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Credit: Erik Jepsen
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Interview of Elizabeth Simmons by David Zierler on 2021 July 22,
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, Elizabeth Simmons discusses: role as Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) at UC San Diego; impact of COVID-19; current developments in the field that she finds exciting; family background and childhood; experiences as a woman in physics; M.Phil at Cambridge in Volker Heine’s group working on condensed matter theory; study of condensed matter theory at Harvard; Howard Georgi; work on models exploring electroweak symmetry breaking and quark masses; opinions on why SSC died and the impact on the field; collaboration with Cynthia Brossman on the Pathways K12 outreach project supporting girls’ involvement in STEM; research on the top quark; interest in supersymmetry and physics Beyond the Standard Model (BSM) using a Higgless model; papers with husband Sekhar Chivukula and others exploring the idea of a five-dimensional spacetime; leading Lyman Briggs College; MOOSE model; reaction to the discovery of the Higgs boson; post-Higgs work distinguishing which models can and can’t be consistent with the data; consulting work for the American Physical Society (APS) and the wider academic and scientific community on matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI); advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community; advisory work for the Center for High Energy Physics in China; collaborations at the Aspen Center for Physics to support EDI in the field; role creating career development workshops for women at the International Center for Theoretical Physics; work increasing EDI in curricula and faculty hiring; building cross-field collaboration at UCSD; collaboration with other EVCs in the UC system; current physics work on model building and how to get the most out of available data; and current work on graviton-graviton scattering. Toward the end of the interview, Simmons reflects on intersectionality and the value of diversity in science and discovery.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 22nd, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Elizabeth H. Simmons. Elizabeth, great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Happy to be here.
To start, would you please tell me your titles and institutional affiliation? You'll notice I pluralized "title" because I know you have more than one.
I am a Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of California San Diego, and I also serve as Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer.
Now, to get a sense of the title, Executive Vice Chancellor, where does that situate you within UC San Diego, and then more broadly within the UC system?
The head of the UC system is called the President, and the chief academic officer who reports to the President is called the Provost and Executive Vice President. Then, on each campus, the leader is called the Chancellor and the people reporting to the Chancellor are Associate Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, and so forth. As the Executive Vice Chancellor, I am the second in command for UC San Diego. On the campus, I act for the Chancellor in the, actually, nowadays, exceedingly unlikely event that he is unreachable or if he is indisposed. And I'm the Chief Academic Officer for UC San Diego in charge of educational matters, in charge of the academic personnel process for all the faculty across the university, and then very specifically in charge of everything that happens in the academic units of what we call general campus. So, everything academic that is not health sciences, and is not marine sciences, everything else reports up to me.
Just as a snapshot in time in your role as Executive Vice Chancellor, what are some of the most important issues that you're dealing with right now?
Right now, of course, the big issues have been how to make sure our students can get educated during a pandemic, how to make sure our faculty can do their research, how to make sure the staff are appropriately supported. To give some context: 15 months ago, when the pandemic arrived in southern California, we immediately went to fully remote operations, with very little notice. Moreover, we had to figure out on the fly how to do this on a campus where there had been very, very little online teaching at all ever, because it just wasn't something that the campus had particularly pursued. Now, we're doing a mirror-reversed process: we're transitioning back to a predominantly in-person fall quarter. We’ve scheduled all of the courses as in-person and are making plans for staff to come back to work in-person or in hybrid mode. However, there are going to be some international students who can't get a visa in time to be here for October 1st when fall teaching starts and some other students for whom vaccines are impossible or ineffective. So, the big question is how do we have some remote courses for these students with documented need, but make sure that they're the ones who get to take the remote courses, and not someone who wants to be online only for personal convenience? That's one big set of issues related to the pandemic. In parallel, we are also working on establishing new academic units; fostering teaching innovation; streamlining policy; improving compensation; promoting equitable hiring; just a whole host of things that you do in the normal course of academic work. A lot of this involves our usual close partnership with the Academic Senate.
Elizabeth, with all of these administrative responsibilities, are you able to remain active in the department of physics? Are there any research projects that you're involved in? Are you able to work with students or graduate students at all?
At the moment, I run a joint research group with Sekhar Chivukula, to whom I am married and who is also a distinguished professor of physics here at UC San Diego. We've operated a joint research group for many years, and we currently have four postdocs. We don't have any graduate students. Our most recent grad student earned his doctorate recently. We'll probably start looking for another grad student soon, and transition back to a more balanced group. We're finishing up a paper right now to post on the high energy physics arXiv. In other words, I have been able to stay involved in research, though not nearly at the level that I used to be before I was EVC. It takes a lot of time. And I’ve missed regularly being in the classroom. I was only able to do my first teaching here at UC San Diego in Spring 2021 in a co-taught course with two colleagues in the physics department, a senior seminar on racism and anti-racism in physics. So, I've been able to do some research and a little teaching and stay involved with some external service — well, a lot of work with the American Physical Society in various capacities, and other things to do with outreach and equity, diversity, and inclusion. But all of this has been at a lower level than I could accomplish when I was just a dean, and not EVC.
That's a funny phrase, "just a dean." Elizabeth, to the extent that you're keeping up with the literature in the field, what's going on in particle theory or physics more broadly that's interesting to you?
A few different things. There are always some exciting results coming out of CERN. I think that results related to gravitational wave based discoveries of mergers of inspiraling black holes or neutron stars, and other cosmology and dark matter related measurements, those are fascinating. It's not what I work on, but those are always very exciting. The muon g-2 results are very interesting too. It's always hard to know quite what to make of the latest muon g-2 result, because of course, it's one number. And then you can make many models (beyond the Standard Model) that might be consistent with the outcome. Lately, I've been working in several different areas of phenomenology and field theory, some related to the top quark, and some more related to extra dimensional models of gravity.
Elizabeth, a question we're all dealing with, both in your administration and in your professorial capacity, how has it been working — not remotely, because I know you've been on campus, but as sort of an on campus, remote experience that you've been dealing with over the last more than a year and a half. What's worked out well in terms of productivity? What's been difficult for you?
It's turned out that the larger meetings, like when I meet with all the deans and department chairs at once, I think that works better over Zoom because everyone can see the slides, no one has a bad seat, everyone can ask questions in the chat or by raising an electronic hand. So, there are some kinds of discussions that have been facilitated by the new methods — we've learned new ways to communicate across the entire campus, to try to keep people informed and involved. That's been very positive. We'll try to carry some of that with us, going forward. The informal interaction with colleagues, where you just pop into somebody's office is much harder. You know, you have to text them, "Hey, are you free for a phone call?" Of course, everyone is on Zoom every waking minute, so impromptu conversations are not as easy to come by, which has slowed some things down. If you could just get quick questions answered quickly and keep a project moving, it would help people feel that the regular business of the university is still making progress. Alongside this, there were days when I'd go home at the end of the day, and then I would spend the evening literally working on notices about feces, because one of the ways we've been containing the possibility of outbreaks on campus is by monitoring virus in wastewater. So, we had to set up a collection and measurement system to monitor wastewater all across campus, and then we had to figure out how to decide when a signal is worth reporting to the whole campus. How do you know when you should just report to the people who live in or work in that particular building? We had to develop all these on the fly. The first time, it took us five hours to figure out what to do. And then there was a process I ended up being in charge of, where we'd have to write a tailored campus notice, and get the epidemiologists to approve the language. All of this was taking hours, and then over time, we got an essentially automated system in place, and it was a relief not to spend all my time on wastewater, because then I could get some academic matters moving. Overall, I think the challenge of learning how to do things that we've never done before, communicate on topics we hadn't communicated before, meant we had to pause a lot of our prior academic projects initially. But then we got past it. We learned how to navigate a new equilibrium, and the resulting collaboration has been amazing on the campus. I think that's been a big lesson for us all, that we really can do more together.
That's right. Well, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me about them.
I'm very fortunate in that my parents are still alive. They are turning 90 this year. They are both academics. They went to college together at UC Berkeley, and took courses together, and actually did some papers and projects together on what we would now call equity, diversity, and inclusion. For instance, they wrote up a really interesting sociology project where they had the idea that different colloquial terms in the English language might impact different people differently. One person to whom a term was not being applied, that person might think, oh, that's not such an offensive term. But my parents thought, well, maybe the person it's directed at might have a different view. Maybe one should take into account not what you meant by saying the word, but how the person's going to hear it. So, they took a number of colloquial terms that were used to refer to the group that we would now call African Americans — the terminology back in 1950 was a little different, and they had a range of terms. They went around and interviewed a bunch of White people, and then they interviewed a bunch of Black people. And they noticed that to even have enough Black people to interview, they had to go off campus, because there weren't even enough Black people who were students or employees at the university at the time. So, they found, indeed, perceptions of the language were very different, and you'd have to take into account how the other person's going to hear it, or else you are going to be really using very noxious language towards people. And that's going to have consequences. That gives a flavor of my parents and their commitment to learning, and their commitment to human rights. My father was a law professor and got his law degree from Berkeley. He taught property, landlord-tenant, and urban planning — and he was for 18 years the dean of the Newark campus of Rutgers Law School. My mother started out studying and teaching about the history of Black education in America, and did her graduate work in that area; she was ABD from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, she transitioned and became an Archivist and Director of Special Collections at Rutgers, also. That's where they had most of their careers until they both retired. So, I was coming from an academic family. That was a big leg up for me as wanting to be an academic, because I wasn't scared of professors. I just knew that they were people, and I know that was a tremendous advantage I had, even though they weren't scientists.
And you spent your childhood in New Brunswick.
We actually didn't live in New Brunswick. My mom first worked at the Newark campus of Rutgers, in the history department, and later worked in New Brunswick at the Alexander Library; my dad worked mainly at the Newark campus of the Rutgers Law School and taught occasional courses at the Urban Planning school in New Brunswick. We lived in Millburn, New Jersey. So, not too bad a commute for my mom, and a decent commute for my dad, in a New Jersey suburb.
Did you go to public schools growing up?
No, my K-12 — actually, all my schooling was at private institutions, I guess except for one year. We lived in Ohio until I was 12, and I went to the Columbus School for Girls. So, an all-girls’ school, which I think was an advantage because if anybody was going to do anything cool or noteworthy, it was going to be a girl. It took the gender question off the table, so I could be interested in science and in drama and everything, and that was fine. Girls did everything. And then, when we moved to New Jersey, that's when my dad became dean, I started at sort of a diametrically opposite school, the Pingry School, which had only, I think, the year before, become coeducational. It had been an all-boys’ school, and it merged with a coed grade school. In the middle and upper school, there were very few girls, and many of the teachers had no experience teaching girls, and it showed. So, that was interesting. In retrospect, it was probably good to toughen me up for going into physics, as physics was incredibly male-dominated especially when I entered the field.
Earlier on, when did you start to develop an interest in science generally?
I was always interested in everything. I was not just interested in science, but I would say that by high school I had the sense that's probably the direction I wanted to go for college. In thinking about college, I always thought of going into science.
And to go back to your all girls' education earlier, do you think that was specifically useful in the way that societally science was often thought of as not appropriate for girls?
Yeah, absolutely. This school was amazing. We built radio kits, we did dissections — and I mean dissections that I did not do again at that level until I hit AP biology in high school. We were doing vertebrate dissections in 5th and 6th grade. So, we were doing really cool hands-on science. That gave me permission to pursue what I was interested in, which was really great. And then, at the Pingry School, most of the teachers got over the, “oh my gosh, we're coed” phase pretty quickly. My academic advisor in that school was a wonderful advocate for me, and got me permission to skip ahead in math, to skip ahead in foreign language, to do what I needed to do to keep learning at pace. I think being at a private school made that a bit easier, because the attitude was just, “Okay, different kids need different things. Fine.” And that helped me stay engaged and excited about school.
Where besides Harvard did you apply for undergraduate?
Oh, I applied to like a dozen places. I applied to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT — I can't even remember. Right? I mean, it was the biggest focus of my life at the time, but with the passage of time memory fades. I applied to a dozen places, and the first one I heard from was MIT. And I opened the envelope, and my mother tells me I burst into tears and exclaimed, "I'm going to college!" And my mom was like, "Yeah. We knew that."
Was it physics programs that you were specifically thinking about, even before you chose a school?
Oh, yeah. I applied in physics. I knew I wanted to do physics by then, for sure.
And for obvious reasons, Harvard just seemed the best option.
Yeah. No, MIT — oh, I remember I applied at Caltech as well — while I applied to those science-oriented schools and I thought they were very interesting, I also still had a lot of interest in the arts and humanities and other fields, and I wanted to be at a place that would have very rich opportunities in those fields as well. So, once I was admitted into places that were not technical institutions, I knew I wanted to go somewhere with the broader opportunities. I went and visited different schools and Harvard stood out — the academic excellence, the location, just everything about it.
What were your impressions when you first arrived at Harvard?
I vividly remember when I visited. Actually, the man who ultimately became my doctoral thesis advisor, it turned out he had actually gone to the Pingry School, obviously, a few years before I did, back when it was an all-male school. Someone at Pingry said, "Hey, one of our alums teaches at Harvard. You should go meet him." So, I went and sat in on one of his classes, and got to go after class to say hi to him, and he was so impressive and engaging, it gave me a very good impression of the possibility of talking with, working with professors, and I just loved it. The course catalog back in the day was a book this thick with tiny print that I couldn't read now with a magnifying glass. And it was just amazing to go through. You could potentially take all these classes, and it was so hard to choose. Just that sense of intellectual excitement, and being around a group of people who also loved intellectual things. You didn't have to be embarrassed about that, or try to hide it. It was great. Just so much to choose from, and so much to do. And then being in Cambridge and being in Boston was amazing. I grew up in the suburbs, so being in a more urban environment, it was great.
It what ways was it difficult, or not, to navigate the department of physics as a woman?
I found that the faculty were actually great. They were very welcoming, and I think partly — I was an A student, so they were just welcoming, you know? It was like, if you can do the work, we're fine with you, and they had no problem. I did have one classic physics or math TA who — poor guy. I'm not going to mention his name. I'm sure he didn't realize he was doing it, but he would explain something at the board and then look at me — I was the only woman in the discussion section — to see if I understood it. My resting face when I'm listening is kind of puzzled or worried looking like this. That's just how I listen. That's the face I make. So, it was really funny. He was always asking me if I understood, and I thought it was especially funny after a couple weeks where I was blowing the curve. He shouldn't have been worried if I understood. He should have been worried whether anyone else understood! So, there were things like that. The classmates were accepting, again of anyone who wanted to do the work and participate in study groups. There was sort of another classic incident with a pair of male classmates. Again, they had no idea they were doing this, but I went to lunch at one of the residence hall dining rooms with a pair of classmates early on. We sit down, the two of them start talking about some mathematical topic, and they're throwing terms back and forth across the table. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I started feeling really intimidated. Oh my gosh, if this is what everybody is like, I don't belong here. You know, the classic imposter syndrome stuff. I was feeling really terrible by the end of the lunch. I go back to my dorm, and this was in the days of paper mail, right? And I find, oh, my copy of Scientific American has just arrived. Oh, guess what? They were just repeating bits of this article back and forth to one another across the lunch table. Never did it occur to them to say to me, "We saw this cool article. Did you see it?" So, I was like, oh, I get it. We all express our insecurities differently. Now I see what was going on at lunch. Seriously though, the part that made it hard to be a woman was that I was experiencing extreme sexual harassment at the time. I was being stalked by somebody at Bell Labs where I had been a summer student before starting as an undergraduate, and he literally later was institutionalized because he had some sort of psychological breakdown. He was calling me, threatening to show up in person. I had to get an unlisted phone number and all this sort of stuff. So, that was sort of a bad part of being a woman in physics at that time. And I know that those are really common experiences that a lot of my peers have had.
Yeah, and generationally, in the early 1980s, these things were dealt with in very different ways than they would be today.
I was lucky that my supervisor at Bell Labs — just a wonderful man, Walter Brown — he believed me. Initially, I wasn't going to file a formal complaint, and my dad said, "No, no, no. You have to file a complaint because you can't keep going to work every day at Bell and have this going on." So, I told my supervisor, and I think at first, he didn't really know what to do. And then my dad had a chat with him and said, "You know, you're going to have to report this up the chain, because Bell Labs has to make sure this doesn't happen to others." And Dr. Brown did report it. And he believed me, and he took steps to protect me while keeping me in the research group. He made me more central to the research group, moved my office from a remote location in the attic, where I was vulnerable to this stalking person, right into the main floor of the accelerator complex that I was part of. And he never stopped treating me as a member of the research group. I was really lucky. Because, you know, I was a student. I wasn't initially even a college student yet when this started. He could have cut his losses and said, "Yeah, I don't want to deal with you." I was very lucky in how he dealt with it and it enabled me to stay in the research group for several years and be a co-author on my first research articles.
Elizabeth, as an undergraduate, what kind of physics did you gravitate toward? Was it always theory, or did you try your hand at experiment?
I tried everything. The work I did at Bell in the spring of my senior year as my senior project, and then for a couple years as an undergrad, was experimental. It involved using Rutherford backscattering and mass spectrometry to measure the properties of thin, frozen molecular gas films. Essentially, it was radiation physics research, seeing what the composition of the films was when they were deposited onto the substrate. And then if you sputtered the films with Helium ions or other ions, analogous to the solar wind hitting, say, ice on the moon, or ice on Mars, or ice on interstellar dust grains, what happened? Did the molecules, as they were released from the surface, interact with one another? Did they break up and then undergo some chemistry depending on the composition of the film? So, that experimental work is where I started, and during my time at Harvard, I continued with that group in the vacations. I also made a foray into astronomical observation. The first CCD cameras were being developed and I was part of a group that was doing that. I did very low-level stuff, really, and was just more learning what they were doing. Next, I had a foray into biophysics. I worked at Rockefeller University for a couple summers in Floyd Ratliff's group looking at visual evoked potentials from the visual cortex. They worked on cats, but also on humans. I worked on humans because there wasn't really the time for me to get the training to even work on the cats. But that was interesting, because it was experimental and let me design and perform my own experiments, yet involved a lot of mathematical analysis like two-dimensional Fourier analysis. Later, I did summer work at Bell Labs with Michael Schluter, and that's where I got into condensed matter theory, looking at surface modes of different kinds of crystals, which was even more mathematical. So, when I entered grad school, I had actually done more research in condensed matter than anything else. Initially, when I went to Cambridge for my M.Phil., I entered Volker Heine's group and worked on condensed matter theory. When I went back to Harvard, I started in condensed matter theory, and Bert Halperin was my advisor. In Cambridge, I had attended lectures, of course, in condensed matter, because there was a lot of great stuff at the Cavendish, but I was curious about field theory. I used to ride my bike over to lectures at DAMTP, the Division of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where they had some courses on scalar field theory, more from a particle physics point of view, and I just fell in love with the topics and the symmetries. So, at Harvard, I took my oral exam to become a doctoral candidate in my first year at Harvard. And I took that in condensed matter theory based on the work that I had done in Cambridge for my MPhil. But then I immediately switched fields and joined Howard Georgi's group to do my dissertation in particle theory.
Elizabeth, before we get too far afield, I'm curious about the decision to go to Cambridge for the M.Phil. Did you intend to stay there for all of your graduate school? Was that an opportunity that came up to spend some time there for a limited amount of time?
I was awarded a Churchill Scholarship, which provides one year's support. So, I always intended to go for one year, do the MPhil by research rather than by examination, and then come back to the States for my doctorate. At that time, they were pretty rigid in the U.K. about doing your doctorate in three years, and I thought — just as I had wanted to have a broader undergraduate education that spanned the humanities as well as the sciences, similarly I wanted to be able to take a wide variety of physics and math courses in my doctoral training. You sacrifice that when you do the three-year version of the doctorate. Or you did at that time in the U.K. So, I came back to the States, and I was able to take a wide variety of courses as part of my doctoral training at Harvard, and then graduated in four years from Harvard.
Not that anyone has a grand plan, but did you go to Cambridge thinking that you would be coming back to Harvard, or were you considering other graduate programs at that point?
Oh, no. I had actually — given the timing of when I found out about the Churchill Scholarship, I had already applied to, you know, a dozen doctoral programs in the US during my senior year; I got in. I had chosen Stanford, actually, for my graduate training, and I had agreed to go there. Then I got the Churchill, and Stanford granted me a deferral. Once I was at Cambridge, I decided to reapply to Harvard, and I was readmitted. And that was because in the interim, sort of in the last part of my senior year as an undergraduate, I had started going out with the man who I eventually would marry, and we decided that we would like to try to live in the same place as soon as it became possible. We were starting out our relationship with my being in England and his being in Boston. Since he could not move at that point because he was still in his doctoral program, I reapplied to Harvard, and I came to Harvard to start my doctoral program. And then we went through this same process at each decision point in our careers, where we arranged to stay in the same city as one another. So, we've always been able to live together except that initial year, and then the year where I moved out to San Deigo a year before he did. So, he constrained his postdoctoral searches to stay in Boston because I was still a grad student. I did the same because he was, by then a tenure-track faculty member at Boston University. Then when I applied for faculty positions, we agreed I would apply more widely given how tight the job market was, but I got a faculty offer from Princeton, I got a faculty offer from the Superconducting Supercollider during its brief existence, and one from BU. The SSC offered to give both of us positions, and we decided it was a bit of a risk, given that the lab’s long-term federal funding wasn’t yet assured. And again, by my usual reasoning, I wanted to be at a university so that I could work with faculty, I could experience the whole of academe and not be at a place with only physicists. So, a national lab, wonderful as they are, wouldn't have been my top choice. And Princeton — fabulous Princeton — they were extremely generous in what they were offering me in trying to recruit me, but they showed no interest whatsoever in my husband. They didn't have the concept of dual career hires back then. You know, places caught up to that at different times; even when I pointed out to them: I have a very young child; my husband's about to be tenured at BU; he has a substantial record; there's no guess work here… they would not engage on that topic. So, I said, "Fine. I'm going to BU. My husband and child and I can live together as a family, and it's a great school. And by the way, they actually tenure people at BU, whereas you at Princeton tend not to which creates a big risk for me professionally. Thank you, but no."
Yeah. Now, to go back to right when you started your graduate work at Harvard, just to foreshadow, what interactions, if any, did you have with Howard Georgi as an undergraduate, and did you know his legendary status as a mentor to students at that time?
I did. My first year at Harvard, I ended up taking the very course that I had seen him teach when I visited. So, he immediately became one of my mentors. He wasn't my formally assigned undergraduate mentor. That was Francis Pipkin, who was a lovely guy and a really wonderful mentor. I took quantum mechanics from him; he was excellent. But Howard was my informal mentor whom I would go to and talk to periodically and seek advice about things. For instance, the process of interviewing for the Churchill was interesting at Harvard, because there's a campus level interview before they decide which name they'll put forward. They could only put one name forward. Only a few universities in the world could even put anyone forward. So, in my interview at Harvard, they spent most of the time talking to me about my Women in Science work. I got madder and madder, and after the interview, I wrote them and I said, "You know, I don't think this is very fair. This is a science scholarship, and all you did was talk to me about my Women in Science work. You didn't really interview me properly." And they said, "Oh, never mind all that. We're putting you forward." And I said, "Okay." So, you know, that was fine. Harvard put me forward, and then Churchill College was fine, because once I was selected by the Churchill Foundation to be put forward, Churchill College accepted whoever the Churchill Foundation set forward. But the Cavendish Laboratory also needed to accept me so that I could actually do the master's degree by research. One day, the Churchill Foundation called me up. I was living in the Dudley Student Co-op, so there was like one hallway pay phone for everybody in the middle of the ground floor. Everyone could hear what you were saying on the phone. The then director of the Churchill Foundation of the United States calls me, and he says, "Well, you have to have an advisor for your M.Phil by the end of the week, or we're withdrawing your name." So, I went to Howard, and I said, "This seems really weird because this has never been mentioned before as part of the process." And I later found out they only pulled this stunt on the two women my year. They didn't do this to the ten guys. Anyway, I went to Howard, and he said, "Mike Tinkham is best friends with all the people in the Cavendish. Let's have Mike make a call." Mike had been my Statistical Mechanics professor earlier that year and he made a call. Volker Heine said, "Happy to have you as an advisee.” and it was settled. I knew that I could go to Howard for help, and I did know that he had lots and lots of mentees, and that he mentored women, which made him really a standout in that way.
Now, did you come back or start with particle theory in earnest because of Howard, and you had already left condensed matter behind, or where were your interests exactly at that point?
I loved doing condensed matter theory at Cambridge with Volker. We wrote a bunch of papers, and it was really a great experience. But those lectures in particle theory, and field theory in particular, that I attended at Cambridge, convinced me that I wanted to try particle theory in my next degree. So, I was always intending to do that, but I wanted to get through the oral qualifying exam and get onto being able to do doctoral research. The quickest way to do that was to do condensed matter, based on my research with Volker. That's why I did my oral exam in condensed matter theory, so I could get on to starting my doctoral research. It worked well, because I wrote a whole bunch of papers, then, with Howard or alone. I guess I wrote three papers with Howard, maybe four. As a grad student, almost everything I wrote was done alone or with another grad student. It was a very productive period.
And then what was the process like going about developing your thesis research?
The very first ideas I worked on were things that Howard had suggested, things that he had heard about, or related to a paper that he had read. And then he talked with me, or he talked with me and another person, and we worked on it together. That was the first paper. The second paper, he suggested an idea, and then I just ran with it. And then, from then on, a lot of the time I would come up with something, or for the papers that he and I wrote together with Elizabeth Jenkins, I think he had maybe the initial thought, and then we ran with it, and we worked with him, and we wrote it. But very quickly, it became that I would have an idea, and I would go talk to Howard, and we would have some discussions, arguments, whatever, which was always exhilarating. Yeah, I mean, I wrote a lot of papers just alone in those days, which I think was good. Especially as a woman, I think it was really good that I had a lot of single author papers, so nobody could argue what my role was in the collaboration, shall we say?
What was Howard working on at that point, and did you see obvious connections with his research?
Oh, yeah, yeah. We were both doing a lot of model building. I did a lot of collider physics work. So, our interests were really very closely aligned. I mean, we were trying to figure out electroweak symmetry breaking, where the masses of the quarks came from, how heavy was that top quark going to turn out to be? It kept receding into the distance and still not being found. Harder and harder to figure out what that was all about. So, I worked on models that tried to see if there were — a lot of it was seeing where there were gaps. Hey, nobody has ever thought that maybe SU(2) works differently for quarks than for leptons, or could there be something dynamical and something Higgs-like at the same time? Just sort of quirky things like that, and building up a sense of what was possible, what some of the patterns in model building could be. How simple a model could you build, and have it display a really interesting phenomenological effect? And I think, even though he certainly built some huge moose models that were very, very complicated, he also liked to do minimal models. And I think I picked up my taste for minimal models from him, from that way of thinking. You can really pare it down to, in a sense, what mathematical structure can yield an interesting physical effect when translated into particles.
I'm always curious about when there was this idea that the standard model was completed, or was on its way there. As a graduate student working in particle theory, what was your sense at that point? Was anybody talking about moving beyond the standard model, or was it more about still building into the standard model?
Well, it was both. I mean, the Ws and Zs were officially detected when I was a grad student. So, let's see. Actually, even — no, I was an undergrad when they were detected. I'd forgotten. Being at the same place for undergrad and grad blurs it a little bit. But no, that detection was while I was an undergrad, so parts of the standard model were still being nailed down. Exactly what are the masses of the W and Z? The top quark hadn't been discovered. The tau neutrino hadn't been discovered, and of course, neither had the Higgs. So, there was a sense that the building blocks of the standard model would likely be there, but there was a great sense that there could be all sorts of other stuff out there as well as the standard model. And my work has always been on physics beyond the standard model. I never worked on things that were just within because there was still that wide open feeling of, well, if we haven't even seen all of the third-generation particles yet, maybe there is a fourth generation that's not too heavy. Maybe there is a Z prime boson that's not too heavy, because we haven't even nailed down everything about the Z, and so on. The whole field of precision electroweak testing really, again, came into being during the period of my training, because there was the shift from when — it used to be that the weak mixing angle was taken as one of the fundamental parameters of the standard model, because you could measure it for low-energy scattering processes that were, for the time, really well measured. And then there was this shift to where the mass of the Z boson was so precisely measured that it just blew sine theta weak out of the water. And everything shifted in how you talked about precision electroweak tests. Which things were the knowns, and which were the things that you were trying to constrain? And that was really fascinating, to watch the language change and the mathematical formulation realign. Again, that was part of that shift from wide open possibility to more constrained possibility, and you had to be more and more clever to do things beyond the standard model that wouldn't contradict the data.
Where do you see your thesis research as contributing more broadly to these issues?
Looking at the interplay between electroweak symmetry breaking and flavor symmetry breaking. We still have no clue as to why the different quarks and leptons have the masses they have, have the mixings that they have. And at the time, we also didn't know much at all about really where electroweak symmetry breaking was coming from. Could have been just the Higgs; there could have been light supersymmetry; there could have been light dynamical symmetry breaking. It was exciting to be studying those problems together to see what you could learn about the interplay, and how the interplay might show up as side effects in the data. So, that was the major focus, particularly on what we could learn about the top quark in the context of dynamical models.
Now, in the world of experimentation, was there anything going on that was really relevant for your research?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. There was a lot of precision electroweak data that was coming in from multiple sources, and that was tremendously informative. Precision measurements of properties of the Z boson, for example, that grew into quite an industry. A lot to do with rare meson decays, which were quite constraining. My faculty job talk was based on what the measurements of the Z boson decay to b-bbar quark pairs could tell you about dynamical symmetry breaking models. And it turned out to be really, really constraining of those models. That was a whole series of papers in and of itself. So, yeah, back at that time, I spent an awful lot of time in the particle data book looking for new possibilities for different sets of data that might constrain the kinds of models that I was interested in. There was collider data — I mean, I also worked on extensions of the strong interactions in various ways. So, all the CDF data especially, but also DØ data on multijet final states was very, very interesting. It was a wonderful period where there was just a tremendous wealth of collider and non-collider data. You were swimming in data, and you could put it all together and see what it would tell you about how to kill a model that you had loved last week, or how to develop a new model that maybe you would love for a few weeks until more data killed it off.
Besides Howard, who else was on your committee?
Let's see. Shelly Glashow would have been on my committee. Wow, I've got to think about. I'd have to go look at my thesis to see who all was on my committee. Oh, Jon Bagger, because I remember he would always bring some physical object to the dissertation defense and ask the hapless student about, how does this work? Like, a clock that was running backwards, or a piece of experimental equipment, like a light guide, or something like that. So, yeah, I remember he was on my committee. Bert was probably on my committee because you would have somebody from outside the sub-field. And then, almost certainly, there would have been an experimentalist, but I don't remember off the top of my head who that would have been. And the tradition was you gave your thesis defense as what was called a family meeting. There were two subgroups of the particle theory group in those days. There was the one that was more phenomenology and field theory, and then there was the one that was more string theory. So, we had what was called a family meeting every week, where somebody internal would give a talk. Essentially, your thesis defense was one of those, but then they'd kick everybody out and the committee would grill you. So, it kind of blurs who was on the committee, because everyone was there.
Yeah. Besides staying at Harvard as an option for postdocs, where else were you considering?
Oh. Let's see. At that point — yeah, so since I'd only been a grad student four years, I could have stayed on a fifth year if I needed to. So, I think I only applied to a couple places. I know I applied to BU because they offered me a postdoc. I can't remember if I applied to Yale or not. But this was a case where we wanted to stay local, if possible, because Sekhar was already a faculty member at BU. Moving as a junior faculty member is particularly disruptive, so we didn't want to make him move in order for me to get a postdoc, if it was possible for him to stay put. Since I got the postdoc offers from Harvard and BU, I was very happy to stay at Harvard, and we didn't move at that point.
Did you see this as an opportunity to take on new projects, or more to expand and refine your thesis research?
You know, there wasn't really the notion of thesis research for me. I took out a staple gun and I stapled my papers together. So, that's why the title — Electroweak and Flavor Symmetry Breaking – is pretty broad. I picked a set of papers that were most closely related to that title — it wasn't everything I'd written — and put it together as the dissertation and wrote an introduction. As postdoc, I definitely branched into new topics. I shared my office with a different group of people, wrote a bit with them, wrote alone, wrote with some others. It was a good opportunity to do some different things, try new techniques. There was additional excitement in that period because a week after I got my PhD, Sekhar and I got married, and then a year later, we had our first child.
Now, were you following the developments at the SSC during the real moment of excitement, like it seemed like it was going to go through?
Oh, absolutely. We went and visited. There were — let's see. I was an SSC fellow, which was a kind of designation you could have alongside being employed as a postdoc wherever you were already appointed. So, it meant I got some extra research money, basically, and we would go to Waxahachie periodically and meet with the other fellows and give talks. Sekhar and I went out there also with some members of the BU particle theory group. We went driving around Dallas in this big — everything's bigger in Texas, including this giant automobile we were driving around in. There were meals at a steak restaurant where you’d tell them you were a “friend of Roy” [Schwitteres] and try your skill at line dancing. And then Sekhar and I applied for and received research scientist, faculty-level jobs at the SSC at the same time that I got other faculty offers. So, we were very interested in the SSC on multiple levels. I was actually a member of one of the experimental collaborations, GEM, at that time and did simulation work thinking about how good a job the SSC could do at detecting certain kinds of Z prime bosons in e+ e- and mu+ mu- final states.
Just to foreshadow, did you have a sinking feeling at all? Was there any notion that SSC was not going to work out during your visits?
I can't remember anything during the visits in particular, but we followed all the politics very closely in the news. We saw all the terrible mistakes that were made in the way that the SSC had been sited in Texas to begin with, just the Texas delegation in Congress exerting their power to get it in their district, even though there was no other particle physics facility located there. It would have been so much more logical to put the thing at Fermilab, where there was lots of existing infrastructure, and it might well have survived in that case. But you know, it rose with the Texas delegation’s political fortunes, and then when they all had various troubles with corruption and so on and went out of power, the SSC died with their influence. So, yeah, we were really monitoring that all the time. I remember the day that the SSC was canceled. I think it was actually my birthday. I was teaching — I was a first-year faculty member at BU by then, and I heard about it just before I went into teach my graduate classical mechanics class. It was devastating for the future of the field. But at least I didn't lose my job because of it. We had a colleague who had accepted a postdoc there, and we hired him — we pulled him in as a postdoc at BU. All over the country, various of us pulled people in when they lost their jobs at the SSC so they wouldn't lose their careers. Our colleague spent time with us at BU, and then went on to have a very successful career in his home country, in Brazil.
When you got to BU, was part of your research agenda, part of your professional agenda, issues of gender in science and educational outreach, or did that develop later on?
Oh, no. That was — I couldn't say it was part of my research agenda. I didn't do academic research in it, but it was part of my professional agenda from the very beginning. When I was, I think, a postdoc, there was a faculty member who spent time in the Boston area on some kind of a fellowship. I remember her name, and I remember more details, but you'll see why I don't necessarily want to mention. She did something very noble, which was to get the women scientists from different institutions together, which was kind of novel. We hadn't all gathered before. But then, it turned out to be simply a venting session. It involved talking about everything that was difficult about being a woman in physics at the time, and nothing positive. No discussion of our research, and no discussion about, well, how could we change it for the future? And again, at the time it was so extraordinary that she brought us together. That was really novel. That was fabulous. But I had a thought in the back of my mind, there must be a different way to do this where we do something positive together. So, in my — wow, I don't know, my first couple weeks at BU, there was a reception. I think it was for women who were new to campus. And I went, and I met a woman named Cynthia Brossman, who then became my collaborator on what was the Pathways project. She was a professional in K12 STEM outreach. And I told her this story, and I said, I just thought there must be a way to do something positive bringing women together. Pretty quickly, we came up with this idea for a K12 STEM outreach conference to hold yearly where the women of BU would come together and maybe bring in women from outside, and we would focus our energy on bringing high school students to visit the university, to learn what it's like to be a woman in science. What the different kinds of science are that you could go in, see women role models, get some mentoring, and have a positive experience to try to uplift the next generation. And the thought was, well, we women would get to know each other by collaborating on this outreach project. If we needed to vent, we would now know each other and could support each other, but the primary purpose of our coming together would be this uplift and doing something positive. Pathways became a decade long collaboration. During my whole time at BU, we ran one or two of these events every year, and they grew as large as 600 students, all girls, a lot of them coming from the most underserved high schools in the region. And we had just dozens of women from all across BU, from industry, from other universities. It was just something that we really loved doing together. After I left BU, it morphed into some different directions, and a different version of Pathways, I think, still may exist. It certainly did for many years after I left. Outreach on gender and science was always part of what I was doing even back then.
What was some of your research on the top quark by the time you had arrived at BU?
A lot of what I was thinking about was — by then, it was clear that the top quark was many, many times heavier than any other quark. So, I was working on whether there could be an explanation in terms of dynamics. Not simply the size of a coupling constant linking the top quark to the Higgs boson, but was there some underlying dynamics in the universe that impacted the W and Z boson to give them mass, and that also talked to the top quark and gave it its large mass? So, by the time I got to BU, I was doing a lot of work on building models that might try to explain the top quark mass, account for electroweak symmetry breaking, not run afoul of the accumulating precision electroweak and flavor data, and then propose some new signal that you could then look for to tell, yeah, it's this model, because we saw this kind of new particle. I was building a number of different models in these directions. Some of them linked to the strong interactions as well; some were purely electroweak.
And to go back to that question about what was happening in experiment, was it really the Tevatron that you were focused on in terms of the interesting data that was coming out?
Yeah, at that time, the Tevatron for sure, I mean, for the broad-based collider data. Eventually SLC and LEP also had tremendous precision measurements of the Z boson’s properties, and of eventually W+ and W- pair production. Those were very specialized items, and there was a lot of precision electroweak data from a whole variety of sources around the world. But for me, the Tevatron data was usually particularly interesting.
This was also a time when there was a lot of excitement on supersymmetry. What was some of your work in this area?
Supersymmetry — wow, I think the main thing I did — I didn't do much in supersymmetry. There were plenty of other people working on supersymmetry, but I did write a paper with Nuria Rius — we'd been postdocs at the same time — on a particular kind of supersymmetry that hadn't really been thought about very much. Originally in supersymmetry, the hope was, maybe, the super partners would be about the same mass as the ordinary standard model particles. And yet, as time went on, they weren't found in those mass ranges. So, then, you needed something that would kind of discriminate between the ordinary particles and their superpartners, and maybe help explain why the superpartners would have to be heavier — there's a notion of R-parity which developed. It separates the super partners from the ordinary particles, prevents certain inconvenient decays that weren't observed, allows for certain properties — you have to thank about how to arrange for the mass difference, and so on. But it had been thought of strictly as a parity. So, we explored the possibility that maybe instead of a discrete symmetry, maybe R-symmetry could be a continuous symmetry, a U(1), in which case there could be another boson corresponding to it. So, we wrote a couple papers on that, and what would be the phenomenological consequences if R-parity were instead a U(1) for R-symmetry. That was a lot of fun, doing a kind of supersymmetry that nobody else was doing.
A phrase I'm not familiar with, Higgsless model. Can you explain what some of your work was in that area?
Sure. So, it's another way to get at the idea that maybe there's some physics beyond the standard model that explains electroweak symmetry breaking without having a very standard Higgs boson. If you think about the standard Higgs boson — now, we've found it experimentally, and there's still a major problem associated with it. There's still got to be some physics beyond the standard model, because mathematically, the theory is inconsistent if you try to adjust, naively — what would you say — sort of extrapolate the behavior of the standard model all the way up to very high mass scales, or early times in the universe. That's a reason that I've always been interested in looking beyond the Higgs, because I knew it couldn't be the whole answer at those higher mass scales. So, I had been working on models that would exist within our ordinary, four-dimensional spacetime, but possess additional gauge symmetries that might get strong, and as they got strong, they'd create maybe a composite state that could take the place of the Higgs, in a sense, by giving mass to the W and Z. But eventually, those models got more and more constrained by the data. And I ended up writing papers about killing all the models I had painstakingly built in my earlier work. I think it was around the time that I moved to Michigan State that I started working — Sekhar and I started working with a colleague in China, and a couple colleagues in Japan, and the five of us, with some additional postdocs, wrote a whole series of papers on the idea that, if instead of a four-dimensional spacetime, there were a five-dimensional spacetime, with the fifth dimension very small, then what would look like an ordinary gauge theory in five dimensions, if you were looking at it in five dimensions, to us with our four-dimensional perspective, would look like a broken electroweak symmetry with heavy W, heavy Z, but the difference was there wouldn't be any Higgs boson left over. Just like in a lot of these gauge theories I'd been doing, the technicolor theories, there wasn't necessarily something that would look like a Higgs, but the gauge theories would get strong, and it would make the W and Z massive. In other words, translating from the five-dimensional to the four-dimensional context produced the same trick. In four dimensions, you saw exactly what our experiments were seeing, and no Higgs. Well, that's great. Experiment hadn't seen a Higgs at that time. The idea of a Higgless model was that you didn't necessarily need a Higgs boson at all; extra dimensions would make everything work. Then, of course, the Higgs was found at CERN. So, it was time to think about something else.
Elizabeth, after you were promoted to Associate Professor, tell me about your first foray into administrative responsibilities at BU.
Wow. So, let's see. I'm trying to think of the order of things. So, I was eventually — it actually took a while. I mean, I led not just the Pathways program, but I led the Learning Resource Network, which was the outreach and engagement office that Cynthia Brossman was the executive director for. I succeeded a prior faculty director who was a senior professor in the mathematics department.
How long had the program been around at that point?
I mean, was it an established program, or was it still relatively new at that point?
Pathways was very well established at that point. Let me see. I'm just going to get my CV to get the dates right. Boy, the internet is not happy today. By the time I was an Associate Professor, Pathways must have been running for four or five years. So, it was very well established. And the Learning Resource Network also was well established because Bob Devaney, who had been the faculty director before had math field days that were absolutely huge, and really impressive, that he'd been doing a while. There were a bunch of other faculty who worked with Cynthia, and so on. So, yeah, all of that was very well established. Here, I'll be able to get the — just make sure that I've got the — it's so funny how certain details stick with you and certain details you forget over time. Like, exact dates of things. Yeah, yeah, so it was relatively late in my time as an Associate Professor that I got into administration. I see that my Learning Resource Network role was really only in the last couple years at BU, and I was the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies before that. So, I was doing both of those at the same time. Yeah, that was sort of interesting. There were four associate chairs in the physics department. Sekhar was also an associate chair, and I give great kudos to the department chair at the time, Larry Sulak, for being willing to have both of us as his associate chairs, because many people are not willing to employ both members of a couple as part of their leadership team at the same time. So, big kudos to Larry for that.
What spoke to you generally, because I know it's a topic that's been important to you for so long? What is it about outreach that's so important to you?
I'm very conscious of all the privileges that I've had as the child of academics, and as being white in America, that have been very helpful for my being able to advance in my career. Being a woman, not so much, but being a white lady when you're not in a physics department is an unremarkable thing in the U.S., and a source of privilege in itself. I've always felt that I really want to make sure that others have the opportunity to pursue their love of science, and that considerations that have nothing to do with your interest in science shouldn't prevent you. I’ve thought that I ought to be part of the solution. Also, I want the general public to understand more about science. I think it's tremendously hurt our country in many ways — hardly need to talk about that now, but the general public knows so little about science. Not so much a matter of knowing particular facts, but more in terms of how to think logically about things that impact their lives. So, for both of those reasons, outreach has been important to me.
What were your considerations for moving on from BU?
Well, there's push and there's pull. I was offered a fantastic opportunity to lead Lyman Briggs. It was then the Lyman Briggs School, and became the Lyman Briggs College under my leadership. Being at Briggs would allow me to be in an interdisciplinary context again, which I really have always valued. It was a chance to be a leader and be appreciated as a leader, and move to a university with just an absolutely excellent physics department that was also interested in hiring both me and my husband. BU was pretty mixed as a place to be a woman faculty member at that time. There were colleagues who were tremendously supportive, and there were colleagues who were extremely hostile. And there were colleagues who shifted back and forth between those. So, while BU did try to retain me, the whole story was pretty bizarre. At one point, a department administrator, not Larry Sulak, came into my office to talk to me about the retention salary, and said, "Why are you asking for so much? You're not interested in research. You're only interested in teaching."
Did you pull out your CV?
I said, "Oh, gee, so why did I bother getting the NSF Young Investigator, and the DOE Young Investigator? Why did I bother getting all these awards, these grants, writing all these papers if I'm not interested in research? What the heck are you talking about? Just because I'm a woman and just because I'm also interested in teaching." So, I kind of erupted a little bit, but that was sort of symptomatic of the atmosphere for women. As I say, there were colleagues who were absolutely fantastic and very supportive. There were some colleagues who were — as I say, who went from being supportive to being less supportive. It reminded me of something that one of my dear friends who is a physicist in Italy said about the attitude there, "Woman assistant professor? Oh, that's very cute. We should really support her. Woman wants to be at my rank? No way." Only, a little stronger than that. And that was what I was experiencing, that there were male colleagues who became hostile when I became more senior and had even the very limited power of being an associate chair.
You mentioned before, back to the research, as a graduate student, Howard was working on moose models. That's a new one on me. I've heard of the penguin model, but I know the moose model is something that you've worked on as well. What is the moose model, and where does this word come from in this context?
I didn't work on moose models so much myself, but the idea is they're models with a large number of different continuous symmetries. The standard model is described as having gauge bosons corresponding to SU(3), SU(2), and U(1) Lie groups. Moose models would include a much larger number of symmetry groups and there would be, likely, some sort of symmetry breaking mechanism that might break this one down to a couple subgroups, that one down to a couple subgroups, and then they would interact and break further in some way. So, many, many gauge groups, many, many symmetry breaking sequences, and there was a way of drawing, literally, circle and line models to show which group was which, how they connect to one another, and which particles were charged under both groups. And they looked a bit like a moose's antlers because they were that complicated.
When did you start to pay attention to what was happening at CERN? When did the buildup at LHC start to register with you?
I mean, I'd always paid attention to CERN since I was an undergrad. You had to. It went through different stages of what the collider complex was doing, but you always kept track.
I'm thinking specifically in terms of the run up of the discovery of the Higgs.
Oh, sure. I mean, we were always — I was technically a member of ATLAS, though by that time I was completely inactive in the collaboration. But we were always talking with our experimental colleagues down the hall at MSU about what's going on. Of course, they're very carefully trained not to tell you anything specific. Nevertheless, we knew that a big announcement was coming, and Sekhar and I were at the Aspen Center for Physics that summer. So, when we all heard there was going to be some sort of a big set of talks at CERN, simulcast around the world, presumably an announcement of something that they never tell you beforehand — they make it a mystery — we figured out that was going to be around midnight our time. So, we arranged an impromptu pizza party and screening session at Aspen. We set up a computer and projector in the seminar room, and we went and bought these huge pizzas from a local place, and everybody came and sat there and watched the many hours of talks. It was really great. It was a wonderful community moment. We felt we were all right there in the thick of things. We all saw the Higgs peak emerge from the data.
Now, when you were named Director of Lyman Briggs, what were the most important issues that you were facing right off the bat, and what were some of the advantages of coming in from the outside?
Coming in from the outside, I was not part of any of the politics either within Lyman Briggs, or in the college to which Lyman Briggs School then belonged. That was helpful because there were different opinions in the university about whether it should still have these residential academic units like Briggs, or whether that was sort of passé. For me, of course, it was also a big advantage coming in from the outside because I could ask everybody a million questions, since nobody expected me to know anything. So, they would then each want to give me what they thought was the most important information for me to have. I could learn a lot very quickly. Of immediate importance were things like several faculty had retired not long before I got there, so we needed to be hiring more faculty. We needed to decide how large Briggs was going to be. Was it going to stay at the size it was, or were we going to expand it? It didn't even have its own physics faculty at the time. It had been borrowing physics faculty from the physics department. Maybe I should step back and say the concept of Briggs is a — I'll speak of it as it is now, with the language of college, which it very quickly became. Students would be admitted to Briggs, they would do a four-year degree in Briggs. They would do their introductory science courses, and a whole history, philosophy and sociology of science curriculum during all four years in Briggs. Students would take the classes in the same building where they lived. So, there were classrooms, labs, offices, and then dormitory towers. Residence towers. And then, in their junior and senior years, they would take the rest of their courses for their majors — and they could major in almost anything they wanted in science — out in the science departments in the doctoral granting colleges of the university. So, if you were going to be a physics major, you would take your basic bio, chem, math, physics — actually, you probably take your bio, chem, and math in Briggs, but you'd take your physics major's courses over in the physics department. When I arrived, Briggs didn't even have its own physics faculty. It just borrowed from the physics department. That clearly wasn't going to be a long-term solution, so I had to figure out, how am I going to grow and unify the faculty? The faculty was so small compared to the number of students that it was in danger. The pendulum could swing towards, this isn't going to last, or the pendulum could swing towards, we're going to get stronger again and rebuild. And fortunately, I was allowed to rebuild. I'd been there a few months, and I was away at a conference in Korea of all places, and my dean at the time, George Leroi emailed me saying, "Pay no attention to those rumors that Briggs is going to be asked to grow." I said, "Okay, that's interesting. I wonder where that came from." And then, the next thing I know, when I get back, he's saying, "Well, the provost," Lou Anna Simon, who later was president, "has decided she'd like to invest in having Lyman Briggs have more students, because she thinks it's a great recruiting tool for the university. It's a small community within a big university. It attracts great students, so you need to write an expansion plan." Suddenly, I was writing a strategic expansion plan, and then we did all of it over the next five years. So, we expanded the faculty, we grew the faculty culture, more support for the students, invited additional majors, we did all of these things. And then we realized, well, now we're in a position where we really ought to be a college of our own instead of staying within the Natural Science college. And Dean Leroi to his great credit, was not threatened by that. He was completely supportive.
Elizabeth, what was the threshold there? What all came together and said this is actually a college? What are those demarcations?
We'd had, again, a strong vibrant faculty of a sufficient size to really govern itself well. Our value to the university was really obvious, and we were being hampered in even further student recruitment and in fundraising by being kind of invisible within the College of Natural Science. So, when Lou Anna, who by then was president, decided that she was going to revive the former residential college in arts and humanities, which had been shut down long ago — there had been three residential colleges until about 1980, and then a budget cut. James Madison survived, Briggs became a school within Natural Science, and the arts and humanities college went away. She was going to bring back the one that went away, and she decided it would be a college. I asserted, "If they're going to be a college, and Madison’s already a college, Briggs needs to be a college, also for the fundraising and recruitment reasons." There was no process by which to request to become a college. So, I made one up, and we went to every form of governance on campus and asked for their input. The students, the faculty, and finally the administration. And I had to go all the way up and present to the university’s board of trustees; they agreed with the request, and we became a college.
Now, when you're named dean, how does that change your day-to-day, if at all?
A lot of what I had done before as school director, I was still doing as a college dean. It meant that I was now responsible, though, for higher levels of budgetary and academic personnel oversight. I had to do a second level of review and paperwork compared to what I had been doing before. But the payoff was, I could then go directly, make budget requests to the provost for what I thought we needed, instead of making a request to a dean, who would then maybe pass on some of what we needed to the provost, because that dean had other competing priorities. So, it opened up a new level of access for me. It meant I could also make the direct arguments about tenure and promotion for my faculty, again, to the provost and the vice president for research, instead of relying on someone else to do it for me. We also got to do fundraising, we got a communicator, so I could get involved in these other functions. And then I served on a much wider array of university committees. I got involved with public art, and all sorts of other campus matters, because I was a dean.
And to go back to that work balance, how much time were you able to spend within the physics department, and on the research side, what were you involved in at that point?
So, I had a day and a half set aside every week to be in the physics department, all my ten years at MSU; Tuesday afternoon and all-day Thursday. That way I could teach and do research. I co-taught one course with Sekhar, a mathematical physics course that we had each taught at BU. He'd taught a graduate one, and I’d taught an undergraduate one, and we kind of did a mashup and used the interactive teaching methods, and so on, and made a really cool course for a mixed student cohort. With my dedicated time in the department, I could teach that course, and go to the research seminar, go to the colloquium, and have time to be with the research group. And then the other three and a half days of the week, I was in Briggs.
And you had opportunity to work with graduate students as well?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. At BU, and then again at MSU.
What was the feeling after the discovery of the Higgs at LHC about some of the optimism about what would be seen next, and when did it start to sink in that it might not be much?
Oh. You know, really, very quickly, because then, at that point, you say: Hmm… any superpower masses must be really high… none of the things predicted by the dynamical models have been seen… we've got this Higgs boson. It was a very, very different feeling than it had been back during my student years where theory had run ahead of experiment. Experiment was catching up, which had initially been very exciting. And suddenly, it felt like things are a bit more frozen. You would have to work harder to find a model that might tell you something new. So, I started shifting some of my work even more towards thinking about, how would you know what you had discovered? If you saw a sign of something new in the data — a bump, let's just say — how would you know which theory that corresponded to? Because, of course, we’d had years, decades, to make up all sorts of models, many of which might predict similar bumps that would show up in similar distributions. So, there was a definite sense of needing to untangle the possibilities — for example, there was the brief period where the community thought that there was evidence for a new diphoton resonance. Maybe some new particle was decaying to photon pairs. Not the Higgs, but something else. And we all wrote a lot of papers about that. And you know, one of the things that Sekhar and I discussed was we noticed that people were having an awful lot of arguments about, "Well, your model couldn't explain that diphoton resonance, but my model could." But they would be arguing from different points of view about, "Based on my looking at it this way, I know my model's good, and your model's bad." And the other person would argue back from a completely different logical framework, or calculational framework. So, we started to think about whether one could have a consistent way of saying, "These models just couldn't be true because they would violate the laws of probability." This is just an example of one kind of project in this sort of vein of, how do you get more out of the data that we have? We realized that when you write the formula for a scattering cross-section that describes producing some new state that decays in a given way, buried in there is the product of the probability from zero to one hundred percent that you produced the resonance, and then the probability, zero to one hundred percent, that it decays in the particular way that you're looking for. Moreover, the product of those two probabilities is always going to be a number between zero and one. So, if you assume that the calculated cross-section equals the number corresponding to the measurement — you could then rearrange that equality to say, "The left-hand side of the equation is the product of this pair of probabilities, each of which is no more than one and it equals — on the right-hand side of the equation — a quantity that's combining the experimentally measured cross-section value with a bunch of standard physical constants, like the mass of the Z that we know very well, and a few simple properties of my model”. Further, you could say if the right-hand side of the equation turns out to numerically equal something big like 4,000, my model (whose properties contributed to the right-hand side) obviously doesn't make sense, because the left-hand side of the equation is the product of two things that are between zero and one. So, it was a way of systematizing, saying which models are logically possible explanations of a given measurement and which ones are not. And you don't have to argue about whether you're using the right perturbation theory approximation in how you're looking at it. So, that was one whole kind of thing that we studied, and there have been others in this vein of, how do you make the most out of the data? How do you unambiguously distinguish which models can and can't be consistent? That's been a lot of fun to work on.
During this time, I'm particularly interested in your consulting work for the APS and other organizations as you were focused on inclusivity and diversity. Of course, these are years before the murder of George Floyd, and before the response in STEM with things like Particles for Justice, or #ShutDownSTEM. What were some of the main issues at play before this sort of captured national attention in STEM in the year 2020?
A lot of the work I was doing at that time was around gender in science in particular. So, the work as a consultant started out being about women in science, because originally, there were just so few women in physics in particular. Over time I got more interested in issues impacting the LGBTQ community, and began to include issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and going beyond the binary. I gave talks and interactive workshops around what the situation is now, and then looking at the social science research. How did we get here? What is leading us here? And always talking about what we can do to try to make things better. Many years earlier, when I first gave colloquia about women in science, I was focusing only on, what's the situation, and how did we get here? In the Q&A period, people would start asking, what can we do to fix this? So, I started learning more about that as well, and then that became part of — that was the point at which I could do more of a workshop, or a training, because I wasn't just transmitting the static information about where we are. There was a path forward to, what can you do? What can we do? What can our institution do?
The title is interesting. I'm curious if you could unpack it a little bit. Associate Provost for Faculty and Academic Staff Development. In what way was development front and center for your portfolio?
Sure, this role was focused on professional learning, professional training, learning how to be a better teacher, researcher, academic coordinator. Academic staff encompassed a multitude of titles at Michigan State. This was an area that I had been interested in, and there had been an assistant provost for many years, Deb Dejure, at Michigan State, who did this work, and she was retiring. The provost, June Youatt, asked me if I would be willing to come into that kind of role. Because I was a faculty member, I was named associate provost rather than assistant. This was an area I'd really been interested in during my years as dean. I had published a number of essays in Inside Higher Ed on how to try to do things well if you're in the dean or chair, or similar role. How to think through logically, what am I trying to accomplish, and so how might I go about it in a way that will bring people along, and align people and so on? There were some wonderful long-term staff in the faculty development office, and it was great to work with them. I got to select and bring together a team of assistant and associate provosts for this work. They were wonderful collaborators who were each in charge of a particular dimension. We had these great brainstorming sessions together, and came up with ideas for how to do this work holistically, so no matter where you were in your career, if you were an academic at Michigan State, there would be resources available to help you advance in your career. Whichever area of your career you felt you wanted to grow in, there would be something for you. So, people would feel like the university was interested in helping them be successful. That was a wonderful team, and I really enjoyed that chance to do that work.
Were you not expecting to stay in that position for such a short amount of time?
Well, when I accepted the position, I thought I would be around for a while — I had no notion that I was going to apply for, let alone be invited to assume the role at UC San Diego. I started talking with Provost Youatt about the associate provost role — wow, that would have been in, I guess, March or April of 2016. And then, it was a year later that I was then invited to apply to the position at UCSD. So, yeah, I had no idea.
How did that opportunity come about? What was that initial point of contact?
I had been the dean of Lyman Briggs for over a dozen years. I had simultaneously been the interim dean of the College of Arts and Letters when the former dean and suddenly stepped down, and it took a year to recruit a new dean. And I liked having a bigger scope of working across the university, and on a wider set of issues. Similarly, as associate provost, I was then not only in the dean's meetings, but in other meetings with the provost or the group of associate provosts, and being called in on a whole different set of issues. So, I felt that I'd really like the opportunity to work at the whole university level, if possible. Being EVC gives me that scope. I was also particularly struck by the way that Chancellor Khosla framed the opportunity: he was looking for somebody who would focus on elevating the educational aspect of UC San Diego to equal the research aspect. I mean, the research program there has been stunning from the beginning, sixty years ago. And the educational part has been good, but needed to just really be brought together and crystalized in a way that would show true excellence as well. The idea was to have a huge focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion, diversifying the students, diversifying faculty, which are things I'm passionate about. And making the university work for people — streamlining the infrastructure, getting rid of red tape, trying to make things sensible. Again, something I'm interested in. So, it just sounded like this is exactly what I want to work on, and at the full university level.
Before we get too far beyond 2017, I'm particularly interested in your advisory work for the Center for High Energy Physics in China, and how that might have broadened your purview about the role of China more broadly in physics, and the possibility that it might be China where, for example, the ILC might be built, or the next major accelerator project, and how you might have seen China's development both in terms of cooperating and collaboration with partners both in Europe and the United States.
I had a long-standing scientific collaboration with a colleague originally from China, who had trained in the U.S., and then was offered a professorship in China, at Tsinghua University. He's now moved to Shanghai Jao Tong University. Getting to have regular trips to China to — you know, the key wasn't so much being part of the advisory board, per se, but more having the ongoing scientific collaboration and going there about every other year for physics conferences. On the one hand, it showed me the tremendous power of what China could accomplish when it decided to really invest. It was investing tremendously in building universities, in educating large numbers of graduate students, in opening facilities like Daya Bay, and so on. And at the same time, I could see the challenges that they were facing in terms of trying to recruit some of their own talent back from abroad, where so many had gone for training, but then had stayed. It was very hard to persuade people to be interested to come back, because people put down roots. There were also some challenges related to the political structure in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I mean, not to say our academic system is at all perfect, but I was told that they had a lot of entrenched ways of deciding who was in power, who had influence, who didn't, where it could be harder, maybe, for new voices to be heard than ideally. And it's easier for me to see it there as an outsider. It's harder for me to notice all the places where that happens in the U.S., though obviously it does. So, I got more of a sense of the tremendous potential, and some of the challenges that they were facing.
You have done so much service work for the Aspen Center. It's obvious that you really believe in its mission, for a long time. What's so special about the Aspen Center? Why is it important as an additional outlet from all of the other organizations and universities that you're involved in?
What's so special about the Aspen Center for Physics is that it brings together people of all ranks, and from many areas of theoretical physics at least — some experimenters — and puts them on an equal footing in a place outside their usual setting. Because the usual setting, you know, there are titles, and they're reminders that this person oversees that person or has power over their career prospects. At Aspen, you're all there wearing the clothes that you would go hiking in, and you go to seminars and talk about things, and then you all go hiking together. Consequently, there's a greater sense of equality, a greater sense of freedom, just focusing on the research and the play, and the free flow of creativity. And that's a wonderful kind of atmosphere for forming collaborations, or just having an idea that you hadn't had the chance to have. I like the very open and involved governance structure as well, and the fact that many different people get to be part of the governance over the years. It's not just the same couple people always in charge. That was really refreshing, so I was very happy to be of service there, especially because I felt it was a place that welcomed the idea that it needed to become more inclusive of women physicists. I was able to have some impact on women’s participation in concert with some of my senior colleagues, Katie Freese and Catherine Kallin. But also due to the senior men, who were willing to listen and to adopt the concrete suggestions that our Focal Week on Women in Physics brought forward in the summer of 1994. More recently, I know that the Center has turned to issues related to supporting racial and ethnic minorities in physics. That's wonderful, and that's some of the next wave of progress, which is terrific to see unfolding.
Is there something that stands out in your memory about a collaboration, standing at a white board with colleagues, some real advance in the field that happened only because of these remarkable meetings in Aspen?
Yeah. I mean, there were so many papers that got started there, so many ideas you'd hear about in some of the very dynamic, short talks they would have – just long enough so that you could get the essence. Many, many examples over the years. And just that sense of belonging. It was a place that you could go and have a sense of being involved, and feel that you were really part of the field. I think that's one of the most important things that it gives to the many young physicists who go there early in their careers, and get that sense — yes, I belong here; yes, I can participate. I'm taken seriously — and get away from some of that self-doubt that may exist in the everyday world where you're worried about, you know, is this going to get published? Am I going to get promoted? Did senior people respect my work? In Aspen, a lot of that is pared away, and that's a really valuable experience.
Relatedly, tell me about the career development workshops for women in physics at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy. Were you present at the creation, or does that go before or prior to 2013?
Oh, no, I was very much present at the creation. This goes back to my graduate school days. There were three of us who became really tight friends. Kathy Benson, Shobhana Narasimhan and I were all grad students together in slightly different areas of study. We would have lunch together regularly, and we would organize some events. We had sort of a women in mathematical and physical sciences group. And occasionally, we would have a chat with some of the more senior women in the department, none of whom were faculty at that point. There really were no tenure-track women faculty. And we were struck by — we were saddened by how bad their experience had been; how badly the department and the system had treated them, and stifled their careers, and so on. We were struck by their sense of, of bitterness. We could understand it, but we were kind of afraid of it. We said, "Wow, we don't want to end up in that situation." So, we kept in touch over the years, and I ran into Shobhana when we were both delegates to the IUPAP International Women in Physics Conference. In fact, we ran into each other in South Korea in 2008, and then again in South Africa. And in South Africa, Shobhana said — that was the 2011 conference, and she said, "This is great, this big conference bringing women together, but it would be great to do something that really focused in an intense way on getting women a sense of community, and teaching them some of the skills they need to succeed in their careers. The kind of mentoring we hear about at this big, giant conference as what they aren't getting at home. Maybe we could try to give some of it to them." She had a lot of connections at ICTP. She'd been very regularly working there, and going to conferences and so on over the years. She said, "Maybe we could arrange to do a conference for women there." And that's where the idea came from. She had that idea, and she said, "Do you want to help me do it?" And I said, "Absolutely." So, the two of us, and then Erika Coppola at ICTP as well, the three of us have run it ever since. There was one in Rwanda that my schedule wouldn't let me go to, but my husband, Sekhar, got to go to. After the first one, or first two workshops, he started coming as well, and also being a presenter, which was great. We're looking forward to the next one this fall, which will unfortunately be virtual. We were supposed to do a special one in Bangalore in 2020, but the pandemic happened, so that got postponed.
Given the international purview of this conference, what have you learned about inclusivity where these are sort of universal, or I should say global themes, and where have you seen that there are really unique national perspectives on these issues?
The experience of the women — and we focus on women coming together from the less economically developed countries, where the opportunities for women in physics are really few and far between. Many of the women who come are the first one to have gotten a PhD in physics from their entire university, or they're the first woman faculty member in physics at the university. Through the events that we hold in the week-long workshop, one of the things we do talk about is people's individual experiences, and how similar or different they are across countries. Pretty much all have experienced the sense of being marginalized, not being taken seriously, being told women don't do X. That kind of thing is very pervasive. Details of how it might manifest itself might be different. Details of exactly how much of the work of maintaining the family and the household you're supposed to do, or how common it is to have a life partner who might share in that, that varies. There are countries where the women can only come to the workshop if their husband is okay with their participation. There are countries where a letter of recommendation written by a university colleague will always specifically mention that the woman is a "good Christian woman," because that's high praise in that country, I guess, to tell us about the moral standing. That we'll be proud to have her in the group. So, you get little insights like that. There are countries where you should do your degree first, and then maybe you'll have kids sort of while you're having a career. There are others where you would have your kids first, and then, if you wanted to go for an advanced degree, you might do that later. So, very different career patterns. That is, there may be very clear expectations about the order of things in some countries, but it's not the same order in every country.
I'll as the same question when you got to Michigan as when you got UC San Diego. That was, in this new role, what were the most important issues facing you, and what were some of the advantages, again, of being not from the inside?
Some of the big issues were, well, what to do about helping jumpstart a culture educational innovation. There were efforts already going on that I joined with, and then over time have been able to morph into a different approach that seems like it may be more successful. A lot of it has to do with, what are you going to do with online education? But it's not only about online. It's about educational programs for younger students as maybe part of recruiting students from different communities to the university. So, that's one whole aspect of my work. Elevating educational innovation into something that's really respected, where people can feel comfortable saying, "Yeah, I want to be involved with that," and not have to wonder what their colleagues will think. That's been one priority. Another has been weaving equity, diversity, and inclusion into everything we do. It's not just that the vice chancellor for EDI, who reports to me, it's not just that she ought to work on this. Rather, it’s partnering with her to convince everybody that we all have to do it. Keeping at the forefront for deans and department chairs — look at your curriculum. Look who's graduating how fast. Identify, are there issues where you could change class size, or class ordering, or work on bottleneck courses, or courses with high failures rates, that would allow all the students to actually graduate in a timely way, instead of just those who came in kind of with certain advantages. So, that's a way to work EDI into curriculum planning. Working it into faculty hiring. Getting people to pay attention to the idea of EDI in faculty hiring. The natural thing is for people to say, "Well, if you give me an extra position, I'll be happy to do that, but if I only have my regular positions, I want to hire my regular people." And you're like, "Really? Who are your regular people?" This is true everywhere. This is not a UCSD thing. But coming up with different approaches to hiring to get people to see it as an opportunity to hire somebody cool that they wouldn't have otherwise known about. And then they get very excited, and they see this is going to be great for the department. So, trying to change the culture around inclusive hiring. Another aspect is getting people to work together across the university. There were certain pieces of the organization that just wanted to hunker down and do their own thing. I’ve been repeatedly saying, hang on, we can do it better if we do it together. People talked about the Gilman Divide. There's a street, Gilman Drive, that runs in between general campus, which I oversee, and health sciences on the other side. And people would talk about Gilman as though it was a flaming pit of lava that you couldn't cross. I was like, I cross that street many times a week to go talk to people. What are you all even talking about? So, my office has been working on partnerships — for example, that the health science department chairs would come do the same department chair training as the general campus chairs, and that if they needed special health focused training, they could do that as well. But basic stuff, like how to put together an appointment file, that's the same no matter what field you're in. My office has emphasized, let's do one training for everyone, and all the chairs will get to know each other along the way. So, that's been another aspect of my work, just building collaboration. Huge advantage being from the outside in that I was not part of the plentiful politics of the University of California before I got here. In that, there was a huge amount to learn. Academic dialects are very different from university to university. The UC, our campus in particular, has its own dialect and a huge suite of acronyms. So, at first, every time I opened my mouth, I would be saying something that wasn't necessarily conveying what I thought I was saying, because the terminology is different. But I couldn't simply not talk, because then I wouldn't be doing my job. I had to get used to saying, "Okay, I'm going to get it wrong in detail, but here’s the gist and we're going to talk about it, and we'll figure it out." But I think it was better, on the whole, because coming from the inside, you're locked into the politics, and who's beholden to whom, and how it's always been done.
Now, what became of the QUEST program when you came to San Diego? Did that live on? Did it follow you?
That was really something that just we did with the honors undergraduates. We created various materials for teachers — I think it still lives online in the sense that people can still download materials and instructions, but we haven't been able to go out and do nearly as much — Sekhar still does some outreach using those materials and things, but we haven't been able to do it at the level we used to.
Now, as Executive Vice Chancellor, what opportunity or reason do you have to interact with your peers at other UC schools?
I'm actually now the convener of what's called COVC, the Council of the UC Executive Vice Chancellors. In pre-COVID times, we met monthly, the group of us, and also with the systemwide Provost. Half of those meetings would be in person, and we discussed all sorts of matters where the system needs our advice, or just a mutual interest. During COVID, of course, at first, we were meeting really frequently online (daily at one point). Now, we've settled down to twice a month, but purely in the virtual realm. So, we interact a lot. When I was new, I asked advice of a bunch of them on different matters. Now I'm one of the more senior ones, and as I say, I'm already entering my second year as convener of COVC, which I think is hilarious. So, some of the new ones will occasionally ask me for advice. It's great to have that group there to draw upon. I learn a lot from listening to them.
Back on the research side when you got to San Diego, to the extent that you had time to devote to physics research, what have you been involved in more broadly over the past four or five years?
Let's see. So, there have been various projects related to a little bit of model building. More on continuing the work on thinking about how to get the most out of the data. So, several projects in that vein. We're just finishing a project now, about to post it, about — there are a lot of models where there would be something a little bit like a fourth-generation of quarks. At the very least, there might be heavy partners, heavy copies of the top and bottom quark. And there are traditional ways that the collider experiments tend to search for them. A few years ago, at a conference — wow, this was at a conference in Korea, I think now about four years ago. It just took a while to do this project. We were sitting around and talking, and we realized that there are cases where there's a color magnetic moment for these particles, and if you exploit that, it could lead to a different production mode for these partners. What's cool about it is when, say, the heavy top might be produced alongside a regular top. And then, when the heavy top decays, a lot of the time, it might be, for instance, to a regular top and a Higgs. Now you might say, "Well, so what? There's a big background to that process from ttbar Higgs, or ttbar Z. Why is that proposed heavy top interesting?" Turns out, it's because of the kinematics of the event. If you have the heavy and light tops produced together, the heavy one is so heavy that most of the collision energy will go into producing it, so the heavy top will be produced nearly at rest. But that means that the light top that it's produced with will also be produced nearly at rest in the collider reference frame. So, that light top will decay spherically, sending its decay products, sort of uniformly. Like a firework going off, it sends the decay products out in all directions, like the pins in a pin cushion. But when the heavy top decays to a light top and, say, a Z, or a light top and a Higgs, that’s a case of a heavy thing decaying to two much lighter things. Those will be produced back-to-back with a lot of momentum, often perpendicular to the beam pipe. So, of the two different light top quarks in the eventual final state, one would be nearly at rest, and one would be highly boosted, with a lot of momentum. In other words, you would know which was which. This nearly-at-rest one is the one initially produced in association with the heavy state. This boosted one is the one produced from the decay of the heavy state. The standard model background events with two top quarks never look like that; their kinematics are entirely different. So, you could actually cut all of the standard model background, and be left with a signal that you could see, specific to the presence of the heavy partner. While it took a long time to do the simulations, it turns out, this lets you explore regions of parameter space, regions of different masses and so on, that you can't get to at all with the conventional search channels. In other words, it turns out to be really cool. It's something that the colliders can do now with the data they have, and it's a chance to look for something they could not otherwise have seen. So, that's been a lot of fun. But the other thing we've been working on is graviton-graviton scattering, and solving a little mystery there. People have guessed about what the cross-section might look like, and their guesses were that the cross-section would tend to grow with energy in a way that would be troubling theoretically because it would be inconsistent with what the underlying theory was like. In the underlying theory, if you looked at it from a five-dimensional point of view, you could tell how the cross-section must behave. But the guesses people were making about the related four-dimensional theory were leading to a completely different behavior. And no one had ever really dug into that. So, we decided, you know, no one's ever done the actual calculation in a four-dimensional context. Let's do it. It turned out to be a giant project, but we did it, and it turned out all the guesses had been wrong. The four-dimensional behavior is actually much less toxic after all. The cross-section doesn't grow as fast with energy as people thought. So, then, that means that certain kinds of model building options become possible that wouldn't have been possible if the cross-section had actually had this really bad behavior. So, that's been a lot of fun. Took a lot of work. We're finally going to get back to the dark matter questions that motivated us to look at it in the first place. So, that's what I've been doing in my spare time with several collaborators.
The way you're talking about it, it suggests that you might push back against the notion that many in the field hold that not much is happening in particle theory these days.
Oh, no. There's a lot of cool stuff, and I can't even keep up with all of it. There's wonderful stuff going on.
Well, Elizabeth, we talked right at the beginning of our discussion about your current work, so now that we've sort of completed the narrative chronologically, I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. So, the first is, because of your long-standing commitment to diversity, broadly conceived, I wonder if you can reflect on the value of painting with broad brush strokes, and then really thinking specifically right down to the individual. So, if we think about the catch-all term, "underrepresented voices," in STEM, in higher education. That can be broken down by race, by gender, by sexual orientation, and it can be broken down even further, all the way down to the individual level. So, from both a policy perspective, a culture perspective, all the way to really thinking about the individual and advancing a single person's career and opportunities, how do you think about all of these things as broad groups and specific people?
I would use the broad term, "historically underrepresented," mostly to the extent that federal reporting or systemwide reporting requires it. I think it's much more informative to think about the individual situations if you're talking about racial and ethnic groups — to think about the Black and African American experience, the Latinx/Chicanx experience, the Native American and indigenous experience, because the reasons that lie behind their presence and their experience at the university are very different, and the ways of addressing the situations require culturally responsive approaches that deal with those reasons — because the experiences are coming out of very different places. So, in trying to work on the issues, I try to, where possible, talk more specifically. For example, we have initiatives going on now for a big cluster hire for faculty in STEM whose work addresses disparities that members of the Black diaspora have experienced in STEM related areas. This includes, for instance, environmental justice, or health disparities. And focusing in that way, on the particular issues related to what Black people in the U.S. have experienced. We need to focus very specifically there. That was a cluster hire project that we started a year ago. This year, we've just gotten funding to be able to do something analogous, but this time in the social sciences, because it's different faculty who proposed it, around issues in the Latinx and Chicanx experience in higher education, and it'll connect to our work to become a Hispanic Serving Institution. I foresee that in the future we'll do something around Native American and indigenous experience. I think to try to make progress, we have to deal with, honestly, what people have experienced and why. So, you have to be more specific. Similarly, I said that I had started early in my career working on issues of women in science. And over time, I became more aware of what the experiences were of LGBTQ individuals, partly because both my kids came out as members of the LGBTQ community, and I got to know more physicists who identified that way. So, I began to shift my focus, as I saw that women were doing better statistically, but here was a whole set of communities who — physics wasn't even talking about LGBTQ experiences, so that became a focus. I also learned more about intersectionality, and the experiences of being a person of color who also might be a member of an underrepresented gender or sexual minority. It kind of piles on. This has been a real learning process for me. And being more specific helps you be more effective. Certainly, I'm trying to work mostly at the larger policy level, because I can, because I have the opportunity through my leadership role. But I do still like to also be, hopefully a mentor, hopefully an ally, at the very least a good colleague, to as many individuals as I can. Because people did that for me coming up, and I want to do that for others. I don't know if that quite answers what you were wondering about.
Absolutely. And as a civil rights issue, in the way that STEM can be a driver of encouraging diversity because it owes these underrepresented voices that seat at the table, and because obviously, STEM comes from embedded power structures in our society where all of these issues originate from. I can understand the impetus going in that direction, but I wonder what you've learned over the years about the simple scientific fact that it goes the other way as well. In other words, diversity is good for science, that a multitude of perspectives, of new ways of thinking about the world and approaching it, actually moves those fields forward.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's particularly visible in health-related fields because, only by looking at the experiences of a wide variety of humans can you really sort out what the true causes are of what you're observing. For instance, people said we shouldn't include women in studies because their hormonal cycles might mess up their experiments. Well, why don't we go find out if that's actually true, and if it is true, maybe it tells you something about how those biochemical pathways are working in the first place that you wouldn't have otherwise discovered. So, maybe you'll learn something you didn't know. The value of diversity is very directly visible there. But simply in looking at what questions people find interesting, what questions they choose to focus on, the more different people that you have in the room, the more questions will get asked, the fewer standard preconceptions there will be, and so the further you can go. So, absolutely, I think it's really important for the science to have — you want all the interested bright minds in the room. You don't want to preselect participation according to something that has nothing to do with scientific interest or talent. That would just mean you wouldn't get as far in pursuing the science.
Elizabeth, on the research side, I wonder if you can reflect on the obvious duality on your partnership with Sekhar, and some of the challenges and opportunities of having this close collaboration and all that's come as a result of it over these past decades.
Once I got tenure — he's a little bit older than I am, so he got tenure first — it was very freeing in a sense, and then we could work together as much as we wanted. Before that, we had to be very careful that I established my own record: independent teaching, independent research, grants, all of it. But then, post-tenure, we were able to work together whenever we wanted. And it's great because we could talk about stuff at any time of day. We could substitute for one another in teaching if one of us was away at a physics conference or giving a talk. By co-teaching courses, we could also do innovative things with the teaching methods that are harder to do when you're just running everything about a course yourself. Doing outreach, of course, is more fun if you have somebody to do it with, and it's often practical if you have a large number of young students there at the outreach session. Having more than one adult in the room is a good thing. Overall, given how hard it is to be deeply involved with caring for your children, and also deeply involved with your career, being able to juggle a bit the responsibilities between us has been, practically speaking, very valuable. But on a deeper level, I just feel really lucky to have a life partner that I can share all the parts of my life with.
Now, just to bring that question to a practical level, is physics allowed at the dinner table, or is there a no physics rule for conversation?
Well, now that we're empty nesters, and we can talk about anything — sure. Back when our kids were living with us, we used to go to the gym, and we'd be on the ellipticals and talking about a paper that we were writing. That was a lot of fun. The other people all had their headphones on, so we weren't bothering them. So, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Elizabeth, last question, looking to the future. For however long you tend to set out a plan for yourself — a year, five years, whatever that number is — both on the administrative side and the research side, what's most important to you given that time is such a valuable resource? What are the things that you want to devote your energies to in the near and short term?
I want to — so, when we began to get a bit of hope that the pandemic would not be forever, because we were starting to have vaccinations take place — our campus was offering vaccinations — I thought it was a time when we could look towards the future a bit, as a university. So, I introduced an initiative that brings together several of the things that I really care about. It's called Erasing Opportunity Gaps through Collective Impact. What I would like to accomplish in my remaining time as EVC is to build this culture of thoughtful collaboration, grounded in data, grounded in evidence and continuous assessment, focused on erasing the gaps between the experiences that students of different financial means, or different races and ethnicities have at the university. I want everybody to have access to the high impact practices, everybody to graduate at the same rate, everybody to be able to have leadership experiences at the same rate. So, this initiative, which is a lot of fun because I'm getting to collaborate with colleagues in extension and the office of strategic initiatives and all over, pulling together — the library, and deans, and transportation, and housing. Everybody together is focusing on a bunch of projects, each a collective impact project with its backbone and its data and its leaders, and each one addressing a topic at the scope of the entire university, and all of them working in this direction of greater equality, and equivalence of experience for our students, but there are also pieces of it for faculty and for staff. That's what I'd really, really like to get very solidly grounded as EVC, because it pulls everything together that I really care about. And I think it could transform — I mean, UC San Diego now has 40,000 students. That's a decent number of students and a decent number of employees. If we could really make this a great experience for everybody, we could make a difference in a lot of people's lives.
Elizabeth, it's been great spending this time with you. I'm so glad we connected to do this, and this is going to be a wonderful addition to our collection. I'd like to thank you so much.