Wednesday, March 24, 2010

a near miss: ada lovelace day contribution

this post is my contribution to ada lovelace day, which seeks to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. i tell the story of a well-known scientist who unexpectedly provided me an opportunity that i almost missed...

during my second year studying undergraduate physics at the university of cincinnati, a very accomplished and well-known particle physicist, janet conrad, came to give a colloquium. the department set up a one hour session where undergraduates could sit down and chat with her. to my surprise, i was the only one who showed up for the first 30 minutes so i had her all to myself!

at the time, i had been thinking about the possibility of detecting gravitational waves because i had recently read about a new observatory called LIGO: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, under construction in the US northwest.

i questioned her about how we could possibly design a machine to detect the energy of gravitational waves when the force of gravity is so weak! i mean, the earth is really huge and creates enough gravity for me to be confident that i will never fly off its surface. and yet i can pick up my cup from the table without much effort at all, even though earth always pulls the cup towards it. gravity is such a weak force, how can we detect it?

she explained that the gravity created by two very massive objects orbiting each other, like supermassive black holes or neutron stars, cause ripples in spacetime that will be faintly detectable with LIGO's laser interferometers. the detectors act like microphones that turn gravitational waves into electric signals. i was fascinated and grateful to her for patiently answering all my questions, even though i didn't really understand the details. eventually, other students joined us and i had to give up her complete attention.

she didnt work on the LIGO project, she actually worked on the Booster Neutrino Experiment (BooNE) which is designed to tell whether the fundamental particles called neutrinos have mass. she hired students each summer to work with her group testing detectors for the BooNE project which is located at the fermilab national accelerator laboratory in chicago, illinois, USA. the image above shows her with one of the photomultiplier tube detectors.

to my pleasant surprised, at the end of the session she suggested i work there during the upcoming summer. i felt flattered and politely thanked her, even though, internally, i was not thrilled about the idea of doing particle physics instead of astronomy.

a couple weeks later, i received an email from her saying that there was a summer job opportunity at fermilab and asking me if i was interested in it. after thinking about it for a day, i decided to turn down her offer. i worried that i would offend her with my response and felt bad about passing up this position that she created and directly offered to me! but, i emailed her apologetically, thanked her for the offer, and admitted that i really wanted to do astronomy if possible and i wasnt completely excited about particle physics.

well......!! she responded immediately by email and in an almost joking tone, she clarified that she knew i was more interested in astronomy and that the position she was offering was not to work with her! instead, she had talked to the director of the sloan digital sky survey (SDSS), who she was in direct contact with because the SDSS headquarters is also located at the fermilab facility! she said she recommended me as a summer student for the SDSS and i should email him to get information about the possible position!

open mouth; insert foot.

holy crap! what an opportunity i almost passed up! and i am SO thankful to her for her persistent encouragement and endurance in dealing with my idealistic and stubborn young self.

i thanked her profusely, and went on to spend two excellent summers in chicagoland completely immersed in the workings of a professional astronomy organization, and an incredibly influential one at that!

a successful particle physicist really went out of her busy way to give me an opportunity and i am eternally grateful. i rarely saw her at fermilab during my time there. she gave me a tour of the facility they were building, but that was really our only contact, ever again. i didnt recognize it at the time, but i've come to see her as a mentor and strong influence in my career choices. she was very respected in her field, which is hugely male-dominated, and yet she was a confident mixture of kind, strong, knowledgeable, and approachable. i was impressed.

i hope to be as attentive to enthusiastic young people who i come across during my time, and try to encourage them as much as possible.


Nick Monks said...

Geez, Amanda...that's inspirational to me, and I'm a *guy*. Go lady scientists, go!

southaustinhillbillies said...

Ha! The difference in personalities..i am inspired more by being told something can't be done! And as a woman in a male dominant field, i suspect you have a wee bit of that yourself..well done Ms. Pixie.

Big Mark 243 said...

This was a really awesome story. You never know when you have met the 'right person'. Opportunity comes to many of us in forms we don't recognize... and I do think that for the determined few, opportunity is smart enough to recognize us!!

Jimmy P said...

I'm glad to see that you got those 30 minutes alone with her, but said to see that you were the only one to show up during those 30 minutes. I have a nephew who got a telescope for Christmas and I try to help him out by sending him magazine subscriptions and books. I just wish that I could get all my nieces as fired up as he is about it! Thanks for the inspiration!

Steve Hall said...

What a great story, and tribute! You should know that this blog (and your work with 60 Symbols) are reasons you're my personal honoree for Ada Lovelace Day!

(I even tweeted as much.)