How I Defied Expectations to Become a Female Scientist

2017-07-28 03:11:23

“Science is not good for girls,” my high school teacher, Mr. Sun, once told me. By that age, I could read between the lines enough to understand what he meant: “Girls suck at science.” “Which is probably true,” my girlfriends agreed. “Just think about all the famous scientists: Galileo, Newton, Einstein… Do any of them look like girls to you?”

I grew up in a middle-class family in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province in eastern China. During my kindergarten and elementary school years, I studied dance and drawing after class, like most girls I knew. I liked my science classes, though I was not particularly strong in them. By high school, I was hesitant to pursue my interests, and Mr. Sun convinced me to forgo science and focus on liberal arts as I began preparing for China’s rigorous college entrance exam, the gaokao.

In college, I majored in human resources, a discipline my dad thought suitable for a girl. Then I applied for master’s programs in the U.S. because I wanted to see what things were like outside of China, and I was accepted into the human resources program at the University of Minnesota.

For whatever reason, I ended up sitting in on an astronomy lecture in the physics building near where I took all my business classes — and it blew my mind. I learned that outside of our solar system, there are other stars being orbited by other planets, potentially with other life forms. I learned that everything around us — the bread we eat, the air we breathe, even our own bodies — is made up of matter that came from the center of a dying star, or supernova. I learned about black holes, dark matter, the Big Bang — all of which I had heard of before without knowing they were real.

I was fascinated and wanted to know more. But figuring out how to study physics and astronomy without any science background to speak of was challenging. I didn’t have scientist friends, and I had forgotten how to do math. My solution was to pore over Wikipedia entries, but I would get stuck when I came across unfamiliar terms that were not explained and did not link to new pages.

After I had moved to New York for a consulting job, I nervously emailed professor Jacqueline van Gorkom of Columbia University’s astronomy department to see if I could visit her and ask a few questions. Professor van Gorkom not only answered my questions, but also introduced me to other professors, including Jules Halpern, who was alarmed that I had been relying on Wikipedia and decided to lend me a book. I expected something like Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” but what professor Halpern gave me instead was a college textbook on quantum mechanics.

I explained to professor Halpern that I had not even studied regular mechanics. “Don’t be inhibited by such trivialities,” he replied. “You are not obliged to follow chronological order when it comes to physics.” He maintained that the most exciting scientific discoveries are occurring in the modern era, and that this should therefore be my starting point. Unlike my high school teacher, Mr. Sun, these professors didn’t seem to have any issue with me being a girl.

Through much blood, sweat, and tears, I finished the quantum mechanics textbook. I was given more books to read, all of which I devoured. These books became stepping stones on a path to a magical new world I had never known. Eventually, I quit my consulting job and enrolled in the astronomy Ph.D. program at Columbia.

My parents, though puzzled, supported my career transition. In their eyes, science was a recondite but respectable pursuit. It has been interesting to see how their views have changed along with my own. They used to think girls were innately bad at science, but now they persuade our relatives who have daughters to buy science toys instead of pink dolls. Their only worry is that I will have trouble finding a husband. In China, female Ph.D.s are sometimes referred to as “the third gender”: Pigeonholed as geeky, anti-social workaholics, they are often considered undesirable for marriage.

Nonetheless, after being admitted to the program, I was fully committed to becoming a new scientist, adhering to a strict daily schedule that included reading academic journals and brushing up on my math. To clear my head, I began working out. But somehow, the more I immersed myself in science, the less I felt like a scientist. At seminars, I had trouble understanding concepts I was supposed to know. While conducting research, I made mistakes I shouldn’t have made. There were bugs in my computer code, though I couldn’t for the life of me find where they were. I soon felt that I was simply not smart enough, and my childhood fear of not being cut out for science came back to haunt me.

If I had internalized my vulnerability and not connected with like-minded peers, I might never have realized that it’s OK for scientists to be human rather than mechanical.

Reluctantly, I voiced my worries to my friend and classmate, Maria. She understood my situation right away and told me that my feelings of inferiority had a name — the “impostor syndrome” — and that they were not uncommon in academia, especially among women and minorities. After we shared our feelings with more women, we soon started holding regular meet-ups. In this safe environment, we aired our frustrations — but beyond that, we also discussed little things we could do in our everyday lives to make things better: sitting in the front row at conferences, for example, or dropping the word “stupid” from the self-deprecating, “May I ask a stupid question?”

At one point, it dawned on me that even in our casual approach to dealing with a psychological phenomenon we could all relate to, we were applying the scientific method: We saw problems, conducted research, and experimented with different ideas. If I had internalized my vulnerability and not connected with like-minded peers, I might never have realized that it’s OK for scientists to be human rather than mechanical — the way many see us or expect us to be.

One result of our ad hoc support group was that I became more open to the idea of seeking help, admitting to myself that I don’t, and can’t, know everything. I asked classmates who were coding experts to help me find the bugs in my own code. I used software to solve equations I couldn’t do by hand. When I was too shy to ask questions in front of a seminar audience, I wrote them down and asked the speaker afterward. Whenever I expected to be rebuked with a “How can you not know this already?” I received a thoughtful explanation instead.

Making human connections — something I had been ready to abandon after leaving the business world — now seemed to be equally crucial in the world of science. These days, admitting my weaknesses, overcoming my fears, and being up-front with people are what make me feel most like a scientist.

I did not fail my Ph.D. program, as I thought I might. Today, I’m a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, where I research cosmology — the birth, growth, and future of our universe, and the subject that attracted me to science in the first place. While I may still feel inadequate at times, I’ve learned to appreciate this psychological struggle, which taught me to face my own vulnerability and be more open and honest, both at work and in other areas of my life. Meanwhile, as a female scientist, I feel proud to contribute to balancing the statistics. I hope that one day, there will be so many of us that the Mr. Suns of the world will no longer steer girls away from science, but nudge them toward it.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and David Paulk.

(Header image: Sino Images/VCG)