Now time to go see if my cheerleaders want to grab a cup of coffee and talk.
To the girl who loves math and science,
You might wonder why I am writing this, and to be honest I’m not sure why I am either. Someone who cares about you, who thinks you are smart, talented, and have a ton of potential asked me to write a supportive letter to you, a women in STEM, thinking that I may be someone who could be looked up to as a role model. Some days I agree that what I’ve done is pretty cool, and many more days I feel like I’m completely faking it and in way over my head. Turns out that many physicists and many more women in STEM feel this way all the time; that the fraud police are just around the corner.
They may have asked me to write this note because of what I have done and the degrees I have. Currently, I am working at Dartmouth College and NASA Goddard. I was just interviewed for Discover magazine, have a bunch of publications, and am working on a number of grants and NASA-funded missions. I have received honors and awards and served on advisory committees in the field. I have a Ph.D. in physics, masters in Astro Physics and Planetary Sciences, a bachelor degree in Math and Physics, but still, everyday I fear that someone may come and take them away from me (I’ve been told that can’t happen...)
They may have thought that I would be a good person to write about the struggles of college and graduate school. I had a Prof. in undergrad who told me that women should not work and should instead stay at home and raise the kids. He tried to fail me in a class until I approached another Prof. about it. He ended up “only” giving me a C while the guys, who had made the same and worse mistakes on the homework and in the tests got A’s. I had a Prof. while I was doing my masters who told me how others had offered sex in return for grades subtly implying, or so it felt, that I should offer sex for an improved grade (and no I still don’t feel comfortable really talking about that experience or sharing the guy's name in fear of the repercussions that I would face. It’s not fair and is not right, but as one person told me, I need to make sure that I make it in order to be in a position where I can affect change. Writing that makes it feel more like an excuse for not coming forward at the time or even now, but there you have it.) That Prof. wrote a question for our quals that was on a topic not covered by any of our classes with the express intent, as he proclaimed told others, of trying to fail us. I had a Prof. in my Ph.D. tell me that I should never use my first name because people would know that I was a girl then and would judge me more harshly and that would hurt my chances of making it in the field. A lab tech in my Ph.D. who was gathering all our titles told me that they would only include "real" masters assuming that my masters degree wasn't in the sciences. I had students that I was teaching refuse to believe anything that I was saying, report me to the Prof. about how what I was telling them was completely wrong, only to find out that what I said was indeed correct. I had students try to physically intimidate me into giving them better grades. I had a friend tell me that the only reason I was offered a post-doc position was because “who wouldn’t rather have a cute girl in the lab instead of another guy?” I’ve been talked over, had my ideas laughed at until another white male either states the same thing getting the credit, or validates my statement. I have not been physically harassed although I have had friends who have been.
But... I have to remember, and sometimes have others remind me, that those are all things that happened to me, they do not speak to my ability to be a scientist, even a good scientist, and hopefully on the best of days, a f*cking awesome scientist.
The same is true for you. If today you found that you didn’t do as well on a test as you hoped for; if your lab mates all seemed to understand the lab and not let you participate as you wanted to make sure to not wire that circuit incorrectly thus ruining a perfectly good breadboard; if you raised your hand all day during class and weren’t called on, or worse, were called on when you didn’t know the answer thus feeling embarrassed in front of the class, don’t worry, that ultimately has little to do with determining if you will become a fantastic scientist. In fact, most of the people who I’ve met who were incredibly book smart and did amazing in the qualifying exams and classes all the way through graduate school often had trouble with the primary part of science which is coming up with something interesting question to ask and research. Now, this is not an excuse to not study. On the contrary, if you really love science, and I think you do, then every time you don’t grasp something, every time you do poorly on an exam, I have a feeling that you will go back and study it even more ultimately gaining a better, and much deeper understanding of the material. It might not show up in your grade, but it will show up in your research!
Some advice that I wish I was told:
- Break things! At the start of most labs our Prof. and teachers would tell us how expensive the equipment was and how we needed to make sure not to break it. Don’t worry about it. Yes try to not drop the $5000.00 laser, or burn out 50 $25.00 transformers, but if you break one or two (or even more), they’re not going to kick you out of school. If you notice, your male counterparts are not worried too much about breaking the equipment so you shouldn’t be either. And in that same vain, try something not in the lab (except perhaps in a chemistry lab - but I’m not a chemist and really should never be allowed to work with acids... long story short, my lab mates notebook started disintegrating). See what would happen if you re-organized the circuit in a different way. What happens when you put liquid nitrogen in a vacuum chamber (something very cool!)? Take that radio apart and try to put it back together... and when you can’t the first time, buy a second one as a guide, or to take apart and try to put back together again, and again, and again until you get it. And I know you will. And if not, that's okay too, not everyone who's a scientist works in a lab, and even those that do may not know how to put back together a radio. :)
- Code, break the code and code some more... And learn version control and comment extensively so when you break the code you can always go back to a working version. Learn as many types of code as you can! Even if you think it will be pointless, like HTML, you never know when it might become handy. (HTML is very similar to kml, the language google earth uses and it turns out can be quite cool to work in and even mean that you can make a movie that makes it onto NASA’s youtube channel! or get you a job working on the Cassini mission).
- Ask for help. You will need help, you will need a shoulder to cry on, you will need someone to help you blow off some steam, you will need someone to tell you where to search for research papers, you will need someone to talk to about your crapy advisor (hopefully only crapy in the moment and not in general), you will need someone to talk to about work-life balance. You will need help, both in understanding the material, but also with dealing with life. It’s okay to ask for help for either and both of those things. They are not always mutually exclusive. (Read Amanda Palmer’s “The art of asking” and take notes! It’s an amazing book. Lean in is also good, so perhaps read both if you have the time between taking apart radios).
- Make sure you find your cheerleaders. When asking for help, you may come across some horrible people. They may judge you for needing a cry or not understanding the subtleties of magnetohydrodynamics. They are not your cheerleaders. You have now learned to not approach them for help, and move on to another source if you can. If they happen to be a professor, your advisor, a referee, or someone on your committee, you may not be able to completely ignore them, but find someone else who can help and may be able to give advice on how to approach them. I know one guy that they only way to get him to help is to essentially start with “wow what you are doing is so amazing! I could never understand it. In fact, I’m a bit confused on this part.” Eventually, he explains the subject, and I’ve seen him sometimes even get to a point where a person leads him to understand that his views are not correct. It’s a lot of effort on your end, but it gets you where you need to go.
- Put yourself up for awards, committees, talks ect. even if you don’t feel qualified for them! Turns out a lot of guys do this. Why shouldn’t you? You’re smart, your personable (even if some of those same guys try to say that you’re not... often it’s just that they’re intimidated by the fact that you are smart and successful), and you are worthy. Remember that: You are worthy! And smart, and amazing and oh so much more!
- And last but not least. We are all here for you. We, this random bunch of women who work in male-dominated fields, are all here for you. The ones who have kids, and those who don’t, we are all here for you. Those who are straight, those who are transgender, those who are gay, we are all here for you. Those who have succeeded to the highest ranks, and those who have failed and those who have given up to move into a different field, we are all here for you.* If you ever, ever, and I mean ever, have a doubt, a concern, a question: we are here for you, you just have to ask. And please never ever feel afraid to ask.
Good luck and I know that you will succeed in whatever you decided to do,
The girl who was you in high school
*There are some women jerks too, but they’re jerks so ignore them and remember the rest of us are all here to be supportive of you!