Women in Math and Science

Dr. Madeleine Msall

Madeleine Msall

Dr. Madeleine Msall

Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Photo by Professor Oliver Wright, Hokkaido University

When did you realize that you wanted to go in to Physics, and what was it that inspired you to do so?
I was slow to choose Physics. Though I took Physics in high school, I wasnít Ďscience girl.í I liked mathematics, but I really liked literature and ancient history too. When I went to college, I thought Iíd be some kind of Mathematics or Classics major. My mom was encouraging me to teach high school because she knew Math teachers were in demand.

At Oberlin, I took Physics courses for fun Ė they used lots of cool math. Around the end of my sophomore year, I realized that everyone in my physics course was a pretty serious science major and that no one took physics for fun. At the same time, I realized that I wasnít developing fluency in Ancient Greek at the same rate that I was developing physics skills. I declared a Physics major and then panicked. I took a year off from school to travel Europe and build up my courage. Once I recognized that I really was a Ďscience type,í it was hard to turn back.

What was the biggest challenge in getting where you are today, and what did you do to overcome this challenge?
The biggest challenge is staying committed when the work is hard. One of the ego building things about studying Physics is that everyone keeps telling you, ďYou must be brilliant.Ē When you get a bad test score or you embarrass yourself with a wrong answer in a meeting with a professor or when you just get tired of pushing yourself to understand, itís easy to say, ďMaybe Iím not brilliant enough for Physics.Ē In a way, all the hero worship in physics makes it easy to quit. Everyone was ready to sympathize if I decided it was all too hard. Finding people who support my continuing in physics but allow me to express how challenging it is, people who donít believe that only geniuses should do physics, helped a lot. I still have plenty of days when I think, ďMaybe Iím not smart enough for this. Maybe I donít want to keep pushing to understand.Ē Luckily, I now have a lot of people who support my life as a scientist and who remind me that I still think many parts of Physics are fun.

Can you explain the research that you do, in terms that a non-physicist could understand?
I study the thermal properties of semiconductor materials. These are the materials that are used to make all the electronic circuits for your computer and every other gadget in your home. Iím particularly interested in small scale heat transport across interfaces between two different types of material. I study this transport using very fast, laser generated, heat pulses. Although I work on the fundamental science of heat transport, I often collaborate with Engineers who are interested in applying my findings to developing better electronic circuits.

What is the best part of teaching Physics at a liberal arts college?
The best part of teaching Physics at a liberal arts college is that I am surrounded by people with a wide variety of interests. Bowdoin has a bit of a Liberal Arts/Sciences divide, but many of the science students take a passionate interest in the Liberal Arts. Itís more fun to teach people who really care about science as a cultural endeavor and actively try to connect it to art and politics. Pre-meds and Engineers tend to have a utilitarian view of science that is effective in some contexts, but much less interesting to me.

Do you have a favorite class to teach?
I teach such a variety of courses that itís hard to pick a single favorite. I guess courses with upper division majors are easiest to like because the audience is already predisposed to enjoy the course. In that category, my favorite class in Physics 301: Introduction to Experimental Physics. This is an advanced laboratory course where students learn to design and implement a research project. The variety of projects is really fun. The projects have included everything from measuring the properties of radioactive hafnium to making holograms of a toy car. Since students often choose projects in areas of physics where I have no experience, I always learn a lot in this class. Last year I learned how cosmic ray detectors work as a student built a model spark chamber and whatís inside a fuel-cell membrane as a student built a hydrogen fuel cell.

How has the role/participation of women in Physics changed since you began, and how do you envision that it will change in the future?
Sadly, the role/participation of young women in Physics has not changed much since I began to study Physics. Although the number of women who study life sciences is now slightly larger than the number of men, in the physical sciences, women students remain a minority. Thereís been incremental progress, but most students still find it exceptional for a woman to study physics. The most encouraging changes are that older women physicists are now taking leadership positions around the world. Active women leaders in industry and academia can make a big difference in the career choices perceived as appropriate for women. Political leaders can do even more. Did you know that the new chancellor of Germany is a female physicist? If Bill Clinton playing the saxophone could inspire a generation of new band members, maybe the example of Angela Merkel can change the demographics of physics.

What is your impression of Japan, in terms of opportunities for women in the sciences?
So far, I have only met one professional woman physicist in Japan and that was a very brief conversation at a conference. There are a few women Masters students in my research group who seem happy in their work, but we have not had any in depth conversations about their future plans. As an outsider, itís hard to judge the opportunities available to students, but my initial impression is that itís harder to succeed as a woman there than in the United States. I hear lots of anecdotal reports about women losing their jobs or being reassigned to less responsibility when they marry. However, the government has recently taken an interest in increasing the numbers of women in academic science, so maybe some new opportunities will open up.

Why should women pursue Physics? What is exciting and/or interesting about the field?
Like it or not we live in a technologically complex world. Technology solves some problems and introduces others. If you want to change the world, you need to be more than a consumer of technology. Studying physics helps you think critically and effectively about technological problems and solutions. There can be big rewards if you are a talented or lucky problem solver, but there are also daily small rewards as your understanding enriches your life and in the satisfaction of solving small problems.

What do you like to do for fun?
I like to travel (hence my work here in Japan and previous work in Germany), read novels and hang out with friends (including my husband and fifteen year old daughter).

What advice would you give a woman who is interested in pursuing Physics?
Donít expect instant gratification, but keep with it. You will master the subject over time and the long term rewards Ė financial security, stable employment and intellectual stimulation Ė are worth some short term pain.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
You may feel pressure to work very long hours no matter what career you choose. Itís possible to succeed in physics without being single-mindedly dedicated to work. Iíve done it. The trick is to identify your goals for work and life and try to keep them in balance. Sometimes you do have to run a 24-hour experiment, but most times you shouldnít have to work through the weekend. If you want to be a superstar, this may not be true; superstars tend to be a bit obsessive. But if you want to be an ordinary physicist, you can have a really rewarding and balanced life.

Story posted on March 09, 2006

« Back | More WIMS Profiles | Go to News Home