Science, I'm looking at Nature, I look at Physics Magazine, which APS publishes online, putting in perspective some of the most exciting work appearing in our journals. All of those, and of course, Physics Today. And then, certainly I'm interested in the policy realm, so I read FYI put out by AIP. I look at things from the AAS, which is the American Astronomical Society, also the AGU, because I've been a long-time member of AGU. My research area spanned physics, in particular AMO physics, chemical physics, astrophysics, and also atmospheric physics, so my reading is pretty broad.
I'm a longtime member of AGU, longtime member of AAS, American Astronomical Society, a member of OSA and AAPT and then, a member of AAAS, especially to get their magazine, Science.
[Laugh] Well, Kate, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
Let's see. My dad was from the East Coast (New York and Connecticut), and my mom was from the West Coast. She was born in Seattle, Washington, but then lived in Portland, Oregon for some time, and then lived in California. So very much a West Coast and East Coast liaison. My parents met in Washington, D.C. because they were both tax lawyers, working in the Tax Legislative Counsel's Office of the Treasury Department during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The Tax Legislative Counsel's Office of the Treasury advises the House of Representatives on tax legislation.
Did you get the sense from your mom that she was somewhat of a pathbreaker being a tax attorney for the government as a woman in those days?
Very much so, as a tax attorney, yes. They both worked for the government because it was wartime and I think they wanted to do their civic duty. My dad had a heart condition so couldn't serve in active duty. I have a legacy of significantly educated women in my family. Both of my grandmothers were highly educated: my mother's mother graduated from Stanford in 1901 and my father's mother graduated from Wellesley in 1901. My mom went to Stanford and graduated at the age of 19, and then went to law school at USC. She was the first female editor of the Law Review.
In fact, I even have a newspaper article from the LA Times talking about the first female “coed” editor. They used to refer to female students as "coeds."
[Laughter] And, Kate, where were you born? Were you born in D.C.?
Yes, I was born in D.C. So, in fact, coming to work at APS was a wonderful way to come back to Washington, D.C. I was thrilled with that aspect of it.
Did your mom leave the workforce when she became a mother?
Yep, she did. And that was in the late '40s, early '50s. I was born when she was 35, and then she had two more children, so she was, I guess, considered an older mother. After the war, women were very much drummed out of the workforce.
I think it was a really sad time for her because she would've been so much happier if she had kept on working as a tax lawyer instead of being a stay-at-home mother.
Did you read between the lines in assessing this about your mom or she was pretty clear about her frustrations?
She was somewhat clear about it. I think she got more clarity as time went on.
I think initially she felt, “ooh, I never thought I'd have kids”, and now “here I am, and this is wonderful.” But it's hard to be a stay-at-home parent and it can be a very isolating existence. She was pretty depressed when I was a small child.
So I certainly remember that. On my part, I realized early on that I did not want to be just a housewife because I saw how depressed my mother was. I used to wish that she would go back to being an attorney—in fact, I remember that I talked with her about that when I was a teenager, and she responded, sighing, "Oh, it'd be too hard."
Did your father stay with the government for the rest of his career?
Oh, no. The new administration came in. Eisenhower was elected, and I even went to the inaugural parade. I sat in the balcony of the Treasury Building on 15th Street, where my dad used to work. In fact, every time I go to the APS offices at 14th and F, and then walk over to the Treasury Building at 15th, it brings back a lot of memories.
What did he go on to do?
He joined a law firm in Chicago and then several years later was appointed to the Law School faculty of Northwestern University, teaching tax law.
Oh, so the whole family relocated at that point?
Yeah. We relocated to Chicago, Illinois. My parents bought a house in the suburbs, so I was brought up in Winnetka, Illinois—
—which is farther north along the lake than Evanston, which probably you're familiar with because it's the home of Northwestern.
Which is probably one of the most beautiful campuses ever. I mean, it's really gorgeous.
Did you go to public schools in Chicago or private schools?
Public school in Winnetka because it had, I think, one of the leading public school systems in the country at that time.
When did you start to get interested in science, was it early on?
Yes, because I was very interested in medicine. When I was really little, first learning to read, reading the newspaper, reading Parade magazine, I used to cut out articles about medicine. And I had this whole big scrapbook that I think I started at the age of seven or eight. So, definitely I was going to be a medical doctor.
[Laugh] What happened?
Did you get to your first dissection in biology class?
Oh, not at all. No, in fact I found dissections fascinating. I was very interested. So that was through high school that I was very interested in medicine, and even into college.
Kate, as you were thinking about colleges as a high school student, in terms of geography, your family's ability to pay private tuition, your interests in terms of what you wanted to pursue, what kind of colleges did you apply to?
So I applied to two colleges. I applied to Stanford and Radcliffe. I was getting a lot of pressure from my mother to apply to Stanford because her mother had graduated from Stanford and then she graduated from Stanford and, of course, she wanted her daughter to go to Stanford, which is probably exactly why I did not decide to attend. [Laugh] But, yeah, I was a really good student in high school (I went to New Trier High School, which has a great reputation even now). It was a huge high school. My graduating class in high school was at least 1500 or 1600 students. I was supposedly second in the class out of 1500 or 1600 students in terms of my GPA; so I got into both colleges, but chose to attend Radcliffe. An amazing 95% of the students from New Trier went on to college each year. At the time, I certainly did not appreciate, as I do now, how privileged my high school and college educations were.
New Trier had outstanding teachers. I mean, just incredible, some with their PhDs. I had a Latin teacher, Dr. Drake, who had a PhD in philology. She was one of the most exciting and compelling teachers I've ever had. I ended up taking fifth year Latin just because she was a terrific teacher. And I remember her talking to the whole class and saying, "Now, all of you, I want you to get your PhDs, and especially you women."
She really was totally serious: “you get your PhD and become learned.”
You don't need to be just a housewife. And I had an outstanding chemistry teacher, English teachers, history teacher, etc. I had just great teachers—it made education fun!
I had very, very bright classmates as well. A couple of us became physicists and we actually hung out together in high school. I still run into one of my high school classmates at the April meeting from time to time. We used to do experiments together in Advanced Chemistry class in high school.
I was very fortunate to have my pick of colleges to attend, so I didn't have to apply to that many places. College admissions has become so much more competitive than it was back then. I went to Radcliffe, which was basically separate from Harvard only in terms of admissions and in terms of the dormitory, living arrangements.
But the degree is from Harvard and all of the classes are at Harvard if you want them to be?
Yes. All of the academic classes were at Harvard, and there were no classes at Radcliffe except maybe gym.
Yeah. [Laugh] And you went in with the intent of being pre-med?
Yep. And I took sophomore standing because I'd taken so many advanced placement classes at New Trier that I had advanced placement in five areas. So I took sophomore standing but I never really acted on it in terms of getting through in three years. I was having such a great time there was no question I wanted to be at Harvard-Radcliffe for a fourth year. But it did mean that I could get something called a tutorial. Everybody from sophomore year on had a “tutor” in your selected major, which meant you had individual one-on-one exploration of different topics in your major.
I had a tutorial in biochemistry because that was my declared major, and I found that I hated it, absolutely hated it. Ugh. And the big mistake I also made was to take organic chemistry my freshman year.
[Laugh] Many physicists become physicists after organic chemistry.
Oh, my God! And I had organic chemistry from one of the greats, Professor Louis Fieser—
—who was a really well-known organic chemist and also had published a thick text on the subject.
But it was my freshman year. I was having a good time. And the course was filled with premeds who were in their junior or senior year, and therefore really knew how to study, knew how to ace college. And I was one of two freshmen in that course. You know who the other one was? [Laugh] Roger Kornberg, who got the Nobel Prize in medical physics or biochemistry about 10 years ago. And his father had gotten the Nobel Prize before him! So that was the only other freshman in the course.
I was so out of my element; you have no idea. And we had an hour exam every other week.
Kate, was physics in some regards then a refuge for you? How did you get more involved with the physics department?
Because I was loving my math classes. I didn't take physics until my sophomore year. And I found that I actually really enjoyed it. It was everything scientific that organic chemistry and biochemistry just were not.
And I think what I'd already realized that I really loved about physics or physical chemistry was understanding mathematical relationships and formulating theoretical models and testing them. A simple example: the perfect gas law, PV = nRT and how, knowing P and V determines T. And this can be tested experimentally. It is simple, but beautiful. I really loved describing reality in terms of equations that then you could test experimentally. That's a really trivial example, but it really—
It worked for you and how your mind operated?
It worked for me, yeah. And so I ended up actually taking a lot of advanced math, applied math throughout my years at Harvard. And actually atomic physics was called “applied math” in Northern Ireland, at Queen's University Belfast where a number of people that I later collaborated with studied.
[Laughter] So physics I adored. And especially quantum mechanics.
Uh-huh. Who did you take quantum mechanics from?
I took quantum mechanics from Norman Ramsey.
[Laughter] Yeah, Norman was wonderful. He was not that exciting a teacher, I have to say, but he was just fabulous in terms of the range of physics he worked on and his leadership of the physics community. I got to appreciate him so much later when I went back to Harvard as a postdoc and got to know him and people in his group. I actually published several papers with someone in his group, based on my thesis work. But Norman Ramsey was just a gem and he had wonderful students and postdocs in his group. I think, he has been such a fabulous leader of the whole atomic, molecular and optical physics community, always generous with his time and attention not only to his students, but for the benefit of the entire AMO community.
And nobody could've been happier than I when he won the Nobel Prize.
And people like Dan Kleppner have stepped into that role in a similar way. I think the AMO community is really one of the most wonderful, most collegial of all physics communities, and it's because of tremendously influential leadership of people like Norman Ramsey, Dan Kleppner, Alex Dalgarno, and others.
Kate, was there any lab work or summer internships as an undergraduate that was formative to your intellectual development, the kind of science you might want to pursue in graduate school?
Yes. I worked in Professor Bill Klemperer's lab starting my junior year. So starting in biochemistry I quickly transitioned from that and decided I wanted to major in chemistry and English, and then decided ultimately it was physics and chemistry—an honors major at Harvard. You had to fulfill course requirements in both areas, and doing research was also a requirement. Bill Klemperer was in chemical physics and I had a wonderful experience working in his group. And Klemperer was just a fabulous research leader. He loved science and had tremendous enthusiasm. He was always throwing his arms open wide and welcoming everybody in. So even as an undergrad in a big group where there were postdocs and graduate students, I felt just as comfortable as everyone else. It was really a lesson in how to run a wonderful group.
Kate, a few sociological questions. As a young woman ensconced in science at Harvard, were you ever made to feel like a second-class citizen or that your interests were not appropriate, or was that not your experience at all?
You know, quite frankly, it was not my experience, amazingly enough. I certainly never felt that in the Klemperer group, although I was working with a woman who was a postdoc there. She was an IBM fellow, and we were working on doing theoretical calculations, whereas Klemperer himself ran primarily an experimental group, but he had theorists in his group, too. So it was both theory and experiment. I wasn't that interested in experiment, and so I always drifted towards theory. And I'm just trying to think. I had—in fact, I still have a very close friend whom I hung out with a lot, Bill Gelbart, who is in the Chemistry Department at UCLA. We'd do problem sets together. We were in the same classes. We both worked for Klemperer. We were the two undergraduates in the group. And my husband and I are still good friends with Bill and his wife, Nina, and we've known their kids as our kids have grown up. Yeah, I had a number of just pals. You'd talk about problem sets or lab work. I remember with Bill Gelbart and others, we set up a “physics table” in Dunster House, which met once a month for dinner. We invited professors like Norman Ramsey to come and have dinner with us and talk about his experience working on the Manhattan Project, for instance. And it was wonderful times. In fact, I felt as an undergraduate at Harvard, that professors paid you a huge amount of attention. I felt that undergrads were treated so much better than grad students. One of my daughters went to Harvard and did not have that kind of experience at all, but she majored in art history. I think she didn't get anywhere near the wonderful attention that I did as an undergrad.
Kate, more broadly, you were at Harvard a little earlier than when we think of the '60s coming to campus with the antiwar movement, civil rights, women's rights, things like that. Were you political at all as an undergraduate? Were those issues a part of your reality during your undergraduate time?
To some extent. I went to one of the first marches for desegregation of the Boston schools during my freshman year. Louise Day Hicks was the leading segregationist in Boston, whom we were very much opposed to. And definitely students were becoming more aware of political issues, especially antiwar sentiment against involvement in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Louis Fieser, my organic chemistry professor, was the inventor of napalm.
When I took the course my freshman year, there wasn't the same kind of awareness of the Vietnam war that there was several years later, as many of my classmates faced the draft after graduation at the time that the war seemed to be escalating. But Fieser’s role was murmured about among the students.
And certainly, things changed hugely in terms of the “sexual revolution” during the four years I was at Harvard from 1963 to 1967.
By the mid 1960’s, the birth control pill was something every woman wanted. When I was a freshman the university had very strict hours when you had to be back in the dorm at night, or when you could have a man in your room or be in a Harvard room. But, my goodness, four years later nobody in the administration was keeping track.
[Laugh] Kate, toward the end of your undergraduate time when you were starting to think about graduate school, what kind of advice were you getting and, in terms of your own identity as a maturing scientist, what were the fields of study, the kinds of science that were most compelling to you for graduate school?
I still wanted to be in the field of chemistry and physics, as I really enjoyed it.
So I wanted to go to a place that had very, very good chemical physics. It was interesting that the Klemperer group, which was a really big group in chemical physics, had a particularly strong relationship with the University of Chicago. At least one theorist who had been in the Klemperer group as a postdoc then became a professor at University of Chicago the year before I picked a graduate school. Not that I picked Chicago because of his going there, but there just was a lot of other people in the group who were well known who had gone to Chicago to take professorships. And my boyfriend at the time and I had become engaged. He was going to medical school; I wanted to get a PhD in chemical physics or quantum chemistry, and so we looked at places that had a good medical school, good physics and chemistry, and chose Chicago. In terms of finding a place to live Chicago was particularly convenient with the medical school and hospitals right across the street from the science buildings in Hyde Park.
So that was compelling.
In talking about all of the exciting developments in the 1960s, you got to Chicago at quite an interesting time, as well.
Oh, yeah. [Laughter] For sure. Yep.
Were you involved at all in the convention in '68?
Not really. I was horrified by what I saw on TV. We went down to Chicago’s loop and Grant Park and saw the tanks that were strung with barbed wire to push crowds back. I mean, it was really awful, smelling the teargas everywhere in downtown Chicago. But the events leading up to the convention in Chicago – the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and then two months later Robert Kennedy – were incredibly heartbreaking as well.
The convention, yeah.
And in '69 I had my first child, so that was another milestone.
Was your mom's experience strong in your mind in terms of your determination to maintain momentum, make it all work?
Yes, that was one. But also I had significant financial support from the University of Chicago—a NASA traineeship, which was like a full fellowship, paid tuition, and then paid me a stipend. We also had access to married student housing because my first husband and I had gotten married in early September of '67. And married student housing was really cheap, which was great. But I was so lucky to have that NASA traineeship when I went to Chicago.
It gave you flexibility?
Oh, yes. In terms of choosing a research advisor.
Was your research connected at all with NASA or what was the motivation from NASA's perspective?
NASA, I think, gave these fellowships to certain leading universities to use to attract strong students to their graduate programs.
Yeah. The larger idea though, this is in the middle of the space race and NASA had the funds to do things like this?
Exactly. And now I think when students want to obtain an NSF graduate fellowship or something, they have to apply. I didn't have to. It was just decided by the department, and they offered it.
Mm-hmm. Kate, chemical physics is inherently multidisciplinary and the way it's situated really depends from university to university.
So how did that work at Chicago? Were you primarily in the chemistry department with a physics specialty or vice versa? How did that work?
It was administered from the chemistry department.
But I took a lot of physics courses, and I took a course with Robert Mulliken. I took a course with Ugo Fano, a number of the big names in physics. But I was most intrigued about going to work through the chemical physics program with physics professor Clemens Roothaan. I don't know if you've ever heard of him, but he was quite a leader in ab initio calculations of the energy and wave functions of small molecules. And I talked with him in the spring of my senior year at Harvard, as I was deciding where to go. He was terrific and I was planning to work with him. But by the time I got to Chicago in the fall, he had suffered a mental breakdown and I never saw him the entire time that I was at Chicago. He had been director of the computer center there, and the computer center was honed so well for outstanding computations in chemistry or physics. But as I later learned, a tug-of-war developed with the nascent computer science department there insisting that it should be running the computer center and not a physicist. And I guess the university president had ultimately decided in favor of the computer science department.
And I think it destroyed Roothaan. What it certainly did was destroy the computer center, I'll tell you.
It was awful.
The computer center lost outstanding software developers, and the turn-around time for big computational jobs became impossibly long. I ended up having to do a lot of my calculations, because my work was very computationally intensive, out at Argonne National Lab. And since there was no internet and you couldn't submit things remotely, that meant my driving out there many times a week from the south side of Chicago.
With a baby sometimes?
Kate, who ended up being your advisor?
The person who had been a postdoc with Roothaan and then had become a assistant professor in chemistry and had assumed the leadership of the Roothaan group: Juergen Hinze. He was originally from Germany.
Very Germanic. [Laugh] And I had my own money, and I think he was totally delighted to take me on as a grad student.
Less pressure on him as a young professor to secure funding for you?
Right. I mean, he did have funding for other students that worked with him, and he was very well respected. But he was a bit difficult as an advisor as he didn’t know how to be an encouraging mentor. He was extremely judgmental and very critical. And so the first words out of his mouth were always, "No."
But on the other hand, I really liked getting involved in computational methods and the theoretical description of small molecules, and doing ab initio calculations from first principles to really understand the strength of the bonds, the energy level structure of small molecules, their spectroscopic signatures, and their various characteristics like the dipole moment. It turned out to be work that then was extremely interesting to astrophysics—
—during the time when radio astronomers started discovering all these very small molecules in diffuse interstellar clouds.
I wonder if you can explain the science a bit there, how you have these two seemingly disparate disciplines converged on this point of interest?
Some of these molecules—and I'm really talking very small diatomics—meaning CH, for instance, or OH or the ion CH+, are very hard to create in the laboratory because they're very reactive. And so the fact that you're seeing them in interstellar space is often because they're in low density environments, such that they aren't colliding with other molecules and reacting further, or they're not exposed to surfaces on which they could sit and then react. So there was really room for theory and especially looking at properties like oscillator strengths, which are related to the strength of spectral lines.
So radio astronomy was just coming into its own in the late '60s, early '70s, and I sat in on a course from Pat Palmer in the astronomy department who would bring in a report every week on one or two new molecules that had just been discovered. And it was really lots of fun. And so some of the work I was doing, which was trying to find really accurate ab initio methods to describe wave functions of small molecules was quite relevant. Once you have a wave function of a molecule, then with various operators, you can use the wave function to calculate properties like the dipole moment or the transition strength between two energy levels, for instance. You can actually map out a potential curve that is the energy as a function of internuclear separation. And then, one can compute the vibrational and rotational energy levels of the molecule which give rise to complexity in the spectra of diatomic molecules. And if you have calculated the oscillator strengths, then from the measured spectral line intensities of the molecules in an astronomical object, you can actually obtain the densities of these species in the object.
Kate, to the extent that you were thinking in grandiose terms about your thesis research, how was it responsive to some of the broader questions in the field at the time?
[Laugh] I'd have to think about that one. Well, the broader questions in the field of quantum chemistry and molecular structure were: how can we really, with computer resources available back then, how can we calculate accurately the energies and wave functions of a small molecule? And there were many approximation methods being explored. And where do you have to put in the intense work so that you get a good description of the bonding, for instance, in a molecule? My thesis work really attempted to explore one approach to molecular structure calculations: the Multi-Configuration Self Consistent Field (MC-SCF) approach. The broader questions in astrophysics that related to my work involved understanding the chemistry of diffuse interstellar clouds, which would help one to understand the physical characteristics of such regions – temperatures, densities and abundances of these small molecules.
What was Hinze's style like as a mentor? Was he mostly hands off? Was he really involved with your research?
Oh, he was involved, yeah. And that had both good and bad aspects. It meant that I didn’t spend huge amounts of time stuck on a problem, but as I indicated earlier, if you had an idea, his response was usually, "No." [Laugh]
But you had to sort of get used to that. On the other hand, he gave me freedom. I had developed a program—he had suggested that I write a program to calculate, say, vibrational and rotational energy levels from a diatomic potential curve, and therefore I could then calculate, say, the infrared spectrum, for instance, of a molecule. And so then—I can't remember exactly how it happened—but I collaborated with another young woman, Trudy Schafer, who was in my graduate school class who worked for Professor Yuan Lee (he was at Chicago as an assistant professor, but eventually went to Berkeley). And she was measuring the scattering of rare gases like argon on neon and argon on xenon. And from her scattering work, she was actually getting the potential curves for ArNe and ArXe and I was then taking the potential curves and actually calculating the vibrational and rotational levels with this program that I had written. And we actually got a paper out of it, with no research advisors on it, just the two of us. And so that was actually loads of fun.
Kate, I'll test your memory. Who was on your thesis committee?
[Laugh] Let's see. Steve Berry who's a well-known chemical physicist, J. Willard Stout (at that time editor in chief of J. Chem Phys), Lennard Wharton (who had been a “star” experimentalist in the Klemperer group at Harvard) and Juergen Hinze.
Was it a good defense, a good oral defense?
Oh, it was a disaster.
It was terrible.
Why? What happened?
Well, I was never good on my feet, and I think that Juergen Hinze did not prepare me well for actually giving the talk and just for facing questions regarding the thesis work, in general. The committee members were actually very admiring of it. I remember it rather well, painfully so. I think Lennard Wharton was the one that said, "You know, it's really amazing. You calculate wave functions for this molecule for several different symmetries or several different excited electronic states, and then you're able to calculate the spectra, and then you're able to calculate the dipole moments, and you're able to ..." and on and on. And he said, "Each of those characteristics (the spectra, the determination of the dipole moment) takes a totally different experiment to measure except your calculations are just giving it all at the same time," which is the power of a theoretical calculation that obtains wave functions. So the wave function, to the extent it's accurate, really describes the system beautifully. And then, using various operators sandwiched between the wave function, you get an awful lot of information.
However, I felt that I didn’t adequately respond to many of the questions posed by the committee, and thus, certain that I had failed the oral exam, I drove home, thus skipping the party that Juergen Hinze had prepared to celebrate my passing. Needless to say, he was very disappointed!
Mm-hmm. Kate, after you defended, between family constraints, the things that you wanted to accomplish next academically, what were the most compelling and realistic options for you for postdocs?
It got very complicated. First of all, finding daycare during the time I was a graduate student was incredibly difficult. My oldest son was born my second year of graduate school, and at that time there were no daycare centers—zero.
And we were really constrained by money because my NASA traineeship was $300 a month, [laugh] which, to me today, just sounds appallingly low.
It did cover $100 for married student housing, $100 a month for food, essentially almost nothing for gasoline because mostly we were walking, and then $100 a month for baby-sitting. We lived very close to the University of Chicago, two blocks from the computer center, three blocks from the chemistry department, two blocks from the hospital where my husband was a med student. But my husband finished medical school (in June, 1971) before I did, so we decided we wanted to go back to the Boston area, and he got an internship at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and I (with our son) decided to stay behind in the Chicago area to finish my PhD as quickly as possible.
We moved our apartment to Brookline, MA, near the Harvard hospitals. And I and my son, Andrew, went to live with my parents up in Winnetka and then I commuted down to the southside of Chicago every day, which is not an easy drive.
It was about an hour and a half drive each way. And my mom was taking care of my son. But it was a really tough time.
I had a lot of calculations that I was trying to complete. I wrote my entire thesis in about four to six weeks. It was really difficult. And my mom had gotten very sick. She had breast cancer, so that added to my feelings of sadness and stress. I finished up in late January/early February, 1972 – about 4 months more than what would have been a four-year stint in graduate school. I graduated from the University of Chicago with my PhD in February 1972. My whole aim at that time was just to get out to Boston and then figure out the next step.
Oh, so you didn't have the observatory lined up before you got out there?
Oh, not at all.
Oh, no. No.
So you just figured, let me land in Boston, there's enough academia here and you'll figure it locally?
But that was hard. What was really tough was that the marriage was falling apart at that time. Also, the availability of daycare was extremely difficult.
And no daycare because this is not what women do even circa 1972?
Oh, God no.
I actually got a spot eventually at the first Harvard daycare center, which opened in June 1972 and was located at Radcliffe.
And it was across the street from the observatory, so talk about luck. But, no, there were no daycare centers anywhere, and it was very hard to find—what I had done during graduate school was hire wives of graduate students to babysit, but such situations weren’t all that stable. So that was particularly hard in grad school.
And then, how did the opportunity with the observatory come about?
A good friend of mine, who had worked in Steve Berry's lab at Chicago, had gone to work as a postdoc with Alex Dalgarno at Harvard College Observatory. And I was aware of Dalgarno's work because I had actually seen it as an undergrad and I'd read some of it, and I was fascinated by it. At the time, it was some of the most exciting and interesting work I'd read. It focused on atomic and molecular physics relevant to both atmospheric physics and astrophysics. It made use of chemical physics, quantum chemistry and molecular structure, which was work similar to what I had done for my thesis.
Now, Kate, just to clarify, during your graduate research when you're talking about these nascent connections between chemical physics and radio astronomy, were you aware of that at the time or this is a more retrospective understanding?
Oh, I was aware.
I was aware at the time.
Was that relevant at all in terms of establishing a research agenda at the observatory?
Oh, yes. I was actually very predisposed to looking at molecular structure work relevant to astrophysics—it was fascinating to me. I loved it! I have subsequently described it as studying the very small (atoms and molecules) in order to understand the very big (interstellar clouds, stellar atmospheres, planetary atmospheres).
Who was director of the observatory at that point?
Alex Dalgarno was director of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) and Fred Whipple was director of SAO, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Starting in '72 or '73, when Professor George Field became director, the two “Observatories” were brought together in one formal entity: the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
Right. But you started at HCO?
Yes. Alex had money from grants on both the Harvard side and the Smithsonian side, so it just depended on what kind of money was available.
But, yes, originally, I was paid by Harvard, so I was a postdoc in the Dalgarno group. But that was hard fought for. [Laugh] This friend from University of Chicago, Michael Oppenheimer, who was a postdoc with Alex, had been an experimentalist with Steve Berry. He was now doing theoretical work with Dalgarno and spoke enthusiastically about the range of work going on in that group: AMO physics, chemical physics, astrophysics, and atmospheric physics. Dalgarno was absolutely incredible, and even as an undergraduate I had read some of his work and loved it.
Because it was multidisciplinary, that was attractive to you?
What was so exciting was using your knowledge of chemistry and physics to really understand the atmosphere, what was going on in the thermosphere, ionosphere, et cetera, and also what was going on in astrophysical environments such as interstellar clouds or stellar atmospheres.
That was just incredibly exciting. And so I went to talk to Michael and asked him how was he liking his postdoctoral work. He was most enthusiastic. I also met people in the Dalgarno group just informally. At the time, I also went and talked to several professors at MIT. But definitely, there was no question I wanted to work in the Dalgarno group. So finally, my friend got me an interview with Dalgarno and I talked with him about my thesis work and what my background was. And he said, "Look, I have four months of money that I can support you with, so you can start and here are some really good projects to get started on."
Kate, to the extent that you were selling him on your abilities, your background, your talents, what was it that clicked, even if only for four months, that convinced him to say yes?
Oh, I got involved in some really big projects, doing research of a kind that I had never done before! One project involved writing a huge code to calculate the photoionization of the upper atmosphere, starting with the solar flux coming from the sun and computing the photoionization of the atmosphere as a function of altitude so that then we could use those ions to understand the ion chemistry going on in the thermosphere and ionosphere. And why? Because Dalgarno was the lead theorist on the whole series of Atmospheric Explorer satellites that NASA was putting up at that time. These satellites carried a number of instruments measuring the thermosphere and ionosphere, looking at densities of ions, looking at a variety of things such as ion temperature and electron temperature.
And so my code was going to be the first step in this whole process. My code generated the ions that were being produced by the solar flux, and then my friend Michael would take these and put them into a code that he was writing that computed the ion chemistry using various reaction rates to predict the abundance of certain species that could then be compared with the measurements of the satellite instruments. So it was a matter of just understanding better all the processes going on in the atmosphere.
Kate, obviously, after four months, there was going to be a reason to find more money to keep supporting your work?
Where did it come from? Did he re-up a grant or was this new funding?
Oh, my goodness, he had funding from a lot of different places. So he was able to keep me on as a postdoc.
Yeah. So really the four months was a tryout period for you essentially?
Probably, yes. At the same time, I had unbelievable freedom. Some of the work I had done on lithium hydride and lithium deuteride was of interest to people in Norman Ramsey’s group, because they had done some molecular beam electric resonance experiments on LiD. And so then, using some of the properties that I had computed (such as the electric field gradient at the nucleus), we were able to obtain the quadrupole moment of the deuteron from LiD experiments. It was such a fabulous experience of being able to be in a research group where I could explore a whole lot of things and work with other people and do more than just exactly what the Dalgarno group needed, but also to have these other connections. My interaction with Rick Freeman in the Ramsey group was great. We wrote papers together. And then, also, I connected back with the Klemperer group, and Klemperer at that time was just getting interested in interstellar chemistry, as well.
So, Kate, the research culture of HCO very much encouraged collaboration in the department; that was a part of the agenda?
Oh, yes. And the department, of course—there was a department of astronomy up on Observatory Hill, but the physics department and the chemistry department were located a mile away on the main campus. But that didn't matter. We were always going down there for seminars and they'd come up to get together with us for lunch. Yeah, there was a lot of collaboration.
How long were you with HCO for after that initial four months? Was it a two-year appointment?
I can't even remember. So that gets into then the fact that—I had a lot of stuff going on, and I realize we're at the end of our time for today. And Yale got interested. And it's the time when every physics department started thinking, “ooh, we don't have a woman on the faculty, we've never had a woman.” [Laugh]
[Laugh] Well, Kate, that's a perfect place to pick up for next time. We'll start to discuss what opportunities you were considering at the end of your tenure as a postdoc at the Harvard College Observatory.
Ok. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 4th, 2021. I'm so happy to be back with Dr. Kate Kirby. Kate, it's great to see you again.
Great to see you, David.
All right. So let's pick up right where we left off last time which was, I believe, a bit of a crossroads at your life. You had already achieved success at the Harvard College Observatory. You outlasted that initial four-month appointment. You were doing impressive things. And when that research postdoc position was winding down, you indicated to me that you were facing some decisions, both on the home front and on the professional front, about what to do next. And perhaps as you were thinking about going on from graduate opportunities and postdoc opportunities to more permanent positions, the considerations that you were facing were probably more of a long-term nature. So what were some of those considerations and what decisions did you make?
So actually, the fortunate thing was to be kept on in terms of funding beyond the four months. I got involved in some really exciting topics, applying atomic and molecular physics to work on atmospheric physics and understanding the production of ions in the thermosphere and ionosphere, and then the chemical reactions of these ions. Because, of course, the fact that something is ionized does make them more liable to interact with other species. So, anyway, I was very fortunate to be in the Dalgarno group. I wasn't really winding down as a postdoc because my first opportunity to take the next step occurred, I thought, very early in my postdoc experience. I started at Harvard Observatory in the summer of '72, and the next year I actually had gotten involved in a lot of different projects. So it was a really exciting time. And so at the 1973 meeting of the APS Division of AMO Physics, (at the time it was called DEAP, Division of Electron and Atomic Physics), I was approached by someone at Yale who had heard a couple of my talks there and was exploring whether I'd be interested in an assistant professorship position in the physics department at Yale. This sort of developed over time. I would have been the first woman in the physics department at Yale.
Not even the first tenured woman, you just mean the first woman?
I mean the first woman, yes. And at the time, as I learned from talking with others, Yale did not have a good record of tenuring any assistant professors, all of them men.
So this would be a double whammy that you would be looking at here?
[Laugh] Yeah. And the other thing that was going on in the background was that my marriage fell apart, and so I was a single mom. And the struggle for good daycare was never far from my mind. Things were working out so well at Radcliffe Daycare Center across the street from the Harvard Observatory. And yet I had had to struggle to get my son accepted there, because there was such a long waiting list. But ultimately he was accepted because administrators noticed that I was going to be working at Harvard Observatory, which was across the street, and they said, “We should definitely support poor this single mother who is trying to do her postdoctoral work at Harvard Observatory.” So we were let into the program and so my son attended Radcliffe Daycare until he was, I think, five-and-a-half or so.
It was wonderful, such a godsend. So that was a piece of tremendously good luck. Anyway, being a single mother and starting to be courted by Yale, I was actually pretty concerned with how that was going to go. I knew that as the first woman in that department I would have incredible scrutiny from my colleagues in the department about who I was dating or what my social life was like. I also realized that I didn't know anybody in New Haven. I had a number of friends, some very close friends in Cambridge whom my son and I used to spend a lot of time with on the weekends because, as a single mom, you're pretty lonesome. So, anyway, yes, the offer came from Yale and it was very tempting. In the meantime, I discussed it with Alex Dalgarno and my Division leader at CfA, and they did have a federal position (which could be made permanent) available on the Smithsonian side and which they offered to me. I accepted readily, as it meant that I could continue doing the work that I was enjoying immensely.
Kate, you don't have to name names, but at Yale was there an individual who was specifically driving the recruitment or was it more—
Oh, it was? Ok.
It wasn't a general impetus from the department, something like we really need a woman physicist and Kate's doing some great work; it wasn't like that?
Oh, I think that was in the background that they realized there was pressure on every department to look at the fact that they had no women and that they should try to recruit somebody. But, yes, it was Bill Lichten at Yale who was really enthusiastic about the work I was doing.
What was Lichten's work? What did he do?
He was an atomic physicist and had been a student of Ugo Fano at Chicago.
So your work definitely came across his radar? He was aware of what you were doing?
Yes. As I indicated he met me and heard me give several talks at the 1973 DEAP meeting, which was held at Yale that year. Back then there were only about 300 people at that meeting. Now, of course, the division (DAMOP) generally has meetings of about 1,200 people.
But back then there were maybe 280 or 300 attendees, so you got to meet people pretty easily. I was so sorry ultimately to disappoint Professor Lichten, but I felt I really had to do what was best for my son and myself at the time. And I was so fortunate to have been offered a federal position at SAO – these positions were really coveted at the Smithsonian, and I think they still are.
Now, Kate, just so I understand the transition, you were at HCO but then you go to Smithsonian. Had you transferred from within your postdoc or how did that work?
The Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory occupied the same group of buildings on Observatory Hill and comprised the formal entity the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. So I remained in the same office!
But they were still administratively separate, though? It would be a different position?
Yes. But it just wasn’t a big deal – just a matter of changing the entity that supported my salary and benefits.
But it was significant that you were able, in some degree, to leverage the offer from Yale to get a federal position at the observatory?
And as I say, as a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, whether you were paid on one side or the other, it really didn't matter. Certainly, it didn't matter to me. The Smithsonian position, the federal position, really had a much higher promise of tenure—the Yale one looked very tenuous, I have to say.
Every single guy who'd been in an assistant professor position at that time was not getting tenure.
And even really excellent people.
And just to fast forward to Meg Urry many years later, it would take still some time for a woman to achieve tenure at Yale.
Yes. Meg and I are good friends and I think she has just been terrific in her many leadership roles in physics and astrophysics, while being so supportive of women in these fields. Anyway, I finally decided to turn down Yale. I realized at the time it was a really prestigious position, but I was much more interested in not encountering, as a single mom, a potentially hostile environment.
Not that Yale necessarily would be that way, but meaning that, as their first woman and as a single woman, it was going to be a really challenging situation.
And this was not the case at Smithsonian? You did not feel that these things would be an issue?
No. In fact, there were more women, as there have been in astronomy all along—
That's right, that's right.
—there than I had ever encountered in another physics department. And I had a number of great contacts at the CfA, the Chemistry Department and the Physics Department at Harvard. As I said, I was working with somebody who was in the Ramsey group in the Harvard Physics Department. I had friends in the chemistry department in the old Klemperer group. And, in addition, my colleagues at the CfA, especially the Dalgarno group, which was quite large and doing work in fundamental atomic and molecular physics and atomic and molecular processes, as well as applications to astrophysics and atmospheric physics. So intellectually it was just fabulous, and I just didn't feel I was ready to move on.
Kate, it sounds like this decision was really a no-brainer when you break it down like this.
It really was. It came at a point in my career that was just really a godsend. It was perfect.
When you accepted the federal position, did the collaborations you were working on, did that change or was it the same projects? It was a seamless transition?
Same projects, seamless transition, totally.
I wonder if we could zoom out a little bit in terms of how cutting edge the research was in terms of bringing a chemical physics perspective to atmospheric physics. What's the bigger history here? Does this intellectual coalition go back a long way or this is pretty new stuff?
Well, that actually got started by David Bates at Queen's University Belfast. And Dalgarno as a postdoc worked with Bates, who had started pioneering understanding the atomic and molecular physics of atmospheric physics. And Dalgarno, who had gotten his degree at University College London in applied mathematics, went to work with Bates and then got an appointment at Queen's University Belfast. Dalgarno extended the work on using atomic and molecular physics to understand astrophysical objects. It was in '67, I believe, when Dalgarno was recruited to the Harvard Observatory, both on the Smithsonian side and the Harvard side, so he had joint appointments. And then, shortly after that, he became director of Harvard College Observatory for several years until George Field was appointed as director of CfA, when the observatories were combined under one entity. But the science going on in the Dalgarno group was just incredibly exciting, I thought.
Exciting and interdisciplinary. The research environment, there were lots of different people coming from different perspectives working on new stuff was the overall research culture?
Absolutely. And, again, I had very little astronomy background. Nothing. I'd never taken a course in astronomy. Therefore, I found going to colloquia quite challenging; it was just a totally different vocabulary, but it was an incredible learning experience. I was really thrown in and had to perform doing the kind of calculations I had never done before. I had done a lot of detailed ab initio work which involved quite elaborate codes to calculate wave functions using self-consistent field method and configuration interaction and involved often manipulating huge amounts of data. But I was asked to produce a code to calculate ionization as a function of altitude in the earth's atmosphere due to solar flux. So it involved a totally different kind of look at the science, and I loved it. It was just fabulous. But then I also got involved in atomic and molecular physics projects with people in the group. I look back and I say, how could I have been so lucky?
And I think I told you that I had, for some reason, seen some of Dalgarno's work, even as an undergrad.
And I'm not sure how I came across it, but I remember reading it and saying, this is so cool. The way I like to summarize the work that I was doing is exploring or studying the very small, i.e. atomic and molecular interactions with other ions or electrons or photons, in order to understand the very large, i.e., the chemistry of diffuse interstellar clouds or understanding stellar atmospheres. There were just so many places in the astrophysical world to apply a lot of what I could explore with my calculations. But yes, I still get excited about it. [Laugh]
Kate, I wonder if one of those areas that was relevant was radio astronomy, people like Joe Taylor, what somebody like him was doing at that time, if that was something that was on your radar?
Radio astronomy enabled us to see the universe in whole new ways, especially identifying molecules – some of them quite complex. Every time a new spectroscopic window opens up, with new instrument technologies, there are so many advances in our understanding of the processes going on in stars, planets, and galaxies. Our atmosphere on earth prevents us from “seeing” in certain regions of the spectrum. Radio waves come through the atmosphere unperturbed, whereas in the infrared there are difficulties just because of water vapor, which absorbs a lot in certain regions of the infrared spectrum. And then, the X-ray, of course was totally unknown until the '70s when the Uhuru satellite went up. When I started at the CfA, the X-ray group was just being brought there as well, headed up by Riccardo Giacconi. There was a huge amount of X-ray work that developed at CfA over time.
The CfA was an incredibly exciting place to work. I was certainly aware of a lot of the discoveries and it did impact the kind of things we were looking at. But, in particular, a lot of my work impacted the theoretical models, say, for modeling the chemistry of diffuse interstellar clouds and understanding the processes which produce molecules, because there were a lot of mysteries that people were trying to understand. For instance, why is there so much CH+ as opposed to CH? Water masers were being discovered. And I had been doing some calculations on OH. There were always lots of questions and places to be applying one’s research. And even at the end of my tenure just before I went to APS, I was doing some work on brown dwarfs and extrasolar planets. A brown dwarf is a star that's not quite turned on, and so it has interesting temperatures and atmosphere and there was a lot of interest in knowing what's in the atmosphere.
Kate, during the course of your tenure at Smithsonian, what were some of the most significant observational projects that were relevant and valuable in terms of the data they yielded for your research, in terms of satellites or space-based telescopes or land-based telescopes, what were the projects that were most important for you to do the theoretical work that you were doing?
That's a really good question, and I need some time to think about that—I haven't looked back at this stuff in 11 years. [Laugh]
I think I indicated certainly at the end of my tenure at Harvard-Smithsonian it was all the work that was actually being done by the X-ray group at Harvard-Smithsonian. They had built an x-ray telescope that was finally able to achieve a good degree of spectroscopic resolution. This was flown on the Chandra x-ray satellite. Getting this new data meant that it was important to understand x-ray spectroscopy of atoms and ions and the processes that can take place in plasmas. I started working on X-ray astrophysical plasmas and using the atomic physics to understand the conditions in these plasmas, such as the electron temperature and the species present. The fact that you could finally get X-ray spectra with good resolution, so that you could observe lines produced in the x-ray, was quite a significant advance.
Without having spectroscopy, you really don't know what species are present in the astrophysical object. And so my whole orientation generally was to interact with observations where there were good spectroscopic measurements. If you're just doing imaging, you're receiving photons but you don't know really know their detailed characteristics or their energy and so you can't tell much about what atomic, ionic or molecular species are there.
Kate, in terms of the most important external collaborators you had during the Smithsonian years, do you think more in terms of individuals that you worked with or institutional collaborations, that you were part of a team and there were other institutes that were part of a team, and that was the most important route to getting the work done that you were a part of?
Early on I was part of the team that Dalgarno led to do all the theoretical work to understand the data from the Atmospheric Explorer satellites that NASA was launching. I think a series of three of them were launched during the '70s. I found it fun to work as a team, not something I experienced as a grad student. And so that was certainly probably the biggest experience of working with a team. But there were always loads of people visiting our group because Dalgarno was so well known, so no shortage of collaborators.
There was an informal exchange program often during the summer between Queen's University Belfast and Harvard-Smithsonian, and so loads of people, both English and Irish came from Northern Ireland to work in our group.
So there's always new blood, fresh ideas coming through?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And so it was definitely a really exciting group to work with.
Kate, one of the more stark choices when you were considering the Yale opportunity was between Yale and the Smithsonian Observatory. It would be a life of a professor versus a life of an academic researcher. I wonder if you thought about that and if there were any opportunities at Smithsonian to take on some of the professorial trappings? In other words, did you have courtesy appointments at Harvard if you wanted to teach? Could you take on graduate students or postdocs? What opportunities were available in that regard when you decided to stay at Smithsonian?
Yeah. I guess I wasn't that excited about teaching.
Mm-hmm. Thereby making the Yale decision even easier for you in that case.
[Laugh] Well, I felt I needed a lot more time to do research and to really feel more confident scientifically. It really was the right choice for me for sure. I did take on postdocs because I wrote proposals to get my own grant money. I got money from the Office of Naval Research. I got money from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And so I did have support for postdocs. And I often worked with postdocs, although I worked with a number of Dalgarno graduate students as well. You could collaborate. And if you had codes that people needed to explore problems, I would work with them. So there was a lot of mixing, just working as a team again, I guess, but sort of informal.
And just to be clear, even though you hadn't taken on students, with regard to your colleagues who were teaching in academic departments, you were going to the same conferences, you were publishing in the same journals, in that regard it was an identical research experience?
Oh, absolutely. And I didn't have the pressure of having to teach.
And I was fine with that. And then after a while I was given the opportunity to take on more administrative functions, which definitely prepared me well for my job several decades later at APS.
And if I could digress a bit, to pick up on my personal life after the Yale decision. I started to date someone who was not a scientist, but who was a wonderful guy, very supportive of my career and who became a terrific stepfather to my son when we got married in 1977. Our first child together was a little girl, Elizabeth, born in 1980. The fact that my husband is not a scientist made things much less complicated.
I know a lot of women scientists have had two-body problems because their spouse is also in academia.
But my husband's an architect, so he certainly appreciates physics! And in 1982 we welcomed our second daughter, Carolyn, followed by our son Jonathan in 1985! The arrivals of all my children were always the most thrilling days of my life, so I didn’t want to leave out that very important aspect of my family life. It was in '87, only 2 years after the birth of my fourth child, that I was asked to consider heading up the atomic and molecular physics division at Harvard-Smithsonian. Bill Parkinson had had that position for maybe 15 years, and the new director of CfA, Irwin Shapiro, asked me to become an Associate Director of the CfA, heading up the Atomic and Molecular Physics Division. I did take that on, because I felt it was an exciting opportunity. You were still expected, of course, to produce just as many scientific papers. It's very much like academia. Academia just always expects you to take on more and more. You don't get paid more.
The expectations are no different, it's just that you work harder and harder.
Right. And you're just very good at not being able to say no.
Yeah. And also, I thought I could do it fairly well.
Kate, to foreshadow to all of your administrative work going on to more senior positions to a more executive level, those early opportunities you had in administration, just in terms of your skills, not necessarily as a scientist, but what did you realize you were good at as you increasingly took these roles on?
That's a good question. I think I was interested in and good at understanding other people's programs, what they wanted to do, what their goals were, and sort of selling it, to some extent.
Making sure that there was recognition coming to them. I always was looking to do everything I could to promote the postdocs that were in our institute, which I'll get into later, and giving them opportunities. It became so clear to me that the mentoring relationship was critical for younger people, and that ensuring that one was supportive and putting opportunities in their path was really an essential part of being a more senior scientist. So I think I did that. I also recognized how—or at least I learned how to promote ideas and research programs. You don't spring things on colleagues at a meeting unexpectedly. You go and talk to people individually, let them know what you think is going to be really important or exciting with the science, and how they should support your proposal, basically. I'm not sure I thought about it back then, so I'm not sure I really thought about it since then. But I was interested in it. And I didn't think it would badly impact my research. When something's interesting to you and you don't feel that it's just a total burden—
You take it on.
—then you're going to work hard at being fairly good at it.
Kate, you were at Smithsonian for enough fiscal years to be able to comment overall on the budgetary environment from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. How had that environment changed? Where were the sources of support coming? Was the ability to get projects funded, did it get easier or harder over time generally?
It really depended.
Yeah. And sometimes things were really tough on the federal budget side. But a lot of Smithsonian was supported on what's called the “private role” side, which meant contracts and grants. I had a federal appointment, and that was very nice because there was tenure associated with that and I didn’t have to bring in my own salary as I would have if I had been supported totally by grants or contracts, such as from NASA. There were some really big projects at SAO such as the Chandra x-ray satellite, supported by huge NASA contracts and grants. The work that went on in the high-energy astrophysics group at Harvard-Smithsonian was just superb and they really finally obtained good spectroscopic resolution in the X-ray, and therefore were able to make fabulous measurements. So it was very exciting having that group as a big part of SAO or Harvard-Smithsonian.
Kate, when did you start to become involved in APS, not just as a fellow but the slow pull into really being involved at APS at the institutional level in all of the service areas that you were committed to? When did you feel like this was becoming an increasingly bigger part of your portfolio?
Well, I always went to DEAP meetings and gave talks on my research. But I first became involved in the running of the Division when I was asked to run for secretary/treasurer of the Division in—gosh, I'm trying to remember—'83 maybe, '84.
And I was taking over from Pat Dehmer who had been secretary/treasurer before me. Pat and I have known each other ever since graduate school—
—because we were both at University of Chicago together.
I'm sure you know who Pat is – former Deputy Director of the Office of Science at DOE.
Good. I was put forward as secretary/treasurer and was elected. I probably didn't even run against anybody at that time. Anyway, that really put me in a leadership position so that a lot more people got to know who I was. I think that's something that can be under-appreciated when you’re asked to take on extra leadership responsibilities. It's to your benefit when people start to know who you are even beyond just the scientific literature.
Kate, I guess the question is, at what point—because clearly early on, just to foreshadow to your decision to become CEO at that level, clearly there was something important to you personally about making APS work better. I guess that's my question. When did that drive start for you where you really wanted to—because you could be a member of all kinds of organizations but really stay on the sideline because you're interested in your own research?
When did it become important for you to really support and to martial your skills and experience for the advancement of APS itself?
So I have to say that it was at the DEAP meetings.
I really thought the community was fabulous.
I felt very welcomed into that community as opposed to the ACS.
I think I may have gone to an ACS meeting; I don't remember. I just remember the supportive community of people within DEAP who were very interested in what I was doing, and it was great. It was a really wonderful meeting experience. So I think that's one tremendous asset that APS has which is that it establishes divisions, topical groups, forums. In other words, smaller groups of people with similar interests who can be mutually supportive. So the divisions are focused on different areas within the wide scope of physics. The topical groups are sort of incipient divisions, that is they are often focused on emergent science (within physics). So participating in APS unit leadership gives you an opportunity to have a number of colleagues who are aware of your work and whom you get to know in a more focused venue within the larger organization. I just found it a very welcoming community. It was not only the Dalgarno group, all of us being DEAP members, of course, but also my colleagues in the Ramsey group, the Pipkin group, etc. So there were just a lot of really outstanding opportunities to interact with interesting people.
And you recognized that APS was the reason for these excellent interactions?
I'm not so sure I did. DEAP functioned rather autonomously, without too much APS “supervision”.
So I started out serving the DEAP community (which became DAMOP actually during my tenure as Secretary/Treasurer).
How much then really got transferred to APS? Not so much, I think, at that point in my career.
And that is still true to some extent within APS. Actually, we see a number of divisions that like to just be on their own.
And APS, “please don't bother us”.
Uh-huh. Kate, what were the circumstances leading to you being named director of ITAMP, the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics?
There had been concerns in the AMO community that there wasn't enough attention being brought to nurturing the field of theoretical atomic, molecular, and optical physics. I'm trying to remember. I think it was in the '80s. That's terrible that the time line has become somewhat foggy!
It was founded in 1988, if that helps.
Yeah. Ok. So I think it was in '86 or '87 that Dalgarno sat down and, with the help of several of us, wrote a big proposal to the National Science Foundation proposing the establishment of an Institute for Theoretical Atomic and Molecular Physics. We incorporated the O somewhat later—
—because quantum optics became really an essential part of atomic and molecular physics.
But the acronym was always (and still is) ITAMP.
And the goal was for it to always be within Smithsonian, not as an independent organization?
Yes, but it was within Harvard-Smithsonian, so some NSF money came through the Harvard side and some through the Smithsonian side.
Right. But my question is not to be outside, its own independent institute or anything like that?
No. It was a big NSF-funded institute and it was important that it be located in an outstanding academic venue. And part of the instigation was because we were not being recognized and included in the programs of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Santa Barbara.
Ah. [Laugh] Interesting.
So back in the 1980’s there was a lot of irritation in the field. [Laugh] I thought it might cause some interesting interactions with David Gross, former Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Santa Barbara, because he was APS president during my time as APS CEO, but David and I got on very well.
David ended up becoming a wonderful supporter of APS. But members of the AMO community were very frustrated by the fact that ITP was really not recognizing what was going on in theoretical AMO physics. So we wrote this proposal. I say "we," but it really was over Dalgarno's name, and we were awarded the money in 1988. And Dalgarno became the first Director of the Institute for its first five years (I was the Deputy Director).
Kate, with you being named director, I wonder if now is the time to ask, if we were to map your work week, where you have the years going across and the hours spent on a given project and you have a line going up on administrative duties and a line going down on scientific research work, the actual science that you were involved in, where did those lines converge? Did they really converge right around this time when you're named director, when really a majority of your time is spent more on the administrative side than the scientific side?
So that's an interesting question. I only became director of the Institute much later. Towards the end of the first five years when Alex Dalgarno was director we engaged Rick Heller, who was at University of Washington, and brought him to Cambridge to take a joint appointment with the Harvard Physics Department and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and he became ITAMP’s second director. And I can't remember whether he was director for three years or four years. I became Director of ITAMP in 2001 after being Acting Director for several years when Rick Heller stepped down.
There was a lot of time during which I was working on my science and carrying out administrative work as Associate Director of CfA and Deputy Director/Acting Director of ITAMP.
Yeah. But the question comes from—to go back to our earlier exchange about, at a certain point when you were accepting more administrative duties, there was this idea that you could have it all, that you were good at the science, you were good at the administration, you could take on more of those responsibilities without allowing your science to suffer. But at a certain point reality must set in where your responsibilities are such that you just say, I have to step back from the science to some degree. I guess that's my question, when you came to that realization?
I'm not sure there was that realization.
It was just—
Yes. It sort of just evolved.
And by that I mean that I was still doing science but not as “hands on” as before. But I still collaborated with people, especially as we got into work on brown dwarfs, extrasolar planets, and astrophysical plasmas. A lot of the work took place with other people who were doing the majority of the day-to-day research, but I was certainly working on the proposals and the ideas for what we should be looking at. It just evolved that I wasn't developing the code and wasn't analyzing the codes except when we would talk about the project and figure out what our computer programs were telling us or how to frame a paper based on our results. So it was a supervisory role.
But one thing you were doing, as you note, was you had phenomenal postdocs and you were mentoring them, and they were doing some of the work that perhaps you otherwise would have been doing yourself?
Yes. Exactly. But I think I was not a great postdoctoral advisor initially.
You had to grow into that role, as well?
Yes. Right. All in all, I hope people felt it was a good opportunity to be at Harvard-Smithsonian, which was a great place to work. So I took on the directorship of ITAMP, and I was still head of the Atomic and Molecular Physics Division at Harvard-Smithsonian, one of seven associate directors heading up the seven divisions at CfA.
When I was asked to become director of the Institute, which was in 2001, I asked to step down as Associate Director at the CfA.
And so Irwin Shapiro was sort of surprised. He said, "Really? Now, can't you do both?"
But the thing with being director of the institute, ITAMP, was the necessity for writing big multi-million-dollar proposals to get the institute funded, running a big postdoc program, establishing and running a number of workshops each year in various topics, running a first-rate visitors program, and writing annual reports for NSF, etc. There was just a lot to administering all of that.
And I felt it was time—I'd been associate director of the Harvard-Smithsonian heading up the Atomic and Molecular Physics Division for, by that time, 12 or 13 years.
And I felt it was time for someone else to step up.
Kate, in talking about Irwin Shapiro, I'm curious, where was Bill Press in all of this?
Bill was a Harvard professor, but he did leave CfA before I did. Bill Press and I have known each other for a long time. I think at one point early in our acquaintance, at a meeting he said to me, "Kate, we are the youngest tenured members on both the Harvard side and the Smithsonian side."
But we never collaborated, as our science interests really didn't intersect.
Ok. Uh-huh. Kate, maybe a good way of putting a point on the question about your research agenda versus your administrative agenda, when you accept the offer to become executive officer of APS in 2009, did you take this role harboring the hope, realistic or not, that there was still scientific work that you would be able to do or did you enter this role saying, this really is fulltime scientific administrative work I would be accepting?
In fact, I was chair of the search committee to find a successor to Dr. Judy Franz, who was retiring as Executive Officer of APS.
Ah. The Dick Cheney role?
That was pulled out and mentioned. [Laughter] Actually, there's a story in APS News maybe in December that talks about what happened. But there should be some backstory here—
—which is my involvement with APS, which steadily grew over the years. It started with my being elected secretary/treasurer of DAMOP (1984 – 1987), and then, in the early '90s at some point, I was elected as a General Councilor to the Council of APS, for a two-year term. It was an interesting time because the leadership were involved in debating whether to move to College Park from NYC.
And then I was asked by the DAMOP nominating committee to run for chair of the division in the '90s—and this was a four-year term as vice-chair, chair-elect, chair, and then past-chair. The division at that point was much, much larger than it had been in the ‘70’s, so my election was quite significant. My actual year of serving as chair was 1998.
And AMO physics was an increasingly exciting area, with the realization of Bose-Einstein condensation in the laboratory with ultracold atoms. So that was really lovely. I think Carl Wieman became chair immediately after me. It was an interesting time. As chair you're supposed to put together the meeting that happens during your year as Chair. I had contacted some friends at Los Alamos because I felt it would be really fun to have a meeting in Santa Fe. So my colleagues at Los Alamos in AMO theory were very interested in working with DAMOP and they put on a fabulous meeting. It was the largest DAMOP meeting that we'd ever had. So that was really wonderfully successful. And then, shortly after that, I was elected as Councilor from DAMOP, serving on the APS council from 2003 to 2007. I was then elected to the Board during that time, which was a two-year stint.
And Kate, the overall story here is with your increasing involvement, you enjoy this, this is meaningful to you, you like utilizing your time in this way in the service of APS?
Well, right. It's really in the service of your colleagues. So I'm not so sure you think of it as in service to APS, although if you think of APS as being physics community, yes, it is.
But it's mostly because it's fun to work with colleagues from across the country and around the world.
And as I told you, starting in '73, I felt I had just wonderful colleagues.
I mean, really people of tremendous integrity, interesting people. It was, as I say, a very supportive community. And I think that's why you keep on being part of it, because, hey, it's enjoyable.
And people appreciate the job you're doing, especially when you put on a great DAMOP meeting, or you run an excellent committee meeting. And so, yeah, it was fun being on the Council and the Board because I got to know physicists in a lot more areas outside of my own.
However, it's interesting that during the course of my career I really have gotten to know and work with scientists across a wide swath of disciplines—since I have a background in chemical physics, AMO physics, astrophysics, and atmospheric physics. I remember being asked to be part of a theoretical review committee at NSF where they brought together theorists from all the areas under the purview of MPS (chemistry, physics, materials science, mathematics and astrophysics). We were to look across the division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences and try to understand how theory is supported within MPS. Michael Turner was director of MPS at that point. And what was fascinating was we all came together for this two-and-a-half day meeting, and I knew fellow theorists in four of the five disciplines: physics, astrophysics, chemistry, and materials science — not in mathematics. So it was just very interesting to realize that, just because of my research background, I really knew a lot of people across the physical sciences.
Kate, when you were named to the search committee for the executive officer position, were you really not considering yourself? Were you not thinking that—
You were not? This was an innocent assignment for you?
Absolutely. I'd gotten other assignments. So when I was on the Council in 2003, I was assigned to the first task force on ethics for APS, working with Dr. Frances Houle, who was chair. She is fabulous. She is actually right now chair of the APS Committee on Ethics. So it's great. I'm still working with her! [Laugh] I've done a lot of things for APS, because once you're on the Board and Council, things come to you and people ask you to take on more responsibilities.
You're done a lot of things and you've met a lot of people.
Yes, although I'm very shy. And so I wouldn't consider myself someone who speaks up a lot. In fact, I was appointed to the search committee for two other operating officers of APS. It was back in 2005. I was appointed to the search committee that Helen Quinn chaired. We were replacing Marty Blume, who was stepping down as editor in chief, and at the same time, Tom McIlrath, who was stepping down as treasurer/publisher. We had a charge to find two operating officers of APS. On that search committee, there was one person who got so upset with the fact that I wasn't saying much that they really called me out, "Kate, don't you have anything to say?" I replied, "I'll say something when I feel it's merited." [Laugh]
So obviously, my silence makes people uncomfortable sometimes.
You're not witnessing it right now.
Well, then I'm doing my job if that's the case. [Laugh]
[Laugh] So, yeah, it was another great experience being on that search committee. And then in 2008 when Arty Bienenstock, APS President at the time —
—called me and asked me to serve on the search committee for Judy Franz, largely because of my experience on the other search committee, I agreed. But then three weeks later he called me, and said, "Kate, would you chair this search committee?" [Laugh]
That gave me pause. A lot of times I think people don't realize that being chair of a committee is much more responsibility than just being on a committee. But I finally agreed to chair it. I definitely tried to make sure that Professor Anthony Johnson was on the committee. We have known each other for years and have served on so many different committees together.
They wanted diversity on the committee, and I knew that Anthony would be terrific. But a lot of the people on the committee I did not know at all, and that was really interesting—people like George Trilling who was at Berkeley. It was really great to get to know him.
Who, unfortunately, we lost last year.
I know. I went to his memorial Zoom gathering.
Yeah. He was quite an amazing person.
So, Kate, how did all of this transpire to you being the person?
So I had very definite notions about how we should go about this. I felt, first of all, that we needed to interview a lot of the staff, the director of meetings, the director of membership. I really wanted the search committee to hear what the staff felt was needed in this role. That was a little foreign to some people on the committee, who were a bit more “old school”. I don't mean to imply anything negative about them, just that they weren’t used to having appointments made with input from staff. There was a lot of work involved, as we had to advertise the position widely. There was no search firm involved, contrary to what APS does now.
Sure. Sure. As we should say, this is before corporate reform and all of the things that come with the corporatization of APS.
I think that “corporatization” is a very unfortunate way of describing the changes that were made to APS leadership and governance in 2014.
And I thought at the time and still think that “corporate reform”, as it was called, was a most unfortunate moniker for a process of changing and modernizing our leadership and governance documents. “Corporate” scares physicists, because it sounds too business-focused, and “reform” sounds like you have been doing something “bad” and you need to reform!
Although APS now is doing things like using outside search firms.
Yes, we have become a bit more professional in the way we do things. Because I feel it's really reasonable to provide good support (via a search firm) to a search committee to ensure that a search process is run well. As someone said, “we are no longer a mom-and-pop organization” as we were several decades ago.
We had a good search committee. We advertised. We had meetings all in person, of course. And then interviewed a few candidates and ultimately decided on one person in January of 2009. And I was really pleased, as I knew that person well. I thought that person was just far and away the best prepared to step into the role of Executive Officer. I thought the job was done. And then—I'll never forget where I was when I came into work one morning about two-and-a-half or three weeks later and got the email from that person saying, "I just can't leave where I am now."
Did it dawn on you what that meant in terms of you, or not yet?
Oh, it dawned on me that I had to get busy and try to find another candidate.
But you were not looking in the mirror, is my question.
However, we all thought this person was terrific. And we didn't have anyone who was a close second.
Uh-huh. Kate, that's a great opportunity to ask the question, when you zero in on one person and there isn't a plan B, what are the characteristics that everybody values that converge on this one person that everybody thought was the perfect and singular option for this?
That's a great question. I think it was the person's enthusiasm, the way they seemed to know and understand the organization and the role. Their ideas for new directions and opportunities.
And the enthusiasm for what, Kate, the enthusiasm for martialing the institutional capacity of APS to make the physics community stronger; is that the basic enthusiasm you're looking at?
Well, I'm trying to remember back, but I think it was where this person was coming from. This person knew an awful lot of people in physics. This person is a physicist. And they were in a very visible role. There were just a lot of things. Plus, they were, I think, very excited about coming to APS and stepping into this role. We did interview diverse candidates, so I was already thinking about making sure we were looking at women and minorities, as well. Anyway, so we were back to square one when this person said, “I just can't leave.”
Kate, on the point of square one, I'm looking at the time now. Obviously, we're not going to wrap up at 11:30. I think we can in another hour, if that works for you; otherwise, we can just schedule another session.
Let's actually do another session, if you don't mind.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 8th, 2021. I'm so happy to be back with Dr. Kate Kirby. Kate, nice to see you again.
Nice to see you, David.
Ok. So we are going to go right back to 2009, pivotal career juncture for you. You're on the search committee. You have the perfect person in mind. The enthusiasm is there. It's all coming into place. And then it doesn't happen.
What happens next?
So as a committee, we realized we had to start searching again. And because we did not have a strong second candidate, the committee agreed that we had to try to find new potential candidates. I started calling around everyone I could think of to see if they might be interested, or if they could recommend someone we should be contacting. And it was difficult to find names, quite frankly, because people didn't want to stop working on their science. I, at that point, had been elected to be chair of the nominating committee of APS, and so I had a nominating committee meeting in—I believe it was March of 2009.
Right. And that was the general appreciation, anybody who takes this job is going to be stopping their science. There's just no way around it?
It's just a totally full-time job.
You can't just take a day a week or a couple of half days a week and decide you're going to devote time to your own research. At that point, I had been elected to be chair of the Nominating Committee of APS, and so I had a Nominating Committee meeting at APS in March of 2009. While at APS headquarters I decided that I would try to make an appointment with Judy Franz to see if I could sit down and just talk with her about possible candidates. She had mostly refrained from any involvement in the search, as is appropriate for the incumbent, unless otherwise asked. I went up to her office at the end of our Nominating Committee meeting and said, "Judy, you know this community better than anyone. Whom should I be going after as your successor?" And she said, "I'm looking at her." [Laugh]
Oh! [Laugh] This was an ambush as far as you were concerned?
I guess so, yes. Previously, I had actually heard from a couple of staff members who had written me asking, “why don't you think about taking this position? Please really think about it.” But I sort of brushed those off because I knew I had a great job at Harvard-Smithsonian and was enjoying that. However, Judy then proceeded to spend the next hour and a half with me convincing me that I would love this role and that I would do a great job.
Kate, on that point, I want to return to this imaginary line graph that I made you think about during our last discussion where, as your administrative responsibilities are increasing, invariably, the amount of time and bandwidth you have to devote to the sciences is decreasing, right? So just as a way of developing your frame of mind as this news is hitting you like a ton of bricks in real time, where are you thinking exactly how much science you would actually be giving up at this stage of your career where clearly the administrative responsibilities were on the incline and the science was on the decline?
I guess I didn't feel necessarily that the science was on the decline. As I already indicated, as you get more senior, you take on a different “managing” role.
I don't mean in terms of the quality; I just mean in terms of your ability to do it X number of hours during a given week.
Sure. But you do it at a different level.
And I think that's really the issue, that I'd been working on some overall projects, I'd been following the work of a number of the postdocs in our institute, and certainly writing letters of recommendation, so therefore becoming familiar with the work they were doing, even though it wasn't my particular area of expertise. So you remain involved in the science, but you work in it differently. When you become an associate director of one of the divisions, say it's at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, you hear a lot more about all the science going on across the whole place, so your perspective on science becomes much broader. And even though you're not doing the actual research, you're understanding some of the techniques used to do research. You're understanding what some of the critical questions are. For instance, we all would sit around the table and discuss what the priorities should be for the Center for Astrophysics. You're engaging in science at a different level than as the on-the-ground researcher spending eight to ten hours a day trying to figure out how best to model something or where the bug in your code is.
It's just a different kind of participation. I did not see stepping into the Executive Officer role as totally giving up science at all.
In fact, I saw the opportunity—it started to become very attractive to think of yet again looking at physics from a much broader perspective and getting to know different communities all across the spectrum of physics.
As Judy is sitting there and selling you on this job, what are you learning about the position that you might not have known before, despite all of your service to APS, despite serving on the search committee, just hearing from Judy herself?
That's a really good question. I don't remember. I just remember her talking about how much she thought I would really love the job.
Did you know Judy well at that point?
Somewhat. I'd been on the Board and Council, so I'd seen her in action at a number of meetings each year. And I was always a great fan of hers. I thought she did a great job. I'm not sure that there was just one thing that she said, but it started to become really exciting to think about doing something that was really new and different. She did a wonderful job at selling me on applying for the position. And I certainly felt it was tremendously stimulating, especially at the age of 63 when I took the job, to be doing something totally new and different. It energized me and I found the it all tremendously exhilarating.
What about, Kate, the attractiveness or not of the political aspects of the job? And I don't just mean relations between physics and the government, but the way that, in so many ways, APS sets the tone for physics with things like inclusivity and diversity and things like that? Were you thinking along those lines among the things that were potentially exciting for you?
I don't think I was initially so aware of addressing politics within the physics community or being able to make big changes, but I was excited about exploring opportunities for APS to play a larger leadership role in the physics community.
And I certainly saw this as an opportunity to keep women in the forefront of APS, in the top leadership, and I liked that idea for sure. But I do think that I didn't appreciate, to the extent that I certainly do now, how important it is for a membership society to be a leader in terms of addressing inequities, correcting past wrongs and helping to lead people to understand how better to transform the culture of physics to be much more inclusive and welcoming of everyone. I think those things sort of grew in importance over the last 10 years.
When I onboarded my successor, Jon Bagger, we had many discussions via Zoom from last August through December, and I remember his remarking, "Kate, the Society has just changed tremendously, and I am so excited about the directions you've been leading it in,” adding "Boy, it's just a huge difference from, say, 10 years ago." It was really nice to hear. Here was a respected colleague, who had been involved in various leadership roles in APS for so many years, who was just saying he was really invigorated and excited about the opportunities that we had created to be significant leaders across a wide array of programs, activities, et cetera. For instance, in our government affairs office, I think we've become very effective at engaging our membership in helping to influence science policy for the benefit of science; not being political, but just trying to weigh in on what are the policies that are essential for forefront science to flourish.
Kate, on the political side, of course, in early March 2009, President Obama enters the White House, and his reputation was already well established at that point for being a new, incoming president that was going to take science seriously, who surrounded himself with people like Steve Chu and John Holdren. Were you thinking at all in terms of the matrix of considerations to lead APS that you saw that specifically as a particularly opportune time and an exciting time?
Oh, definitely. I thought there were tremendous opportunities. And I think Obama always showed himself to be extremely supportive of science. His big problem was starting in the midterms then—
—he encountered the Tea Party and opposition in Congress to generous increases for science that was just appalling. And the amazingly ironic thing is, with the election of Trump, that Congress became our friend. Trump's science budgets were horrendous— I mean 20 percent cuts to NSF, or 20 percent cuts to DOE Science, on and on. It was just ridiculous. And every time both the House and the Senate totally rejected these budgets and actually gave significant increases, much more than they did during the Obama administration.
Yeah. History can be ironic like that.
Oh, God. That at least was a relief for the last four years because the Congress was our friend, but they certainly were not during the Obama era. And I think that must have been tremendously disappointing for Obama, as it certainly was for the science community.
Kate, I'm going to guess that shortly after your meeting with Judy, you paid a lot closer attention to the logistical challenges of getting back from the D.C. area to Cambridge than you were going down?
[Laugh] Yes. She had commuted between her home with her husband in Alabama. I think he was President of the University of Alabama at Huntsville at the time. And so she did the commute, and she had done it for 15 years. After my talk with Judy, I have to say I was really very interested in the position.
What were the mechanics going from Judy pitching you to this being something that the search committee elevated you to be the person to consider?
So I went home from that meeting and discussed it with my husband. He was open to it. My husband and I agreed that what we would do is just plan into our budget that we would see each other every weekend, so whether I came to Cambridge or he came to Washington, DC —we alternated usually.
So just to be clear, you were looking at this as a Monday through Friday you're in D.C.?
Right. But, of course, knowing that we all work via computer on the weekend—
[Laughter] I was absolutely sure that the job would require being in the College Park area during the week. And I was most inclined to live in D.C. because I had lived there as a kid. And I love D.C. I think it's one of the most beautiful cities, so I miss it right now. My husband was game, and so I thought about it for several more days before calling up Artie Bienenstock and letting him know that I was actually interested in the job. And as he tells the story, he was out shopping with his wife and he said most enthusiastically, "Kate, that's just great. I was hoping this would happen." [Laughter]
[Laughter] It sounds like maybe it was a conspiracy between Artie and Judy. He might've been part of those discussions.
I then informed my search committee, or Artie did, I can't remember. Then I think it was a week or two later that the search committee met to interview me! And it was really amusing because, of course, as chair, you develop a set of interview questions, the same for everybody. And I sat there having to answer these questions. And finally, with one particularly challenging one, I said to the committee, "I never imagined when we were devising these questions that I would ever be sitting here having to answering them!" [Laugh]
But, fortunately, I satisfied the committee and they definitely recommended me for the position. So it all got worked out.
And what were the considerations with Smithsonian, would you have an option to go on leave or would you have to resign a position?
Smithsonian did not have a generous leave policy.
So it definitely was not an option. I guess it was risking a lot to leave, but the director of Harvard-Smithsonian did ask me, "Is there anything I can do to get you to stay?" And I said, "Not really."
"I think—I'm excited about this opportunity." I didn't necessarily have a plan B, if it didn't work out at APS. I probably could've tried to come back to Harvard-Smithsonian. But, I didn't think about it at the time. I decided to retire rather than just resign because it enabled me to continue then to get the Federal Employee Health Plan, which is incredibly good. Any federal employee has a terrific health plan.
Yes. You're looking at one. I know it.
I was at the Department of State before AIP.
Of course. Yes. And so you know.
Kate, what from your experience at Smithsonian well prepared you at APS, and what did you realize quite quickly were aspects that you were gonna learn on the fly?
Well, I think you always learn new things with respect to new computer systems. It was a totally Mac-based system. I hadn't been using a Mac in that way. What else? I didn’t have formal management training, but I had had the same number of people reporting to me at Smithsonian as at APS, but the culture was a bit more businesslike at APS than it had been at Harvard-Smithsonian, which was more academic.
To the extent that your management style is one that splits agendas into broad buckets requiring your concentration, one of them might be—the most basic might be, what are the strengths that I've been handed to build on, and what are some of the challenges that really require my attention? To the extent that you thought in those terms, what sticks out in your memory as things to build on and things that needed to be addressed?
Oh, boy. That's a question I would have to really think carefully about. I think Judy had a number of very strong staff members. One of the most important things as a leader is to make sure that you have the right people in the right roles. Over time I saw that there were a few changes that I needed to make, especially in order to ensure that everyone was of the mindset that “the members are our customers”. But I had good colleagues in the leadership of APS—the other operating officers: Editor in Chief, Gene Sprouse, and the Treasurer/Publisher, Joe Serene. We were a triumvirate as there was no APS CEO at that point.
Before corporate reform?
Uh-huh. But I had worked collegially before with a lot of other science leaders at Harvard-Smithsonian. You learn to get along with all the other associate directors, arguing for money or resources for the programs in your division. So it was very similar, I have to say. But I think there are a number of things at APS that have helped it to flourish as a membership society, one being that one doesn't steer it with an iron fist. To some extent, in terms of the membership in the physics community, the philosophy that has worked well is: “Let many flowers bloom.”
And I think for the APS membership, the fact that it's easy to start a new interest group, like a topical group on medical physics, for instance, or a topical group on the physics of climate, is a tremendous benefit. (Those were topical groups started during my tenure.) It helps for people to be able to find themselves in an affinity group with others who have the same interests, and then for that group to be part of a bigger community of physics and physical science.
And we've seen a number of our topical groups over the last eight years grow large enough to become divisions, like our Division of Gravitational Physics, for instance, had been a topical group up until, I think 2015 or '16, and then became a division. We also had the division of quantum information, which had been a topical group, become the Division of Quantum Information. So a lot of these are growing. And then new interest groups are forming, like the topical group on data science, the topical group on soft matter. Well, except that's grown into, the Division of Soft Matter. So really, it allows for a big organization to be able to create communities within the larger community. And I think that's very beneficial.
And there were a number of things that we did improve when it came to corporate reform time. It wasn't just the leadership structure of the staff, meaning going from three operating officers to a CEO model, but it was also how our governance bodies were structured and the purview that each of them had. There was too much overlap between the Council and the Board. And the Council ended up being used as a rubber stamp for what the Board was deciding, and that's just not good. That's not worth anybody's time.
With the triumvirate, as you call it, what was both the reporting structure and the areas of responsibility that were laid out for each individual among the three?
Sure. The editor-in-chief was responsible for the editorial content of all our journals, so the Physical Review, basically, and Reviews of Modern Physics. The treasurer/publisher was responsible for the finances and also the business aspects of publishing. And then, the executive officer was pretty much in charge of everything else: the membership, the meetings, the office of government affairs, our programs in international, outreach, diversity, careers, and education. In addition, the executive officer was the primary interface with the governance bodies (the Board and Council). And, in fact, I think a number of members thought the executive officer was like the executive director. It wasn't completely realized in the membership community that it was a triumvirate leadership structure. The three operating officers reported to the presidential line, and so some people talked about the presidential line as really acting like the CEO.
But the members of the presidential line were not comfortable with that, understandably. [Laugh]
You can't have a CEO that's a volunteer.
Kate, to the extent that you needed a crash course in all of the major physics collaborations that were happening at that time in the United States, what was going on that warranted your attention, exciting developments, maybe some concerning developments in the field? What were the kinds of things that you felt you needed to learn more about in order to effectively do your work?
Certainly, one was concern about how well all the individual fields were doing in terms of the federal funding of each of these areas, like high-energy physics, like AMO physics, and funding not only on the NSF side but also the DOE side. So that was a big concern. And from time to time, various divisions were putting together committees to work with the National Academy or the National Research Council to do a decadal survey, like what went on in the astrophysics community. The physics community has not been as successful as the astrophysics community with these decadal surveys. I think it somewhat has to do with the size of physics, as opposed to astrophysics, astrophysics being one-eighth the size of the physics community generally. So certainly one needed to understand what the problems were, and, of course, those changed over time. Sometimes these had to do with international collaborations such as, how much money from the Fusion program at DOE, for instance, is going to ITER as opposed to domestic plasma programs? That was a huge concern. And so it all depends on the particular scientific issues of the day, which communities were doing long-range planning, and how funding was allocated at the different agencies. We didn't get involved with NASA as much as I feel we should have.
But NSF and DOE and NIST, all of those have been major agencies that APS has been very concerned with and has followed and tried to support and advocate for strong and robust federal budgets.
Kate, across all of the government agencies, at your level, who would be the key counterparts for you to meet with to gain an understanding of the situation, advocate for physics in these agencies? Who would be that level person or individual that you would work with?
I certainly worked with the director of the physics division at NSF, and occasionally with the director of NSF, but that was more with France Córdova rather than with Rita Colwell, for instance.
So some of that might just be about personality?
Well, and also just area of expertise.
I knew France from being in astrophysics generally. But the Director of the Office of Science at DOE I would interact with, and Director of NIST, although also then Director of the Physics Laboratory at NIST, because the scope of NIST science is huge. But we've been very concerned about the funding for NIST science, especially recently.
To what extent did you see your role in terms of securing the funds needed to push the science forward, and to what extent were these conversations more strategic, about the direction of science, the kinds of things that should be funded?
I would say that we had to be very careful not going in and pushing a particular area of science because as APS, we're all areas of physics. They're all our children. [Laugh]
And particularly because one comes from a particular area in physics, one has a lot more knowledge in one area than in others, so I think I had to be very aware of that. But it's more been, how can we be helpful to make sure that the agency is getting the funding it needs? And that's really the question: we want to be supportive, we want to be partnering with them, and how can we help them support the physics community better?
And to what extent did this also require you to work on the hill, develop relationships with legislators?
Somewhat, although I would say I didn't do as much of it as I might've liked to. And it had to do with how our government relations, or our Office of Public Affairs was set up at that point. I think these days the way Francis Slakey is organizing things, I think there's a lot of opportunity. And he always makes sure, for instance, that the presidential line is very visible and working to talk with top legislators who may be chairs of appropriations committees, or formulating and sponsoring major bills. It's the kind of thing that we certainly think about a lot.
What did you find would be the most effective platforms to convey your message leading APS in terms of a column in one of the APS publications, or using the March meeting for an address? What were some of the ways both internally and externally you wanted to convey your message, your priorities?
So one very important way is through our unit leaders.
We have something like 48 units, which include, as I said before, our divisions, topical groups, forums, and sections. Once a year we would bring the leaders from those units together in January to make sure that we had an opportunity to let them know what things were at the top of the agenda at APS. It was much more than a “meet and greet”, as we also wanted to hear from the units what they saw as significant problems. So it was a real two-way communication between the APS staff and the leadership in the community. So that was an opportunity to let people know the kind of work we were doing in strategic planning and to get their input. And that was certainly critical when we were communicating about corporate reform. I remember several of the APS presidential line, just meeting with some of the executive committees of individual units over a conference call, not necessarily Zoom at that time, to explain the importance of corporate reform.
It’s important to give people opportunities to ask questions: why are we doing this? and what's going to change? There are a variety of ways that we reach the membership. We've often found that going through the unit leaders allows for people to listen to trusted voices whom they may personally know. We know that our members open messages from their unit leaders probably more than they do messages from APS “central”.
And I think that's because when they get a letter from the chair of their division or the chair of their topical group, they know that it may definitely pertain to what they're interested in.
Kate, did you come in with a mandate to grow APS membership? Was there value in not growing APS membership because the size was good where it was? What were your thoughts on that?
I always thought that growing APS membership was a good thing.
I actually felt that we can speak with a stronger voice when you have a 55,000-member community as opposed to a 15,000-member community, to make it extreme. So I was very high on trying to grow our membership. And in particular, when I first came in, we had about 46,000 members, and almost no undergraduate members. We now have about 55,000 members and quite a number of undergraduates.
Our membership increased significantly under my watch. And that was partly due to our increased partnering with SPS and making sure that students within SPS knew about APS and the opportunities to present papers at our meetings. But it was also our conferences for undergraduate women in physics where we insisted that anybody who registered for that meeting be an APS member, just like all our other meetings. And so that grew the undergraduate population significantly. And I think that's actually very important. That's one thing that we're really pursuing is trying to get people involved with the society much earlier.
And there's an opportunity there to reach out to students, make them feel welcomed, included in the community. And I think the earlier you do it the better. And you have more influence on their deciding, “hey, this is exciting, this is interesting; I feel comfortable in this community”. And, as I said earlier, that was one thing that I certainly felt when I was a postdoc and went to my first DEAP meeting, I felt that it was a very, very welcoming community.
And that really made me a devoted APS member from the beginning.
And so I think what it does is it sort of validates a young person's interest in the field and encourages them to realize that they really can contribute.
Which is vital for professional development.
Yeah, right. Absolutely. And I think we see that in the TEAM-UP Report and a lot of other writing from the social sciences that talk about the critical nature of a welcoming environment.
Thinking about the TEAM-UP Report and SPS and things like that, that begs the question, what opportunities did you see to deepen relations between APS and AIP to mutual benefit?
Well, that's an interesting question because I think there's often been too much competition between the two. And we may have talked about this earlier, but I think the biggest challenge for the AIP federation is that APS is much bigger than even the next largest Member Society in the federation.
Oh, yes. Yeah.
And that just means we have a lot of resources to work with, and we tackle some big problems. It's not as if we feel we solely can solve these big problems. But with AIP reaching out to work on various issues, whether it's diversity, whether it's in government affairs, for instance, there is potential for our stepping on each other's toes. I think that's been lessened over the years, but it was certainly very much greater, I would say, 10 years ago.
To what extent, when you served on the board for AIP, did it mitigate those potentials for toe-stepping, as it were?
I don't think it mitigated it at all. The AIP board back in 2010 was huge, had at least 45 members on it. It's one reason that AIP finally decided to do a restructure around the same time that APS took on corporate reform.
They weren't terribly connected, and APS did its restructuring much more quickly than AIP did timewise. But I think some of the clashes between APS and AIP had to do with just the interests of various CEOs of AIP, for instance, and what they wanted AIP to be doing. And I'm not talking about just specifically during my era, but sometimes in the past those things sort of clashed with where APS was going. So I think it’s been tough to find a comfortable way of working together. And the biggest challenge, quite frankly, is that many of our members don't understand the difference between APS and AIP. [Laugh]
And so that is a challenge when it comes to fundraising, and that's very serious.
One of AIP's CEOs used to sort of laugh it off, and it really annoyed me because I felt it was serious. [Laugh]
Because in many cases, a donor, it's a one or other proposition, it's not both.
Yes. Or they think they're giving to APS when they are really writing their check to AIP. And I have had fellows come up to me at different APS fellows' receptions and say, "Kate, I gave to APS in support of the history center."
And I'd say, "Oh, well, that's interesting that you supported the history center, but that's not APS."
And then they'd look really confused.
So that's a huge challenge as well. With respect to the history center, I don't have as much problem with it because that definitely is an AIP activity. When it gets into some other areas that APS is doing some pretty high-profile work in, it becomes very much more serious. And here I think there are some challenges in figuring out how to work together on diversity and other issues and not in opposition. Because we go to the same funding foundations, same list of donors, largely. And that's when it becomes really quite critical.
Sure. Sure. Kate, you've already indicated that you were not a fan of the term "corporate reform," and I wonder if part of that is that the title itself is somewhat disconnected from the discussions and the impetus that suggested that some kind of reform was necessary, even if it should not sound so "corporatey."
[Laugh] Yes, exactly. Corporate always sounded like we were talking about business, and that scares physicists a lot.
Except for those who are in the private sector—it's not quite so scary.
And reform—maybe I said this before—reform sounds like you've done something naughty, and you have to reform.
And that was, of course, not the case. It's just that the organization had grown up somewhat organically and hadn't really been brought into a proper business management framework. And I think that when you're running a $60 million operation, you really need to think about how you're set up. Do you have the right people in the right jobs? Do you have a professional CFO, somebody with tremendous knowledge of finance and all the other things that a CFO looks after? And do you have a professional publisher, somebody who really understands the publishing landscape? And we've done it all with just physicists before. I think the thing that scares people, and certainly I saw it in terms of people just being worried about corporate reform, was that they were worried there was going to be a CEO who was not a physicist.
Because you can look at other membership societies and see that AGU, after Fred Spilhaus, did not have a CEO who was a geophysicist. And Liz Rogan, CEO of OSA, I think she's terrific, but she's not a physicist or an optical engineer. So there was tremendous concern about that among our membership. I just remember when they finally announced that I was going to be the first CEO, I got huge numbers of emails from people saying, “oh, Kate, this is such wonderful news!” [Laugh]
And I think it was just people being relieved that the first CEO was going to be somebody from their community.
Kate, how far back would you trace the discussions that would ultimately culminate in the decision for corporate reform? Did they proceed your tenure as executive officer, before 2009?
Yes. And in fact, when I served on the search committee that Helen Quinn chaired in—I think it was 2005 or 2006—to replace Marty Blume as editor-in-chief, and Tom McIlrath as treasurer/publisher, it came up at that time: shouldn't we be looking at a different model where you've got one person in charge? And the answer from Helen was, "That's not our charge."
Uh-huh. So you took the job knowing that these were discussions that you would have to continue working with and leading?
I didn't see myself as leading it, because that wasn't in my charge, either.
But it also came up in my search committee when we were looking for an executive officer and people raised it yet again. And I'm responding as Helen did —that's got to be a different committee because this is our charge to find an executive officer. But I think the presidential line for quite a while had been unhappy with the triumvirate leadership structure. I think they felt that they had to keep in touch with three people rather than just one.
Holding one person accountable is a lot more clear-cut and easy than holding three people accountable. I became quite aware, in probably 2011 or 2012, in talking with some of the presidential line, that they were not happy with the leadership structure. One of them, who was a terrific president of APS, basically said, "Kate, this is just no way to run an operation with three operating officers."
It was very shortly after that conversation that the presidential line undertook to work with a consultant team and the board to start what they called corporate reform.
Did you understand this to mean there would be a possibility that there would be a CEO that you would report to or that you would simply become the CEO?
I did not think I would necessarily become the CEO. So to a certain extent, I just had to put that out of my mind. I did think it was very reasonable to undertake the restructuring. I know that Gene Sprouse, who was editor-in-chief, did not. He was very upset by it because I think he felt it definitely threatened his job as an operating officer. And Joe Serene was stepping down at the end of 2014, and he had announced this in 2013, so I think he was also concerned, but it wasn't going to affect him personally. I felt that it was imperative that the Executive Office help the presidential line and the corporate reform initiative in terms of the all-important communication with the APS membership. So when the council did vote to go ahead and put this to the membership, because that was mandated by our constitution that a big change in the structure of the organization had to be put to the membership for a vote—
Which is what, majority rule, two-thirds? What are the ...?
It was majority.
But I felt my office had to step up and help the APS volunteer leadership.
There was no question. Because it was a membership issue and a governance issue. And that was when Dr. James Taylor, who had been in the editorial office at Ridge for 10 years, had just come to work with me in College Park as deputy executive officer. I was so fortunate to have him at that critical time. He was just fabulous to work with. He still is. [Laugh] I don't mean to put it in the past tense. He and I really worked very hard to coordinate all aspects of the communication around corporate reform, letting people know why it was important. We had to update our articles of incorporation for D.C. to make them compliant with D.C. law, so that went on at the same time, with the help of our DC lawyers. So there were a lot of things that changed, many of them in minor ways. It’s hard to get membership excited about changing the articles of incorporation to conform to D.C. law!
But ultimately, it was decided to put it to the membership as one package, just one vote, either yay or nay, not picking it apart and saying, oh, I vote for this and I don't vote for that, which would've been very complicated.
Kate, to what extent did history repeat itself, where you were on the search committee and then you found yourself as executive officer to supporting the presidential line and finding yourself being named CEO? To what extent was that a parallel experience for you?
I don't think it was really parallel. Mac Beasley was president at the time in 2014, and he did a fabulous job of working with the membership and communicating about how important this was. I felt there was a good partnership between the Executive Office and the Presidential line. The vote took place in October, and I wasn't at all sure that the initiative was going to pass, quite frankly. I thought, maybe, if we're lucky, it'll be 55 percent to 45 percent or something. It was 95 percent in favor!
On that point, Kate, as you emphasized, the messaging was so important that people understand that this was not going to be a banker or somebody like that coming in as CEO. Did everybody understand that whoever the CEO was going to be, it would be a card-carrying physicist?
No. That's not written into the APS constitution and bylaws. They underwent significant change, but that was not specified. I think what the membership did understand was that this was really important for the organization, and Mac Beasley instilled a lot of confidence and trust.
So it was the leadership really working to make sure that people felt comfortable.
I wonder if you can expand on that, because it's obvious, when you're talking about at the executive level, the presidential line being frustrated that there's three people to hold to account as opposed to one. That's sort of self-evident. But in terms of selling this as this is good for APS as a whole, what's the message that resonated in a landslide vote?
You know, I'd really have to go back and think about that. I think it was getting everybody comfortable with the notion of change, and reassuring people that we would still be the same organization that carried out the things that they cared about, but we would do this better.
One thing that did happen was that the editor-in-chief maintained a seat on the Board and the Council, and that, I think, was a decision that was made in the spirit of compromise. It’s, however, not a good organizational structure because the editor-in-chief also reports to the CEO, and the CEO sits on the Board and Council. So there were some decisions that were made out of necessity that are unfortunate. But that was a critical issue at the time, that people were reassured that the editor-in-chief would still have a significant voice in the affairs of the Society, particularly if the CEO turned out not to be a physicist. Now, whether somebody sits on the Board and Council or not, if they're going to be at all the meetings of these governing bodies, I don't think the seat is so significant—especially since neither the editor-in-chief nor the CEO has a vote on the board or council. The Board and Council always hears from the CFO, the publisher, the editor-in-chief, and the CEO, of course, and even other members of the senior management team as appropriate. So they have a voice there, but I think that was probably important that they see that, at that point, that the editor-in-chief had a seat on the Board and Council just like the CEO, so that if there was a big bad CEO who wasn't a physicist, maybe the editor-in-chief could counter that. [Laugh]
Kate, historians love to think about the man on the street or the woman on the street to gauge national developments, like what was somebody in Paris in 1914 sitting in a café, what were they thinking as a way to understand the origins of World War I? Given the fact that Mac Beasley and others so powerfully articulated that change was needed, right?
The physicist on the street, that concept; in what ways was the physicist on the street, somebody who was just a member of APS but not involved in all of the nitty gritty, when you talk about a vote that was so lopsided in favor of corporate reform, what was the change that so many people recognized was needed and would be solved through corporate reform?
First of all, you have to realize that, yes, it was 95 percent to 5 percent, but only 16 percent of the membership generally votes.
[Laugh] You mean everybody could, it's just very disappointing representation?
Yes. And that's actually no different from our general elections in which the presidential line is elected, the treasurer is elected, and a general and international councilor are elected. So we always have an election every year where we elect for those offices. But the number of people who vote are vastly smaller than the total membership. And the more students that are part of the membership, the lower the percentage of those casting votes. And I think it's just that students don’t know many of the candidates and don't feel compelled to vote one way or the other.
Kate, what was the transition from you acting as executive officer with the mandate to support this transition, not knowing who the CEO would be, to you realizing that you would become the CEO?
It happened within a very short period of time. I think we counted the votes sometime in early November and just a week or two later we had a Council meeting—
Yes, November 2014.
—at which the vote was discussed, and discussions started to take place as to who was going to be corporate secretary and what were they going to do about a CEO. My anticipation was that they were going to launch a search. I think it was at that meeting of the Council that I was asked to step out. And I think, at that point, Mac Beasley and the rest of the presidential line raised it with the council that they decided there was a lot to do in transitioning the organization to this totally new structure, and that they wanted to get on with it; they didn't want to spend eight or ten months looking for a new CEO. Thus they came to the conclusion, “let's just appoint Kate.” I think they appointed me ultimately for three years. It was not just a year-by-year appointment. And with the idea that then maybe there would be a search, say, for a CEO. So it was at that November meeting that I became aware that there was interest in my just stepping into the position.
And to what extent did you understand that this was stepping into a new role, and to what extent was it ongoing work leading APS under a different governing structure?
A bit of each.
Mac was great because he basically said, "Kate, this is going to be a very different role." And he was absolutely correct.
How did he articulate that? What was so different as far as he saw it?
First of all, being responsible for the entire organization and, in particular, the finances, publishing, editorial.
And we did not have a CFO, and that was critical. I was very concerned about that, although we had a very good director of the finance department, but there were some big financial issues that I became aware of shortly after I took on the CEO role.
Perhaps even blissfully unaware of. [Laugh]
[Laugh] Right, because they hadn't been discussed as they should've been.
And one was post-retirement health benefits—when I became CEO and became aware of the budget in detail—I was horrified to see that they were “eating our lunch”. And you had to account for them every year in the operating budget, so you needed to have funding for these, even though they weren’t being spent, but you had to be accruing enough income to cover the postretirement health benefits in the future. When I talked to other CEOs about this and I said, "So what have you done with respect to postretirement health benefits?" They said, "Oh, we dealt with that 10 years ago." "Oh, not a problem. We dealt with that 12 years ago." It was like oh, my God.
It's issues like that. That's why you need professionals to be running the finances of a big, multi-million-dollar organization. And so that was an issue, and within that first year I had to get a CFO. Thank God I did. We had a wonderful treasurer who was elected, Jim Hollenhorst, and he was very helpful in looking at these budgets. He's a physicist in industry. He's also worked a lot with AIP.
He's been our elected treasurer for now, I think, four or five years, and he is just great. But it was really working with him, that he and I totally agreed that we had to do something with regard to this issue because we were not going to be able to meet our budget.
So in a sense, corporate reform couldn't have come soon enough?
Exactly. It really was critical.
Besides the CFO, who were some of the other key staff changes?
So immediately I made James Taylor chief operating officer. He and I had a really great partnership, and working relationship in the Executive Office, and I always found his intuitive understanding of proper structures and reporting structures and operations just fabulous. He is just a tremendous individual, a condensed matter physicist, loads of fun to work with, and he also had a knowledge, of course, of the Ridge Office, and that was very helpful, too. And then I appointed Mark Doyle chief information officer, CIO. I wanted to merge and integrate our computer systems and the whole IT system between Ridge, DC, and College Park, as they hadn't been combined before. Mark worked at Ridge. He'd been at Ridge for 15, 20 years, something like that. So he had a really great knowledge of IT at Ridge and I needed him to apply that to College Park and the D.C. office, too.
Given that there was such a focal point between relations of the presidential line and the triumvirate, now that you have this corporate structure with you at the top, how were your relations with the presidential line different as a result?
Well, certainly we kept in touch quite frequently. I was part of their Board Executive Committee that used to meet via Zoom every week or every other week for an hour just to check in. And sometimes I would bring in other members of the senior management team as needed to discuss issues with the presidential line. The important thing that I had to do first of all was to appoint the rest of the senior management team, and that meant not only promoting James and Mark as COO and CIO respectively, but also hiring a CFO and Publisher. Whereas James and Mark are both physicists (Mark is a string theorist), Jane Gould, our CFO is not!
Oh, ok. I was going to say, I was wondering if you had an exclusive policy of physicists only in these roles. [Laugh]
No, no, no. [Laugh] Best person for the job, basically.
But also I had to hire a publisher and that was critical, as well, because the publishing landscape is really competitive and I knew I had to get somebody good, so we hired Matthew Salter, who didn't have a PhD in physics but had a PhD in chemistry. Chemistry is not so far from physics, however, and a lot of the leadership in APS, both on the staff side and within the membership itself, are PhD chemists.
Kate, of course, I don't have to tell you, but it's leadership management 101 that with successful delegation, you bring in the right people, that frees you up at the top to pursue things that only you can do as CEO. So at what point, did you have that leadership team in place where you felt like the ship was steadied, the people you hired were doing a good job and were responsible for what they needed to do; at what point did that allow you to devote your energy to other initiatives and what were those initiatives?
Oh, boy, that's a big question, and it's already 3:15. [Laugh]So it took a while to hire the right people, and I had a Search Committee and worked with a search firm for the publisher, and that took easily seven or eight months to find and interview the right people. With Jane Gould, APS CFO, I was very, very lucky. She was originally hired as an interim CFO when I needed somebody very quickly. I had had a big review of our finance department and our finance operations in 2015 right after I took over as CEO because I was concerned that there was potential for single-point failure. And the company that we worked with got to know us well. And when I realized I needed to hire somebody quickly because I was concerned about post-retirement health benefits, as well as some other issues, I turned to this company to ask if they could help us find an interim CFO. Jane was one of the two candidates they put forward to us. And Jim Hollenhorst and I and several others interviewed her via zoom and thought she was just terrific. And so that was a quick hire, or at least it was relatively quick. But other things took longer. Gene Sprouse as editor-in-chief, we had been peer colleagues and then in the new CEO structure he was made to report to me. That was a tough change.
And it became clear it wasn't going to work out, and so he stepped down. And then I had to put together a search committee to find another editor-in-chief. And the person who chaired the search committee wanted to be sure there was a search firm that was going to do a lot of the logistics and handle getting all the input together properly. And there was a very extensive search for an editor-in-chief. So all of these things took a lot of time.
So ultimately, by the middle of 2017, I felt, we have a great team in place and I wanted to get started on putting together an overall APS strategic plan for the entire organization. There had been a strategic plan on the journal side and on the executive office side, but not one for the entire organization.
And I wonder before corporate reform if APS was just set up in a way to resist even thinking strategically across the organization?
Perhaps. Because when I came in as executive officer in 2009, after a year I said, "Let's do a strategic plan." My fellow operating officers didn’t want to participate in this endeavor, so it ended up that the strategic plan in 2011 was just really focused on my areas within the purview of the Executive Office — membership, programs, meetings, but it did not include the journals, publishing, or finances. In 2017 we started to work on the strategic plan for all of APS.
And how far out did you plan? Was this like a decadal kind of plan, five years?
We didn’t make the time period that specific, because the thought was that one should have a plan that is broad enough to set concrete goals from year to year and can be dynamic. We mostly carried out the work of gathering input in 2018 – first from the unit leaders. We involved the Board and Council in various sub-committees. And we had the whole thing together with input from broad sectors of the community by the end of September and the Council approved it in November of 2018. It was rolled out to the membership right at the beginning of 2019.
What were some of the big changes, both for your day to day and APS institutionally as a result of the approval of the strategic plan?
Well, I think first of all, it set forth very clearly our mission, vision and values. The mission was a lot more inclusive, I think, than it had been before. The values were a critical part of the plan but took quite a while to articulate clearly. We had not previously stated our values explicitly, and I think that's been essential in terms of really helping to guide us and determine what social issues we weigh in on as a Society. So that was critical. I don't know whether you've ever seen our strategic plan, but it's represented by an icon—a gateway—somebody said a temple and I said, no, no, no, we're not getting religious here.
No. It's a gateway, classical, potentially. It has some classical elements, with two pillars, one being “serving the members, serving the physics community, and serving society”, and then the other pillar is ensuring a role in the dissemination of physics or scientific knowledge. And so that pillar is journals and meetings, and the other one is serving the community broadly through our membership activities, career services, educational initiatives, diversity initiatives, and outreach, and government affairs. And then, these pillars are supported by some fundamental elements: 1) ensuring our financial sustainability and 2) increasing our organizational excellence. And so that icon attempts to communicate what we're trying to do to fulfill our mission and what kinds of activities we take on. And then the plan got a little more specific, but overall it was a pretty short. It was eight pages, and actually not very dense pages, which is good, because otherwise nobody will read it. But it laid out some very important things. For instance, to pick on the journals, basically acknowledging that physics is expanding, and our portfolio of journals needs to expand as well. Physics is pressing out from its traditional borders, whether it's biological physics, whether it's artificial intelligence, whether it's data science, whether it's quantum information, on and on. But with physics expanding, it's critical that our journals expand similarly so that people in the physics community can find a home for publishing their best work within APS journals.
Kate, I asked previously about the way that you found to convey your message with the 55,000-plus-member society. What have been some of the most efficacious ways that you've gotten feedback on something so vital as a strategic plan from all of the members to say, yes, we're happy, this is where APS should be going, this is where our interests are best served?
I think it was critical to have the right committees and the right people involved on committees in each of these areas. We drew from our board, from our council, from the leadership of some of our units to be on these committees, as well as staff. Everybody that I talked to, as we rolled this out in 2019 in various fora, we found that there was real agreement. People said, yeah, that looks great. And when you hear that, you realize that there's an authenticity to the voice in which these things are expressed that people feel comfortable with. And you have to have that, otherwise it's really dead on arrival.
It's not going to go anywhere. Getting people to feel, “yeah, that describes us and where we should be going”. That's what you want to do is really get people on board. And I do feel that we involved enough people. It's important that not every single item be voted on, say, by everybody, but you have to have been listening closely enough to the community that you know what the concerns are and that we're responsive to those. I was very pleased when we finally rolled it out. There were people that doubted, oh, you'll never make such an aggressive timeline. I had said right at the beginning of January 2018, "We're going to get this completed and voted on this year by the November Council meeting." And really by the end of August, beginning of September, we had a rough draft that was in pretty good shape. But it was everybody pitching in, and I was really pleased. And at one point, somebody in the presidential line said to me, "So Kate, what is plan B, because we're never going to be able to make it by November?"
I replied, "We're going to make it." And so when that same person saw the first draft that we had put together with the help of our graphics department, they exclaimed, "Wow, this is incredible!"
"This looks really good!" [Laugh] So that was nice. He was one of our biggest critics, but I have to say I greatly appreciated his forceful criticisms.
That must've been one of your prouder moments.
For sure. It was just on a brief pre-Zoom meeting where James and I and this person, a member of the presidential line, were on.
Kate, to bring the narrative closer to the present, we began our conversation partly talking about your leadership during COVID. Of course, the other major crisis that we faced as a country last year was one of national reckoning with George Floyd and countless other problems in the country.
Where did you see your role specifically and APS more generally in the broader conversation about promoting diversity and equity and inclusivity in STEM?
That's a good question. It requires a little thought. First of all, I knew that a lot of our employees, as I was, too, were really just devastated by the violence that we witnessed, because the videos were pretty horrendous. And the Floyd death, along with a number of other similar deaths of Black people, began to be talked about a lot more. It brought everybody's attention to how sickening this was for individuals in our country and the cause of racial justice. I think it was very important. It had to happen because these things were going on without as much recognition as there should've been. So one thing was just to be very, very concerned about our staff and the kind of anxiety and stress and distress that people were experiencing. And we gave people time off. We tried to suggest resources where people could get some emotional help. I think a lot of leaders of different organizations were looking at these issues, particularly because this was all happening at a time when people couldn't come together in person to either mourn together or to give each other emotional support.
And again, it was just really an awful time. It's very hard to express grief and empathy when you're all very socially distanced. And then, we also realized that our member community, of course, was also in agony, and especially, our young people who are more diverse, thank goodness, than the older cohorts. And they were experiencing the misery of the pandemic with the social isolation, the delays in their career paths, and job opportunities melting away, together with the racial injustice issues. And those who were in under-represented minority groups were experiencing the additional agony and fear for themselves and their family members as one case after another of excess police force resulting in fatalities of Black people were being perpetrated and brought to national attention.
It was important to let people know that we cared, and we were looking especially at how to support our students. We reached out to our Forum on Graduate Student Affairs to try to understand how they were coping. We certainly wrote to our members just to let them know that we were horrified by what was happening—and we did support Black Lives Matter. We participated in the shutdown of STEM in June. It wasn't quite on Juneteenth, but I think it was maybe earlier in that week. There were, I think, a number of things that we did to try to communicate. We issued a board statement on racial justice, condemning the racial violence and acknowledging that we all need to devote ourselves to improving vastly the situation and addressing a number of the issues.
From which STEM is not immune itself. These are not external problems necessarily.
Oh, exactly. Right. And, of course, the TEAM-UP Report had come out, and at APS we had already started working on a number of issues and had continuing conversations about some of the APS programs that were addressing some of these problems—the issue of physics being unwelcoming to certain groups – especially underrepresented minorities and women. It was really clear that what had to change was the culture of physics for it to become more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive as a discipline. And Jim Gates, at the time APS President-Elect, with my support and that of the APS staff, started these Delta-Phy webinars talking about the Black experience in physics. And I thought that was very important to make available. And so Jim has been working to enhance those and to continue to plan new ones.
We’ve been trying to find a range of things that we can do to help people find their way and be part of transforming physics to become a culture which is inclusive and where there's equity and support for social justice. It’s important for our members, for our staff, and for, of course, the country as a whole. And I think the saddest thing these last four years was to see our country take a huge step backwards, led and encouraged by the White House. So that was very upsetting. I remember being so proud and excited when Obama had been elected, and then re-elected.
Kate, when did you start to think about stepping down from CEO, and did the crises of 2020 play a role in your timing, either to elongate or not?
Oh, no. At the end of 2017, as Roger Falcone was stepping into the Presidency of APS, he said, "Kate, let's just have you continue on. You know you’re doing a great job." So I signed another contract for three years. But at that point I indicated that I would be ready to step down at the end of 2020. So the Board was fully aware that they would need to plan on searching for my successor in 2020. However, I certainly did not anticipate spending my last year at APS working from home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [Laugh]
Kate, as you started to think about legacy, what were the things, as you started to think about your successor leaving a very strong APS, one that was well positioned and well-funded for the future, what were the things that you felt most secure in in terms of leaving a strong organization for the next generation of leadership?
By the end of 2019, I felt really comfortable with leaving the organization to the next person. Our finances were strong, our meetings were doing fantastically well, we were expanding our journal portfolio to be broader and encompassing more areas of physics. And I felt we had a great senior management team in place. I had added two more people to the senior management team: Frances Slakey, Chief External Affairs Officer, and Beth Gunzel, Chief Human Resources Officer. We had a great Strategic Plan in place and had launched a number of initiatives at the time of the rollout of the strategic plan in 2019. We had started the Innovation Fund, for instance, which is sort of like the AIP Venture Partnership Fund, inviting proposals from members and staff for new innovative programs to be considered for APS funding. And we'd started, the new annual leadership meeting, which grew from our leadership convocation at the beginning of the year, where we bring all the unit leaders together and have an opportunity to communicate with them about APS programs and priorities and to hear from them as to their concerns. We wanted to build on that to create more of a visible presence, especially in Washington, which would enable us to make a potentially larger impact in terms of science policy.
There were some really good things that we started, so I felt terrific because things were very strong. But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. And certainly, the last year has been very challenging, starting right from the March meeting where we had to cancel it at the 11th hour. I felt rather worried that the CEO Search Committee would not really be able to find somebody who would be willing to step into the job during such uncertain times. Our finances took a real hit this last year with the cancellation of the March meeting. When we canceled the March meeting, we returned everybody's registration fee and paid some large attrition fees to hotels. Our finance department did a fabulous job handling this. But it cost us $7 million in lost revenue. And then, pivoting to carry out all our work remotely – the APS staff did an excellent job. Fundamentally, even during these difficult times, we were still a strong organization. I was delighted that the search committee did such a good job and identified a number of excellent candidates and ultimately Jonathan Bagger was selected by the Board.
Did the strategic plan well position APS to weather the pandemic better than it otherwise would have? In other words, in 2017, 2018, nobody is forecasting a pandemic—
—but generally, was APS set up in terms of crisis management, in terms of business continuity in ways that it otherwise would not have been absent the strategic plan?
Well, I think although business continuity planning wasn't necessarily part of the strategic plan, but certainly we did have a robust business continuity plan. We tested it out. Everybody worked from home. Does everybody have the right equipment to work from home? We'd already established that even on a snow day, instead of everybody just taking the day off, staff were expected to be able to do their work from home. And I think increasingly we've done a lot of Zoom meetings. One thing that helped was our familiarity with it all because the senior management team was located across three different venues. So our weekly meetings always had to be via Zoom, so when we were all were working from home there was hardly any difference. Everybody had already done a lot of their meetings with editorial boards and committees via Zoom, so it was just a matter of doing more of that with none of the in-person meetings taking place. On the whole, we were set up to do ok, but I don't think any of us thought in March of 2020 that it would last longer than a couple of months. [Laugh]
But the fact that it did— then I think the aspect of innovation kicked in, as well.
And that's when you start realizing, that many more people can become aware of or participate in our programs, such as the April meeting, than if we'd held it in person.
So there were some pluses that allowed us to expand our reach. And the Strategic Plan focused our attention on finding ways we could serve the community – especially the students – better. Thus the Strategic Plan encouraged us to be innovative and to respond to the needs of the community – all of which we pursued in a number of different areas.
Kate, there's no question that you left APS a much stronger and durable organization than you inherited, but looking to the future, what are some of the challenges that APS faces that are bigger than any one CEO can deal with in X number of years? What are the big things that APS needs to be out in front of to ensure that its success continues well into the future?
I'll have to think about that. It would be great if we could have a 15-minute or 20-minute next meeting when I could give you my list, because I did actually draw up a list of the big challenges going forward. Certainly, figuring out how to effectively transform the culture of physics to be more diverse and inclusive; I think that is just incredibly important. We're piloting some programs, such as APS IDEA, an Innovation Fund proposal from Monica Plisch and Ed Bertschinger, which was successful. IDEA stands for Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity Alliance.
You mean specifically the culture of making physics a more welcoming field?
And so that means both with respect to women and under-represented minorities. I mean, it's just amazing how, despite all the things we’ve been doing to encourage women in physics, especially as undergrads, over the last decade, the percentage of women getting a bachelor degree in physics and the percentage of women getting PhDs in physics have stayed pretty constant at around 20%.
Right. Which might be a very effective counter to the idea that, well, these things will just work themselves out because the younger generation is more diverse, is more accepting. But, as you're indicating, it's going to require more proactive handling of these issues for them really to become successful?
I think so. But sometimes these things take a long time to percolate through and for you to see the results.
Another critical challenge for APS is continuing to be able to publish forefront physics in light of the incredible competition in the publishing landscape. And how do we continue to attract the best papers when you've got Nature or Science vying for these, as well, and their subsidiaries, like Nature Physics. I know AIP is having similar concerns about its publishing, as well. Another challenge is remaining relevant, as a membership society, to the new generations of young physicists. I could be a little more articulate, however, if I had my list at hand!!
No, but I think it's valuable the things that you don't just refer to on a piece of paper, but that are sticking out in your memory. Those are the things that are really most important to you. And to a certain extent, these are issues for your successor to deal with, right?
One big issue that is sticking in my mind right now is Ethics, and that's an area in which APS really needs to be playing a leading role. Our Ethics Committee has a tall order ahead of it, particularly when it comes to ethics education. What are the right materials for us to provide to the community to help educate people about ethical practices and the responsible conduct of research? That's a huge issue because what we're seeing is that things have not improved very much over the last 15 or 16 years in terms of what graduate students and postdocs have been seeing and experiencing. And the publishing landscape doesn't encourage ethical behavior, because the pressure to publish rapidly in these flashy journals, Nature and Science in particular, is enormous – when professors are up for tenure or when a postdoc is trying to get a good academic position. I find it really disturbing that these journals can sort of dictate what is getting the most attention in terms of physics. I want physicists to be identifying the forefront areas, and I think these journals have too large a role in determining the kind of research that gets attention, gets published in their journals, and then also gets funded.
And I saw it going on at DOE. I served on the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee for 10 years or so, and program managers at DOE would hold up covers of Science, covers of Nature, to show that DOE-funded research was being published in these prestigious journals. And that's just one of the elements that is driving this kind of scramble. And I feel it's not helpful for the field at all, and the pressure can give rise to less than careful science practices.
That's right. And as you emphasized, these are issues that are not just affecting APS, they're affecting all of physics.
Physics and science generally.
I think another big challenge for APS is what our meetings look like in the future.
And how are we going to incorporate the best of in-person meetings but taking advantage of expanding the reach of virtual meetings.
It's a question we're all grappling with right now.
Absolutely. For sure. There are a lot of really exciting areas that I think should be explored, understood better, in order to figure out what's going to be best for the physics community in the future.
Kate, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask one big, broad retrospective question.
And again, it's one that the value is what comes to mind in real time, what's in your heart, so to speak. And that is, you've achieved such success both in the scientific realm and the administration realm over the course of your career. What have these two areas taught you about each other? In other words, to what extent has the science made you a better administrator and to what extent has your success in administration made you a better scientist or a better advocate for your fellow scientists?
Well, I am not sure that I will really answer your question, as I don’t feel that I've necessarily achieved incredible amounts in either of these spheres. But I certainly think that science is not only incredibly exciting, but also humbling. You're always trying to tackle a problem that nobody has been able to solve before.
Right, because if they did, you wouldn't be working on it.
Exactly. Why do that? And that's daunting, and often when you get deeply into a problem like that, you realize why nobody has done it before. [Laugh]
So that's what I mean, it's humbling. You realize how hard you have to work to be able to do something that advances our understanding and advances the field. So I think that helps when you get into administration, feeling somewhat humble and figuring out, so what can I do here? How can I help or support the work of others? And that's a lot of what administration is about — just seeing what are we trying to do here and how can I help everybody to contribute to this effort in positive ways?
In research I always felt I was partnering with people, whether it was colleagues, postdocs, or graduate students. It wasn't exercising control over them. And I think that's actually a useful perspective when it comes to leading a big group or leading an institute. You're looking to be a good partner in a leadership position in advocating for the science. And that's what I always felt I was doing as the head of atomic and molecular physics at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics or as Director of ITAMP. Yes, you're responsible for writing the proposal to bring in the money to fund the Institute, for instance, but, by doing so, then you're supporting the scientific work of others. So I think there are elements of scientific research and leadership that then contribute well to effective leadership in a more administrative role.
Kate, last question. Looking to the future, in some ways, of course, your departure and retirement has been something of a soft landing. You're sitting in the same kitchen from which you led APS since early last year.
And, of course, you're still involved. You're talking to your successor tomorrow. So you're not quite ready to put your past entirely behind you. But as the country gets increasingly vaccinated, as you wind down your responsibilities to APS, what's next for you? What excites you most about physics, both as a scientist and as somebody who has championed physics in all of your different roles?
You know, I'm still thinking about that. And I really think in my last five years at APS I didn't have great work-life balance.
It was mostly work. And I felt I really ignored a lot of other things. And so I'm sort of wanting to recalibrate and connect up with old friends, and with my larger extended family. Yes, I've always been close to my four kids, but I now have grandchildren as well, and they live quite far away – in Los Angeles and in London and I haven’t spent as much time with them as I would have liked. So I have a lot of catching up to do. In fact that's one thing we didn't talk about — the parenting challenges in terms of my career. I think for young women, particularly, that's incredibly important. So I'm just letting you know that I think there's a very important piece of my oral history that we didn't really touch on. But I realize that maybe that's not at all what you're interested in.
No. But I can pose that question now. Do you feel like within the generations that you were working, really at the forefront of women achieving leadership positions in science from many years ago to today where the situation is much better, but certainly there's more work to do, do you feel like fundamental progress has been made from one generation to the next, or are the problems and the challenges that you faced not so different than what scientists with young children are facing today, women with young children, women scientists?
A huge change has taken place over the past 50 years for women in the workforce. There are many more options available for daycare. Many of these still involve considerable expense, however. There is more parental leave available, both from companies and in academia (although the US is very much behind Europe and the UK in this area). And if the pandemic has given rise to a more flexible, in-office work environment, then it could be an advantage for parents. I am so fortunate to have two daughters and two sons, and I will describe how I dealt with the daycare issue shortly. But it has been so fascinating to see how my daughters have approached this challenge (my sons do not have any children yet). One of my daughters, Carolyn, is an MD- PhD in London and she's just had her first baby.
I was over in England for the birth of the baby. I went over October 23rd, and the baby was born November 2, 2020, so I had just about finished my government-mandated quarantining during the pandemic there. Carolyn is entitled to a very nice, generous, I would say, parental leave situation. I think it's three months of full pay, six months maybe half pay. She's in the middle of taking that at this point, which is great, but now she's looking to get back to her radiology fellowship program which will require her to be in the hospital. She spent a lot of the pandemic, starting last March a year ago, writing up her thesis at home, and then she took her orals by Zoom in July. [Laughter]
So she's facing all these issues, especially with a medical doctor's schedule, it's very demanding. And so I definitely have stepped forward and said I'll help to pay for a nanny because a daycare center probably won't really work for her because her schedule is not going to be predictable enough. Childcare is such an important issue for parents. My other daughter, Elizabeth, has her PhD in science education from UCLA, and she's doing postdoctoral work now at UCLA, supported by grants. She has three boys, a 16-1/2-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 5-year-old. She has had the same nanny for about 13 years, but still the pandemic has been terribly hard on her because of the pressures to keep up with her own work from home and to try to make sure that all her children have what they need for online learning, even a 5-year-old doing kindergarten via Zoom!
I have a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 10-year-old all doing online learning.
Oh, my God, David!
That is one word for it, yes.
Four, 6, 8, and 10?
Oh, my goodness. Well, how lovely.
How lovely, but I also have a wife who is trying to get her work done during the day, so we are at—I'm speaking to you from grandma's house because that's the only way we can make this work.
Ah. So do you work from there?
Yeah. We're at grandma's here in New Jersey. That's what we're doing right now.
Oh, ok. Great!
Oh, yeah. I thought you might appreciate that given your appreciation of these things.
But I'll share with you, my wife, the burden is more on her than it is on me. She's more flexible with her job and it's almost like if this happened 40 years ago, these considerations, it doesn't seem like it would be so different.
Yeah. I don't know how we would've all managed even 20 years ago, quite frankly.
It would've just been impossible—without Zoom, I don't know. But I think it's always difficult. For me, when my first child was born in my second year in grad school at University of Chicago it was challenging then, and when my second child was born 10 ½ years later it was a challenge as well. It’s always anxiety-provoking until you arrive at a solution that works for you and the child(ren). But it’s helpful to have many more options available.
When my second child was born and my oldest son was 10 ½ it meant I needed to find somebody to care for an infant and to be at home when the 10-year-old came home from school. So ultimately, I got a nanny, and she was wonderful. But I interviewed a lot of people. She was absolutely terrific, and she worked for us for 15 years. She never lived in, but she came every weekday. I made sure that I paid for her health insurance, unemployment insurance, and social security – so she had good benefits as well as a decent salary.
She became like “the grandma” to a certain extent.
And the kids loved her, and even when they'd come home from college after, of course, she hadn't worked with us for ages, they would go over and visit her. Our family was so fortunate. And so that's what all my kids remember, which is nice. But I'm so aware that women have been really badly affected by the pandemic. There are all these articles in Science that have described how women have been trying to cope with working from home, with no schools in session and no day care operating. Many parents, especially women, have suffered professionally.
Yeah. And it's not as if just when this is over, whenever it's over, people will be able to resume whatever they had beforehand.
These are structural problems that will take years to dig out of.
Yeah. Exactly. But to me there's just no question that it was wonderful having the kids I did, and I enjoy them tremendously to this day and haven't had enough time to spend with them. Right now everybody likes getting together on Zoom, which is cool. [Laugh]
It's a poor substitute for the real thing, though; let's be honest.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And we still have a house that can accommodate a good fraction of them when they come home at Christmas.
And that often is what happens. It's just going to be harder to get the little one from England over here at Christmas because my daughter, Carolyn, is going to have a pretty demanding schedule, for a couple of years.
Well, I hope she accepts that nanny offer. That worked for you and I'm sure it'll work for your daughter.
Oh, of course she has. [Laugh]
I convinced her by saying, "Look, I did this for your sister. I paid for preschool for her boys, so it's not a big deal." And my husband's parents and my parents were really very generous in terms of helping to pay for our kids' education.
It's so nice you can pay that forward.
Exactly. That's very important. Given my schedule at APS, however, there's certainly no way I could've taken the APS job with the kids still all at home.
Right. Right. [Laugh]
That would have been incredibly difficult. It could only happen when they'd all gone off to college and even left college.
The timing worked out and APS benefitted as a result, there's no doubt about that.
[Laugh] Well, I hope so. But combining parenting and demanding careers continues to be struggle, I think, for everyone. I'm just glad to see so many fathers stepping up and assuming a lot of the burden.
I'm on the early shift. I have the kids until 10:00.
Oh, is that right? Oh, that's cool.
That's how we do it. And my wife's on the late shift.
So it's an imperfect situation but one that you—you know, you gotta adapt.
Right. So how do you do it with respect to all the bandwidth needed for all these different online Zooms?
FIOS. It's a good advertisement for Verizon FIOS. We have, I think, seven Zooms going at one time, and it's working so far.
Oh, my. That is amazing.
Well, that's incredible. Yeah.
A bright spot. Kate, it's been such a pleasure spending this time with you. Thank you so much for sharing all of your insights with me. So many people are going to gain so much value from your comments and your perspective, and I'm just so appreciative that we were able to do this, so thank you so much.
Oh, sure. You're welcome.