This episode turns the table on the Spark Science interview process. WWU Women in Physics students Grace Eliason and Megan McAndie interview their WWU Physics professors, Dr. Kristen Larson & host Dr. Regina Barber DeGraaff.
We talked about family life, paths to physics, being yourself in physics courses, historic women in STEM and what our experiences are as a woman in the physics department at WWU.
Please enjoy this fun and personal episode.
Image credit: Women in Physics – Jessica Reyna
Click Here for Transcript
>> Here we go!
[♪ Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ♪]
♪ Neutron, proton, mass defect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant
♪ Mass spectrograph, pure electron volt, atomic energy erupting
♪ As I get all open on betatron, gamma rays thermo cracking
♪ Cyclotron and any and every mic
♪ You’re on trans iridium, if you’re always uranium
♪ Molecules, spontaneous combustion, pow
♪ Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight
♪ I’m every element around
Dr. Regina Barber DeGraaff: This is Spark Science and I’m Regina Barber DeGraaff. We recorded the following show with my first ever research advisor, Dr. Kristen Larson. I met her when I was 17 years old at Western Washington University where we both now work. The other two guests are students from WWU who also have worked with Dr. Kristen Larson. This show is basically a generational science group. Sadly, one of the students, Megan, had to leave for class soon into the recording, so you’ll only be able to hear her insights in the first part of the show.
This episode is a great one, but it also contains serious themes. We want to make sure our listeners know there are mental health resources available to them. One is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day every day. Another is the Crisis Text Line, which you can text “connect” to 741-741 from anywhere in the US any time about any type of crisis. We at Spark Science recognize how difficult it can be to struggle with mental health and we hope that these resources help those in need of them.
Now, back to our show.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
I’m here with physics student Grace Eliason, president of the Women in Physics Club, Megan McAndie (and also a follow physics student), and my mentor and now colleague in the physics department, Dr. Kristen Larson. So, welcome on our show! This is the first time you’ve been the show, right?
Dr. Kristen Larson: I’m very excited. Thank you.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah! Grace and Megan approached me and said, “Let’s talk about what it’s like to be a woman in physics and let’s do it on May the 4th because of May the Fourth be with you.”
Grace: WIP you.
Dr. DeGraaff: Whip you?
Grace: WIP? Women in Physics!
Dr. DeGraaff: Ohhh, okay. I don’t get jokes. [Laughing.] I wanted to talk about, you had a question for us, and it was, I think the first was kind of like, how did you get into physics and what was that experience like? So before we get into that, I want to ask you two, how did you get into physics?
Grace: I went to… I was very lucky. I actually had a physics program at my high school, and it went not only with regular physics, but also honors physics and then AP physics. It was taught by our drama coach. And so I had a very close relationship with the drama coach already and he convinced me to take physics ‒ honors physics right out of chemistry. And we did an independent study of optics on top of just doing basic physics principles. And then we also read Stephen Hawking’s book on the side, A Brief History of Time and analyzed that. And we also did some college experiments. And it was just the greatest class. He got us all addicted to coffee. It was really fun.
Dr. DeGraaff: As teenagers?
Grace: As teenagers, it was great. And then I did AP physics and I don’t know. I always found I could use the math and enjoy the math through that and enjoy the concepts.
Dr. DeGraaff: Your physics professor ‒ physics teacher in high school was also the drama teacher.
Grace: He actually left to go get his Master’s in theatre because I think he already had his Master’s in physics.
Dr. DeGraaff: That totally opens the door up to the question that I had for Megan, too, because I know you really like art and photography and so, I wanna hear your story. Does that have anything to do with art and getting into sciences?
Megan: When I was in high school, I also had an AP physics class, and that’s where I had first taken physics. But I came to Western because I wanted to do biochem and I took my first chemistry class and was like, “Wow, I hate this, that’s for sure!” And I remember being in high school and like, really‒
Dr. DeGraaff: Nothing wrong with chemistry! Just, it’s not for everybody.
Megan: Nothing wrong, I just don’t like it. I remember in high school really enjoying physics, and it was my physics teacher who actually graduated from Western, so, you know, he was probably taught by one of you. I just remember, like, feeling really empowered in that class, like I could achieve and do all these fun, smart things. And so that’s what made me want to do physics here. I loved everything being kinda like universally symbolic. You can solve any problem, really.
I also wanted to become a photographer. That was also my backup dream, like, hey, that would be really cool. I was really bummed that I couldn’t do both here. Like, getting a double major in art and physics I think would’ve been too much to handle, but right now I’m doing the minor, the STEAM minor. It’s anthropology, engineering, art. It’s been great, though, because sometimes the major can be really hard, and then I have a photography class, right? So where it’s like, another part of one of the classes that I have to do, means I need to go outside. I need to go outside in nature and take some pictures. So it’s like a way for me to force myself to relax.
Dr. DeGraaff: I know I was talking to you two and you were interested, because I was a student here and Dr. Larson was my professor. I am who I am now because I have her to bounce ideas off of, and she was always very ‒ you were always very supportive, even if I was a little crazy as a teenager. But, how did you get into science?
Dr. Larson: So I went to a small Catholic school that was K – 8, and the 8th grade teacher was a biologist. So, she covered all the chapters in the 8th grade book that had anything even remotely to do with biology. She had some time to kill, so she said, “Why don’t you read one of the other chapters?” The kids could pick their own chapter and then she would tear out the little test that came with the textbooks.
The chapter I read was on ‒ I think it was on mechanical advantage, like how a lever works, basically, and why a ramp is easier than just lifting something straight up. It said that a screw is just a ramp wrapped around a tiny pole, and my mind was blown. I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever heard in my entire life. And so, I, you know, and I said, “What’s this?” and somebody told me it’s physics. And I said, “Great. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
So, I went to high school where they taught physics to freshmen, which I actually think is how it should be done. I mean, look, biology’s really hard, chemistry’s really hard, and physics is more fundamental. But it meant it was physics with no math. I had a really cool teacher, though. He also had us do independent study things on mapping, I think it was where the moon is in the sky and then figuring out ‒ basically doing a coordinate change. You could show that the moon’s going around the Earth. It was this kind of stuff. I loved it. The day that he talked about waves, we came in and there’s sand everywhere and he’s playing The Beach Boys and wearing his Hawaiian shirt. Like, that’s the kind of cool guy he was.
So then I took biology and chemistry. So then I went to college. I actually declared myself, too, as a biochemistry major. I took one chemistry class and said, “No, not for me.” And I loved physics, and I got into this Physics for Physics Majors. It was brand new and I just heard about it through the grapevine and I took it and I got my butt kicked hardcore because everyone else had taken AP physics. And so I didn’t really know what was going on. I had taken calculus in high school, thank goodness. I had to drive to a high school across town to find where it was offered, but I stayed and I liked it.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if someone had told me that what I was studying was mechanical engineering. But I don’t think ‒ my parents are both first generation college student and I don’t think they would have known to say that.
I wanted to stay over ‒ like people often do ‒ stay in town for the break after my sophomore year. And I started just going down the list alphabetically of physics professors. And the first person ‒ because I had not a single job skill to my name, right? And the first person who went, “Yeah. That’s Amber’s student. Okay,” happened to be an astronomer.
Dr. DeGraaff: I grew up here and I went to Western and I really liked astronomy. I would get astronomy magazines at home, you know, as a 16-year-old reading astronomy magazine. I helped with the planetarium. And then I met Dr. Larson, here ‒ Kristen. I wanted to do astronomy; I didn’t want to do physics. I didn’t even know what physics was. Like, I literally did not know what physics was.
I took physics at community college because I did Running Start. Here in Washington, you can do your last two years of high school at community college and it’s paid for. I didn’t have AP physics at our school, either, and I didn’t really ‒ I will say this ‒ I didn’t really like physics. I liked astronomy, but I knew that there was no astronomy major here, so you had to do physics. So I just was like, “I’ll just do this.” And after many years of brainwashing, I started to like physics.
I like it a lot, now. But at the time, it was ‒ I mean, it was hard for me. When you said that you liked the symbolism ‒ you liked that you could do this all symbolically, and it doesn’t matter what numbers it is ‒ you can change the numbers, but it’s gonna be like the same setup. The setup was really hard for me. It was really, really a new way of thinking, it was a new way of problem-solving.
I was a good student in Lynden because I was good at memorizing. I was good at inputting information, having it stay there for two weeks, and then it leaving. It really kicked my butt my first quarter, here. I did not great. It took me a very long time to get my mind to actually problem-solve; to actually ask why instead of just “tell me the answer.”
Grace: If you don’t mind my asking, both of you, what was your path after you got your BSs and then your Master’s, PhD… what exactly was the path?
Dr. Larson: Yeah, so, after college, I stayed there and worked one more year at the university, partly because I had not been accepted into graduate school, but I wasn’t really ready, either. I made that classic mistake of asking the professors I really liked for letters of recommendation. Like, my freshman, when I finally started passing the classes on my own and getting it figured out, I really liked that professor! Of course, he didn’t really remember me. And then I, in my senior year, I started doing research work, so I had better letters and I was smarter about where I applied.
But anyway, I pretty much after that one year went right to graduate school. I stayed in graduate school through the PhD. In fact, when Gina [Dr. DeGraaff] first met me in ’98, I did not have my PhD yet. I had just gotten married, and my husband got a faculty job here at Western. And so, I came along. In the attic of our house down in Happy Valley, I finished writing my PhD thesis. I had an office and a computer that they gave me, here, and I would wear these little suits so I looked like a professor.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yep. I would also wear ties, at the time.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, we were trying to look the part, I think. And I’m sure at the time Gina thought I was this old lady, but I was‒
Dr. DeGraaff: No!
Dr. Larson: I look back on it now and I was incredibly young.
Dr. DeGraaff: You were, like, 28 years old!
Dr. Larson: I didn’t know ‒ I was 27 years old. So I finished and I defended my thesis in February of 1999 and came right back and in April I started teaching cosmology for the physics department. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s a pretty nontraditional career path because I didn’t have work in industry and I didn’t have a post-Doc. And a lot of people do the Master’s degree at one institution, PhD in another, and I just sorta special education through.
Dr. DeGraaff: And I remember talking to Kristin when I was younger and she was saying, “You don’t need a post-Doc!” You didn’t at the time! A post-Doc, for our listeners and our viewers, is this job that you basically get after you finish your PhD. And you’re paid a little bit more than a grad student but less than a professor, and it’s still kinda this limbo time where you’re still just doing research, but you’re a little bit more on your own than you would be if you were a grad student.
And I never did that and, because for my path was that after I ‒ I left here, at Western. Again, it was professors I thought I liked and liked me. I would ask them and one of them said, “Why are you going to grad school?” and I said, “Well, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” And that was my answer! And I didn’t really — I was kinda burned out towards the end and I wasn’t the greatest student.
But, I went to San Diego State, and I went to a Master’s program. And you were saying a lot of people do Master’s in one place and PhD, but actually now, you just go to grad school and you don’t really do it at two different places. I got a terminal Master’s, which is a Master’s ‒ there’s no further path at that institution; there’s no PhD.
Dr. Larson: They don’t let you just stay and get your PhD.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah, you can’t stay. It’s more of people in industry, but I wasn’t in industry; I just got a Master’s. Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it helped me build my confidence and my skills in physics and, like I said, get into that mind frame of actually problem-solving that I wasn’t really confident in here at Western.
And then I got my PhD. My advisor moved away my first two years, so my first two years in grad school, he moved jobs, so I had to move and I finished my PhD remotely, not at an institution but basically in my bedroom on my computer. And I had to get another job because funding ran out, so I taught at a high school and I taught freshman physics at a private school and taught at Bellevue Community College. Some of that was actually some overlap. Yeah, it was hard and I had no confidence to get a post-Doc. I was like, “I just need to get a job.”
So, worked at Bellevue, and then I’m here now, at Western. But I’m still this ‒ I’m a different kind of professor because I didn’t do a post-Doc and because I don’t do research.
Dr. Larson: Gina and I were somewhat, can I say constrained by our family situations?
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah!
Dr. Larson: I mean, in the sense ‒ I mean constrained in a good way. Can I say that?
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah.
Dr. Larson: You know, I wasn’t really willing to pick up and move my husband, you know? A lot of people will do the early phases of their career separated from their spouse or partner, and I just wasn’t willing to do that. And so, I think in previous generations, a lot of women’s careers were pieced together around their husbands’ careers. That’s less true now. But for me, my choices ‒ I made other choices in my life that constrained my professional choices.
Dr. DeGraaff: I would add to that. When my advisor left and he went to Victoria, so this is in Canada, my husband’s a lawyer, so he can’t just practice law in another country. I couldn’t be like, “Sure, I’ll go to Victoria, now, too.” So we kind of had to do this compromise in Seattle where my husband found a job and then I could travel to Victoria on a regular basis.
But also, my husband’s very willing. If I got a job in Victoria or got a job in China or got a job in New Jersey, he would follow. He’s always said that. “I’ll follow you wherever you wanna go.”
Dr. Larson: Mine not so much.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah. But do I wanna do that to him? Would I even be happy in New Jersey or in the middle of China or in Victoria? I don’t think I would be. To say we are constrained for me, it’s more nuanced. I put my happiness over my career and a lot of people say that their career does make them happy. I don’t want to live separately from my husband and now that we have a kid, I don’t wanna move somewhere where she’s not gonna be happy.
Grace: Did you get married and whatnot during your PhDs, or…? Because you said you did.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, I did. We met in graduate school. I think the average age for marrying in the United States is 28, 26, 27, something like that?
Dr. DeGraaff: I think it’s more high ‒ it’s like 28 right now.
Dr. Larson: Which is right smack in the middle of graduate school, so the only people you know are other graduate students.
Dr. DeGraaff: [Whispers.] Oh, no!
Dr. Larson: So, some huge fraction of women with a PhD in physics are married to someone who has a PhD, as well, and a huge fraction of those have a PhD in physics. So, my husband has a PhD in engineering. So I think a lot of women end up in that situation, and a lot of women are a couple years younger than their husbands, right? So my husband has always been a little ahead of me with the career, you know?
Dr. DeGraaff: And applying to jobs and stuff like that.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, so he’s making a little bit more money than me and all these kinds of things, which makes it a little ‒ which makes it more difficult, at least in the beginning, for me to go, “Hey. Let’s pick up and now go follow just my job, my careers, and things like that.”
I know people who do all kinds of things. I know folks who got married as undergrads and had their kids in graduate school and, you know, by the time they got a faculty position, their kids were in high school. And then I know lots of folks who got married and had kids after they got tenure, so they’re up against their fertility clock at the other end, you know? So a lot of people ‒ people make the choices that are best for them.
Dr. DeGraaff: I think we’re gonna take a break soon because my story is quite long. We’re gonna take a break, and when we come back I’ll tell you about my family situation, but I also wanna talk ‒ I wanna bring us back to, we’re all talking about our physics teachers, and they’re all dudes, right? So let’s talk about when was the first time you actually had that female professor and what was that like? So we’re gonna talk about that when we come back from our break.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Early late at night
♪ I wander off into a land
♪ You can go, but you mustn’t tell a soul
♪ There’s a world inside
♪ Where dreamers meet each other
Dr. DeGraaff: Welcome back to Spark Science, where we’re talking about Women in Physics and I’m here with my Women in Physics colleagues here at Western Washington University, Grace Eliason and Dr. Kristen Larson. And we stopped our conversation before the break talking about what were our stories of our family lives as we’re getting into physics and how does that affect our career. I said that mine was kinda long, so I’m gonna try to be as quick as possible, because I think I’ve actually said this on previous shows.
My husband and I met in high school and I was 14 and he was 17. The first time I ever saw him, I was walking to band with my friend, Nate, and we were alto sax players, and he ‒ this kid came out of nowhere and shoved my friend Nate into a closed locker. And I was like, “Why does Benji hate you?” ‘Cos, and they were like ‒ and my friend goes, “That’s not Benji.” Which, Benji was a kid that, in our grade, looks exactly like Jake. And he’s like, “That’s Jacob DeGraff. He’s my friend.” And I’m like‒ [hums uncertainly]
And, so, that’s the first day of high school. That’s what happened. He’s very nice. He’s a very nice man. And he went to Western; I went to Western. We got married a week after I graduated. We’re still together. This November will be 23 years. He is not a science major. And he is actually made fun of by other physics majors that he wasn’t a science major constantly. And he is a nice enough, quiet enough man, that at least he pretended it didn’t bother him. I see a lot of people in our fields, like you said, who are in the sciences and they try to get dual hires and it’s really difficult.
So, we were talking about representation and we wanna talk about, like ‒ I think if we talk about family, it does affect women I think more than men because of our society, but it still does affect men. But what were our role models going into physics? You had two male teachers. When was the first time you had a female professor dealing with physics or dealing with the sciences?
Grace: Yeah. Physics 161, 162, and 163, and it was the best class. And it’s so funny, because 161 and 162 ‒ it’s a large classroom.
Dr. DeGraaff: So let’s tell our listeners. You’re talking about physics first year with calculus here at Western.
Grace: Every year it’s about, I wanna ‒ I don’t wanna say 100, but‒
Dr. Larson: 70.
Grace: 70 people in a classroom and it’s kind of overwhelming, and I really did want to be a physics major and I had kind of been introduced to the topics before but I was having an issue because it just didn’t feel super personable and personalized because there were so many people. But in 163, you had, like, the greatest demonstrations. You made everyone feel like they were part of something bigger and they were part of this.
My favorite day in that class is when you came in and it was actually really tragic because someone had just attempted to commit suicide in the building itself and you spoke about mental health. Even as a young person in college feeling like, you know, a small fish in a big pond, I felt like you were directly talking to every individual in that room. It was so touching and it was so beautiful and the first thing I thought was, like, “I have to do research with her. I don’t care what she does.” And then I went to you and you were like, “Oh, yeah, I do stars.” And I’m like, “Cool, I’m into stars now.” So that’s good.
[Dr. DeGraaff and Dr. Larson laughing.]
Dr. DeGraaff: [While laughing.] “I’m into stars now.”
Grace: I was just ‒ I’m into it. It was just so ‒ and I don’t know if it was because, you know, you’re a woman or because whatever, but it was just so, so emotional and so inspirational and I just can’t even believe that I’m so lucky to get to research with you and that our department’s just so open and so loving and so full of women. We have about, what, one third female staff?
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah.
Grace: Along that? What was it like when you were the only female staff?
Dr. Larson: Well, there’s a lot of things, gosh, are coming to mind. Thank you very much for that, Grace. I’m teaching that class right now and I’m not sure I’m doing half as good a job as you just described. I actually do remember that day vividly. It took me a long time in my career to be able to speak honestly about things that were close to my heart in the class. I felt that I had to be more masculine than masculine, in many ways. It just took me a long time. I said something once to a student. I said, “Well, I don’t want to interject myself into the class.” And the person said, “You interject yourself into the class every day.”
Dr. Larson: You know? So, it’s taken me a long time to say things like that in class. And I remember that day, and I got to college in 1989. One of the reasons why we didn’t see a lot of women is because through maybe, I don’t know, the ’60s, some universities wouldn’t hire a married couple. They weren’t allowed. There were nepotism rules that they couldn’t hire them into the same department. So there are Nobel Prize winners who could not get a job.
One of them came to UCSD, which was a brand new university at that time in the ’60s or whenever. Mayer Hall, they, uh, Maria Geoppert Mayer, they hired her because the University of Chicago wouldn’t, but even then they hired one of them in the chemistry and one in the physics department just so they would be allowed to do that.
If you fast-forward now, Western has a policy for dual career couples.
Dr. Larson: Yeah. It’s written. There’s, like, forms, you know, the whole thing about trying to do what we can, which is not a lot, but do what we can to accommodate that. So, that’s all happened in one generation. A lot of women from the ’30s and ’40s had unpaid volunteer positions. The first woman professor ‒ it might be the one who gave me that summer job. Her name is Barbara Jones. She is an astronomer. I was very, very fortunate as a senior. I got to take a class from Sally Ride, who is ‒
Dr. DeGraaff: [Whispering.] Very cool.
Dr. Larson: Yeah! It was super awesome. It was plasma physics, which I love, because frankly she could have taught the physics of cardboard boxes and I would have loved it.
Dr. DeGraaff: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Dr. Larson: Yes.
Dr. DeGraaff: Just for our listeners.
Dr. Larson: And phenomenal teacher. Phenomenal teacher.
Dr. DeGraaff: Really?
Dr. Larson: Yeah.
Dr. DeGraaff: Of course she is!
Dr. Larson: Really, really good.
Dr. DeGraaff: She’s an astronaut! They can do anything.
Dr. Larson: Yeah.
Grace: It’s like when I have Melissa Rice. You’re like, “Oh my god. You’re a teacher, too?”
Dr. Larson: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. DeGraaff: So, Melissa Rice, the Steve Martin of Spark Science. [Grace laughing.] She’s been on a lot of shows.
Dr. Larson: So for the whole class, Professor Ride until the very last day of lecture, and she brought in her home movies from the shuttle. [Dr. DeGraff gasps in astonishment.] I know! It was super good. It was awesome.
Dr. DeGraaff: And she’s like, “I know you like my class.”
Grace: Yeah, I know. So fangirling over here. I’m gonna freak out.
Dr. Larson: Yeah. It was really, I mean, I guess I didn’t have that many female professors. I didn’t have any in graduate school, either. But there were enough that I had people that I could look up to.
Dr. DeGraaff: So, for me, I mean, there was an actual good amount of science teachers in Lynden who are female. For me, growing up in Lynden, I felt there was way more racism than there was sexism. And, I mean, I was basically ‒ I didn’t ever feel like I was a woman because I wasn’t white. And like, that was very clear. If you’re a woman, you have to be white.
I remember up until this day I have workshops where they’re like, women in science workshops, and they’re like, “Write down things about yourself,” and I almost never write down “woman” because I never think about that. Because it was always, in my mind, associated with a race. Growing up, I haven’t had one woman of color be my professor except for a language class, Chinese professor, and even then she tag-teamed with a white woman who was teaching Chinese. So, like, I’ve never had one. And I’ve actually never had a professor who was a person of color except for a summer language course where it was a Hispanic male. He tag-teamed with his white, female wife.
I will take that back. There was an Indian from India professor when you were here, Ajit Rupaal. For me, being a woman in physics, I never thought of it as much as I do as a person of color in physics. It just hits me a lot harder, I think. But in my old age, I start to realize things that have happened to me that were sexist and were because I was a woman, but I just never saw it because there was that other looming identity that was hitting me so hard.
I don’t know if you’ve experienced that, too, the other identities you all have, or if you’ve heard of that before, if you’ve seen it in our fields.
Grace: We’re so lucky. We’re little baby children and we have hardly any problems. You know? We go into the study and we feel like we’re at home, and if someone doesn’t feel like they’re at home, we’re bothered by that. And we don’t like that because we’re a really tight-knit community.
Dr. DeGraaff: You’re talking about the physics study here at Western.
Grace: Yes, the physics study here at ‒ I should be more specific. The physics study here at Western. I don’t know if it’s just our class or whatever it is. It just feels like you have the support and you have the ability to collaborate and you have the ability to do it without hesitation and without fear. I don’t know if that’s because of the creation of the Women in Physics club about, like, six years ago. I don’t know if it’s because we have professors of color, female professors, just…
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah.
Grace: What was it like when ‒ I guess before there was a Women in Physics club.
Dr. DeGraaff: There was a physics club. I was the president of it my senior year. Again, I was so, I think I was so naive, too. I think that, again, I came from this town that was very, very hard. I had to deal with kind of that stuff. And because it wasn’t that bad at Bellingham, there were things that I just let wash over me. So I didn’t let a lot of things stick. And as Kristen knows, I was a very, very cocky, conceited kid. Anything that was being thrown at me, I kinda tried to deflect it. I will say that there was, you know, there was a lot of male chauvinistic things happening when I was younger, but I think it’s still there.
Dr. DeGraaff: I don’t think it’s really changed that much from when I was a student. Because in physics, men ‒ I shouldn’t say men. A lot of us are just kind of introverted nerds, you know? So I think that there is a lot of that male chauvinistic stuff, but you also have that other identity stereotype or personality of kind of quiet, introvertedness. It was all very complicated, but I don’t know. I don’t‒
Grace: Have you noticed any changes?
Dr. DeGraaff: I… Not really.
Dr. DeGraaff: But, I don’t know. With the sexism, not for me, but I will let Kristen say.
Dr. Larson: This is very interesting. I think one of the things Gina and I have in common because as I mentioned I’m not that much older than her because I was pretty young when I got to Western, too.
Grace: Neither of you ‒ you’re not old! Neither of you are old!
Dr. Larson: But I think we both put up a lot of defenses against whatever kind of vibe we might be getting that we didn’t belong. And I know that, I think that Gina and I have both been called aggressive at some point in our career. It was a way to just not let those kinds of messages in, right?
Dr. DeGraaff: Right. Deflect!
Dr. Larson: It was just about deflecting. And so one of the things I do want to say is I was very isolated coming up through my career and sometimes it was because I was the only woman and sometimes it was because the guys didn’t want to study with me. And I’m not really sure how much of that was my fault and how much of it was them, but I got used to it. I got used to not having a place I could call home, not feeling that I could collaborate. I learned the body language of men. I learned how to cuss. I learned how to sit and take up a lot of space. It’s only now, 20 years in, that I see that that was not terribly healthy for me.
So I have seen changes over the last 20 years just in the sense that I was the only woman on the faculty, and I was also younger than everyone else. Some of the things that happened to me would not happen today, I think. I had a faculty member walk past my office and come back and put his head in the door and go, “Oh, Kristen, smile!” So I was in charge of being cheerful for the guys.
Dr. DeGraaff: Because that’s your duty.
Dr. Larson: That’s my job! And I think that some things have changed and I think that in a department now where there’s a lot of women, and in fact I spoke to one of our newer faculty members who said that she came to Western because there were women in the physics department, and how quickly that has ‒ I mean, that’s within my career that has changed.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah, I guess I’ll clarify that I was thinking of the students. I was thinking of the student body and what it was like to be a student. And that’s what I mean by it didn’t change. But, yeah, I agree with you.
Dr. Larson: But I think that there are ways that people are encouraged to ask for help and support that I don’t remember that even being an option. And I remember it being ‒ if the times I did ask for help, it was embarrassing for me and the person I asked for help. You know, it was like, “Oh, my. We don’t do that here.” You know? And I think that whether it’s faculty members who sometimes, we wanna talk to another woman about, I don’t know, stuff? Right? That there are people there. That the students feel ‒ and this is only recently I think that the students feel that they can come and talk to me, because I really put up quite a wall between me and the students for a long time.
So I think that what has changed is that there is a sense that we can and should ask for help, that this is a cooperative endeavor that we’re on. What I think hasn’t changed is that the way we talk about our science and the way we do our science and the way we sort of go day-to-day, hour-to-hour has ‒ is very masculine. We get kind of a sink-or-swim strategy that, at its worst, we actually push on other people, like, “Hey. You can’t take the heat, get out of the physics kitchen.” I don’t think we should do that. I think there’s hope, that there’s change possible.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah. We’re gonna take a quick break, and when we come back I kind of wanna explore that more and who is attracted to physics and what is that personality and what is that stereotype and what are we doing to kind of break that stereotype?
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Dance in the trees
♪ Paint mysteries
♪ The magnificent droid plays there
♪ Your magic mind
♪ Makes love to mine
♪ I think I’m in love, angel
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ I gotta get back to Wondaland
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ Me thinks she left her underpants
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ I gotta get back to Wondaland
Dr. DeGraaff: Welcome back to Spark Science where we’re talking about Women in Physics with my fellow Women in Physics here at Western, physics students Grace Eliasson and Dr. Kristen Larson. We actually lost our other physics student, Megan McAndie. She had to go to class. We are recording on campus, here.
But we wanted to talk about ‒ we kind of got into this idea of the physics stereotype and what hasn’t changed and what has changed. In my mind, I view that as the stereotypical physics student haven’t really changed, but I agree that our environment and the climate has changed. But I kinda wanna go into that idea of who’s attracted to physics and who isn’t. In your opinion ‒ I’ll actually ask Grace, first. Do you see that there’s this kind of stereotypical physics student at Western? What is that? How have you experienced that?
Grace: I really haven’t. We have all types of people. We have people who are, you know ‒ I actually came from marine biology and then I switched over to physics, and I’m also a German double major. We have other people in languages. We have people who are in volleyball club and all these different ranges of interest. I think that what I expected was white men who would be very introverted, not want to work with you, not want to work with anyone, kind of sit at home and leave school immediately and just do all the work on their own. But what I’m experiencing is that, you know, we’re there every night together until 10:00pm just working on problems because we enjoy it, and obviously because it’s homework, but we actually enjoy each other’s company and we find that collaboration is the best way to succeed in this major and I think just in the future. There are still some outliers that are that exact ‒ a white man who is very introverted and likes to stay at home and stay away from the group, but that’s what I’ve experienced.
Dr. Larson: It’s interesting. As I mentioned before, I think I internalized a lot of the stereotypes and I became the stereotype. So, it’s often hard for me to separate out what’s a stereotype from what’s just my personality. I think one of the things I have noticed is that we still make it very hard for people who don’t have confidence in their own abilities. We demand that at least people fake it, and I think that that can be really hard for some people, you know? We ‒ I sort of think of it as the, “Yeah, well, obviously” attitude. And we tend to make it difficult for people who can’t do that to succeed in the discipline. So I see some of that still.
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah.
Dr. Larson: But I think that in terms of hobbies, outlook, goals, I’m seeing much more of a range of people coming in than when I was in college.
Dr. DeGraaff: And there’s a lot more students, too. I mean‒
Dr. Larson: Well that’s the other thing, yeah. So, when Gina was a student, we would have some graduating years of five, six students.
Dr. DeGraaff: Four.
Dr. Larson: Four.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, so.
Dr. DeGraaff: We were the biggest class and we were 12.
Dr. Larson: Yeah.
Dr. DeGraaff: And I think we were talking during the break about kind of the students now are so open and everyone’s so open, friendly, and we were, too. But I was kind of a very forceful “we’re all gonna study and we’re all gonna work together.” And that’s you. It varies from year to year when you have somebody who’s kind of a ringleader and kind of somebody who’s like, “We’re all gonna do this and it’s gonna break and we’re gonna be open and we’re gonna talk about these things.” It’s a really good year, but it’s not always that way, you know? You kind of need a couple people to be ‒ to help the other students, let them feel like it’s okay. It’s okay to be honest. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to work together.
Because if they’re not getting that from the other students, like Kristen was saying, there is this outer kind of pressure from academia that is like sink or swim. So I think that has gotten better over the years, but it definitely has not gotten to the point where I want it to be.
Grace: Where do you want it to be? What do you hope for in the future, like all the little future physics students running around?
Dr. DeGraaff: Yeah! I think that there ‒ my goal is to dismantle the scientist stereotype. Like, that’s my goal. And I think that I also had that stereotype going into it. Like you said, you went into it and you were expecting these people. I want it to be a time where the students that are going into the physics major aren’t expecting that. You were expecting it and then it didn’t happen, which is great. But I think it didn’t happen because of a lot of work that you did, right? And a lot of work that other people are doing.
But I think that that needs to continue and I want to be able for us as physics majors and physics professors to go outside of our department and talk to somebody in biology or talk to somebody in English and have them not have that notion in their head and have them not expect this white male who doesn’t talk to people when we say a physics professor is gonna come to their door.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, I think that stereotype is very pervasive still. My ideal would be that people come to physics because they want to work collaboratively on hard problems. So I think we still talk about these things like women in physics, but I do have social skills, or I’m in physics and I am interested‒
Grace: [Laughing.] In spite of that.
Dr. Larson: In spite of that, right? And I felt, you know, I do that all the time. I’m always sort of backpedaling. If I’m at a party I’m hesitant to say what I do for a living because people recoil in horror sometimes. You know, what if instead of we would say, “Well, people can be a physics major and an artist and those two things in parallel,” what if people said, “I wanna be a physicist and an artist and those two things are fully integrated for me, not just two facets of the same person.”
Grace: [Quietly.] Cross product.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, right? That it’s more of a dot product of those two.
Dr. DeGraaff: I agree, and I used to say this. I think I used to say this to you when I was a grad student, that you would say, “Well, I’m studying physics,” like at a party or something and the person would just be like [makes sound effect] and just like, they would just like, shut down. They wouldn’t know what to say to you next if they found out that you studied physics.
And that doesn’t happen to me as much anymore because I don’t tell them until I’ve known them for like ‒ like at the gym, I do kickboxing with people and they didn’t know for like a year what I did. And then once they found out I taught physics at Western they could still talk to me because they had been talking to me for a year. They definitely instantly became intimated. That’s the issue. I don’t want ‒ if I’m intimidating, then the physics field, you know, our whole career, academia is intimidating, and I wanna take that away. How do we do that? That’s my goal. And that’s what we try to do with this show.
Dr. Larson: Yeah. When you see in magazine articles or the newspaper, “Scientists say that blah blah blah,” or even worse, “Scientists believe that blah blah blah.” These are human beings and they are doing experiments to try and test models. When we paint them as sort of this monolithic truth generator, we don’t ‒ we neglect a lot of the truth about how physicists work, who physicists are, what our lives our like.
Grace: So, how have you been able to kind of create this safe space for yourselves throughout physics? How have you been able to be women in physics and be confident about that?
Dr. DeGraaff: I will answer that. I think Kristen’s right. I think we have to kind of step away that you need that confidence, but the problem is, you kind of do. And I came in with that confidence, right? And it’s been chipped away at. The only reason I kind of have succeeded this far I think with all the barriers is because I was so confident and almost ‒ what do I ‒ without any foundation. Like, so, like ‒ for no reason, was confident. I think the only thing that’s keeping me afloat is surrounding myself with people who also kind of believe in that confidence. So, it’s a support system. It’s me, initially, being very, very conceited, and then having friends that kind of help me with that as I go on in my career. And if I don’t have that support system, then I would be ‒ I’d be out.
Dr. Larson: Yeah, I mean, I looked for external validation for a long time in my career. Not only did I never get enough external validation to make me trust myself, that’s not possible. It’s not possible for there to be enough external sources convincing me that I belong. That had to come from within, and this is something that took me 20 years to figure out. And part of that meant taking care of myself, listening to myself, figuring out what was right for me, what I believe, what my own ideals are, and building up a community outside of physics. The older I get, the more important I think that is, actually.
We were talking during the break a little bit about advice, you know? The advice I would give people is to find those things that we are also passionate about outside of physics. I was a Women’s Studies minor. I think that was really important for me; to read and to write and to do the kinds of things I wasn’t doing in my physics classes. Megan was talking about photography and going outside and having this very other side of her ‒ of herself. That helps us build community. It helps us build a sense of ‒ a foundational sense of self, that whether or not we choose to express as bravado, we actually are centered in who we are and we value who we are.
Dr. DeGraaff: But it takes a long time to figure out who you are.
Dr. Larson: It does.
Dr. DeGraaff: I mean, I am a lot more sure of who I am in these last three years doing this show. It just takes a long time. You don’t wanna totally rely on that external support, but I think when you’re young, you kinda have to. You don’t have your sense of self yet as an undergrad. That would be my advice.
I would totally agree with Kristen. There is so much self-care that you need. It’s so easy to run yourself ragged, and especially if you’re passionate about something. If you really, really wanna become a scientist and you really love it, or you really like Women in Physics, and you really want Women in Physics the club to be successful, so you put a lot of your energy into it. It’s so easy to get burnt out and to not take a breath and say, “You know what? Today I shouldn’t do any homework and I shouldn’t do any Women in Physics stuff. I should just watch TV with my friends or go lay on the lawn or read a book or something.”
That’s why I like, you know ‒ we had my kickboxing coach on here. And I like ‒ I like going there because it’s a whole bunch of people who don’t work at Western. There’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t scientists, and they’re very good at what they do. I think as scientists and academics, we kind of forget that there’s a whole world out there.
Dr. Larson: Absolutely. It’s not about a hierarchy of what is more worthy to be passionate about and what kind of jobs are worth doing well. They’re all worth doing well. And developing a healthy respect for that?
Dr. DeGraaff: [Laughs.] Well, and‒
Dr. Larson: We don’t show it enough ‒ model this enough, and we should. We should be more open about the ways in which we take care of ourselves and take care of each other.
Dr. DeGraaff: I think so, too. And I think that, in a way, it actually does help our mission if we go out and we socialize and we integrate ourselves into the wider community and have more friends, we’re actually dismantling the scientist stereotype, because we’re scientists and they know we’re scientists, right? I mean, there was an article that I had just seen and it was stock photos of scientists and how ridiculous they are, and there was an astronomy one, and it was a guy next to a telescope and he had a lab coat on and lab goggles and he was pointing to the sky.
[Dr. Larson laughing.]
And I hope for whoever’s editing this video that they can find that image, because it said, like, “Yeah, I’m an astronomer and I’m gonna ‒ that’s space! That’s where I do science and I’m wearing a lab coat and I have goggles to look through this telescope!” It was just the most ridiculous thing, but if that’s a stock photo, that’s what we’re seen as. That’s what people outside of our fields think when they think scientist.
So I wanna thank you both for talking to me and sharing stories.
Dr. Larson: I’d like to thank the club for reaching out to make this happen. These are great conversations to have and we should have them more often.
Dr. DeGraaff: This has been Spark Science. Our show was recorded in the Digital Media Center at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Thank you for listening and watching.
[♪Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ♪]
♪ Lead, gold, tin, iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think
♪ Iodine nitrate activate
♪ Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound
♪ Balance was unbalanced then you add a little talent in
♪ Careful, careful with those ingredients
♪ They could explode and blow up if you drop them
♪ And they hit the ground
Narrator: Thanks for listening to Spark Science. If you missed any of the show, go to our website, sparksciencenow.com. If there’s a science idea you’re curious about, send us a message on Twitter or Facebook at Spark Science Now. Spark Science is produced in collaboration with KMRE, Spark Radio, and Western Washington University. Today’s episode was recorded at the Digital Media Center at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Our producer is Regina Barber DeGraaff. Our audio engineers are Natalie Moore, Andra Nordin, and Tori Highley. Production was also done by Darren Brown, Suzanne Blais, and the DMC crew. Our theme music is “Chemical Calisthenics” by Blackalicious and “Wondaland” by Janelle Monae.
[End of podcast.]