Female scientists: not martyrs, but heroes.

Last week I attended the APS March meeting in New Orleans, and there was a session in honor of the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie, in which we had talks on Marie Curie’s life, as well as lively discussions on the challenges faced by women in physics today. Professor Emerita Ruth Howes gave an incredibly inspiring and entertaining talk about Marie Curie. With the title “Marie Curie: physicist and woman” Professor Howes showed us a side of Marie that, at least I, was not aware of. The way her story was told and the details I learned about her life made me feel closer to her, not only as the pioneer she was but as a woman: the mischievous pranks of that summer in the countryside, her horror at being underprepared for the Sorbonne, the persecution of the French media when her affair with Langevin was discovered. During that talk, somehow Marie gained a new dimension, outside the well-defined outline of her scientific life. I realized this is something I had felt missing before, in the biographies of trailblazing women in science. We usually put so much emphasis in highlighting the difficulties they overcame, their hard work, their scientific discoveries, that we end up making them so perfect that is hard for girls today to identify with them. Their brilliance is an inspiration, even more so when you consider the injustices they faced, but I believe we should remind ourselves, that they were women just like us, with their personal struggles and failures. They were not one-of-a-kind martyrs, but heroes that we can emulate today.

Professor Howes

As a woman and a physicist, it bothers me that other girls and women might not feel welcome in the field. We still need to overcome challenges until we are in a position of equality with our male colleagues, and I (as am sure many others like me) often think about what is the best way in which I can contribute. There is an ever-growing community of scientists (both men and women) who champion equal opportunities and put in place programs that help this effort. Our greatest strength is our community, the mentors who help and champion students and young scientists, the role models that increase representation in the field and encourage new generations.

We want to shine the spotlight on the achievements of female scientists, in particular, those that have had to overcome particularly dire circumstances. But I think we should be careful that we don’t portray them as superhumans who have succeeded where no other person could, as by doing so we risk intimidating the same people we want to encourage. Science should not be the field of the brave but of the interested. We want to inspire young minds, and we want all the young people interested to feel they have a place in the scientific community.

I loved watching the film “Hidden figures” and one of the things I enjoyed the most was the companionship and support the women offered each other. And I loved it not only because it was inspirational and emotive, but because this is a part of my experience as a female scientist that I don’t see highlighted often. Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner, they all had to face challenges on their own, but nowadays we have an extraordinary community of women doing scientific research, championing each other and looking for ways of levelling the playing field in the sciences. During my research in quantum computing, I’ve met incredibly smart, kind and all-around amazing women, some of whom I’m now lucky to call my closest friends. As female scientists of 2017, we still have challenges, but we are no longer alone.

Some groups and resources for women in physics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you

The first time I read this sentence was on the cover of a notebook, I love motivational stationary and this one caught my attention. It differed from other inspirational sayings in that it didn’t encourage believing in yourself but rather working on yourself. Later, when reading Eric Barker’s blog, of which I am a long term fan, I learnt that this was advice given by Steve Martin to aspiring performers. I am, no longer, a performer, but have since made it a motto of my own work. I find that whenever I’m demotivated, it gives a tangible goal, as it forces me to ask myself what can I do to become a better physicist and whatever that is, I do. It also shows a defiant attitude toward preconceptions and restrictions imposed from outside, but one that is intended to prove them wrong. It will make you become the dark horse of your work endeavours.

Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor in Computer Science and blogger of Study Hacks, wrote a book of the same title. The book’s goal is to identify the steps one can take to build a successful career. It analyses the careers of a number of people, both successful and failed, and finds what were the steps taken in each case that determined the career’s fate. One of the first things that got me interested in the book, is the rejection of the “courage culture”- people who promote the idea that the only thing standing between you and your goal (in this case your dream career) is yourself, and all it takes is for you to believe in yourself and build up the courage to step off the expected path. I have always been suspicious of the belief that all it takes is courage, for any situation, and much more with respect to a career path. First of all, because many endeavours won’t succeed unless we have a background set of skills that can help our bid, but mostly because I don’t believe most things come easy, it’s resolve and hard work what makes them possible. I believe in research, preparation, planning and effort. It is true that in many cases, talent plays a big role, but I’ve never regarded natural ability as the ultimate deciding factor. I wouldn’t be running if that was the case 🙂

I must say, however, that some amount of believing in yourself and your abilities is necessary, as otherwise, one might fall sick with “imposter syndrome”, so common in academia. In my opinion, the motto “be so good they can’t ignore you” can be used to soothe such feelings, as a survey of one’s worked-for abilities should put at ease any feelings of inadequacy. But, we won’t speak any more of imposter syndrome here, as that deserves a whole other post by itself. Let’s turn our attention instead to Newport’s 4 rules that can help us build a fulfilling working life.

Don’t follow passion: We are told time and time again to follow our passion: “do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life”. It’s one of those inspirational sayings we see everywhere and what makes Steve Job’s  commencement address so popular that it has more than 24M views on youtube. However, it is not useful advice for someone unsure about which career is best for them. I’m sure you have experienced before surprise at enjoying something you didn’t think you would. By solely advocating to pursue the things you *know* you like, there are many other enjoyable endeavours that are left out. Moreover, there is little evidence that people have pre-existing passions and this kind of approach to finding a fulfilling work life can lead to a lot of unhappiness. “Choosing your career should not be treated as finding your true calling.

Have the mentality of a craftsman: Instead of focusing on whether the jobs fulfills any dream-job fantasies we may have, we should focus on the value that we offer, enjoy the process of the work and be proud of the output generated. This is, of course, easier said than done. When our focus shifts to what we produce, the goal becomes much clearer: improve the outcome of our work. To do that, we must engage in deliberate practice, which is the style of difficult practice that is required to improve in a task. It is the kind of practice that will involve learning new techniques, practice for hours and continually face our ignorance. It is the difference between a master and a middle of the pack. It requires that we stretch beyond what is comfortable and we are willing to accept ruthless criticism. Most of us have experienced this kind of practice when going through the educational system and trying to come to grips with the material we didn’t understand. However, once we are out of education, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so, because we are not forced to, and because it’s easier to tell ourselves we have too much email. But forcing ourselves to engage in deliberate practice will increase our abilities and help us become so good that we will get noticed.

Leverage skills to obtain more control: Some people enjoy tremendous freedom and control over their working life, while others don’t. It begs the question: why do they get those perks? In most cases, those people have rare and valuable skills, that are so priced by their employers, that they can leverage them to their advantage. That is what Newport calls “career capital”. Through deliberate practice, those people have built up career capital – a valuable set of skills that allows them to trade them for more control of their own working life. However, attaining control is tricky. If it is attained before we have enough career capital to make it sustainable, we will fail, but also, once we have built enough career capital, we might face a pushback from the very people we have become invaluable to, they might try to prevent change that benefits us and not them. So how can we decide if a bid for more control is the right step to take? Newport’s law of financial viability: “When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your working life, ask yourself whether people are willing to pay you for it. If so, continue. If not, move on.”

Find a mission: “A career mission is an organising purpose to your working life”. Finding a mission can be condensed in two actions: doing a series of little bets to scout out different ideas that might succeed, and having the mindset of a marketeer, i.e. being able to identify why some ideas catch while others fall flat. True missions require a specific lifestyle: patience to build career capital as well as being constantly searching for the next big idea. These ideas tend to lie in the space just beyond the cutting edge of a field, which has been referred to as the “adjacent possible”. Identifying these big ideas requires dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas. But how can we figure out if a chosen mission is likely to succeed? The answer is given by Newport’s law of remarkability: “For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

Reading this book made me have a different perspective on the career decisions that lead me to where I am now. I can see how hard work and little bets allowed me to move forward and I can also see the mistakes I made. I found the book very compelling because it gives me a framework that will help me achieve a fulfilling career, it gives me tools to achieve that desire rather than just the inspiration. Also, Newport relates his personal journey as a researcher and what deliberate practices he engages on, as well as how he develops his career mission. These are practices I can directly apply myself to grow as a physicist. While reading I felt I couldn’t wait to put this framework in practice, this blog is a result of that.