When I was seven years old my parents bought me some books about space travel. I think they were inspired to do this because it was just a few years after the launch of Sputnik. I even have some memories of Sputnik. I decided when I was seven that I was going to be an astronomer so that I could go into space. And twenty years later I had a PhD in nuclear physics!
I was the only female allowed to join the science club in sixth grade. I had not been allowed to join the science club in fifth grade because I was a girl. By seventh grade, I was teaching the Astronomy section of my Earth Science course. As a rising high school junior and senior, I had the opportunity to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer-Math summer program. My participation in this program was probably a strong reason that I was accepted to U Penn for college. I grew up in Northern Maryland in a small town near the military bases. The program at U Penn was a wonderful opportunity for me – it showed me that the training I was getting at my local high school was not comparable to the training students were receiving in suburban Philadelphia schools. But because I attended this program, I was recognized as someone who had the talent to go forward.
University of Pennsylvania was a natural choice for me and I applied there for early decision. Not only had I spent two summers there, but my father’s family also lived in Philadelphia. I took a very straight path with very little deviation. I alternated between the Math, Physics, and Astronomy majors, but after my first semester at college I stuck with Physics. I had had a great Physics professor, a Math professor whom I didn’t really care for, and, in my second year, I had an Astronomy professor I did not respect, which is very unusual because students usually enjoy Astronomy courses.
My summer between high school and college, I worked as a secretary for the military. I made great money and was totally miserable. After a second summer, I was determined never again to have a job as a secretary. September of my sophomore year I talked to the woman who had been my recitation instructor the previous semester and told her I needed a job for the following summer. She connected me with the Nuclear Physics l
Jolie in Smokies on NC/TN border.
aboratory at U Penn and the rest is history in terms of my career. I learned that I really enjoyed Nuclear Physics, the science, and the culture of the discipline. I worked in finite teams and I liked the teamwork aspect. As an undergrad working in the lab, I mostly analyzed data. This was before there were computers, in the early seventies. The most expensive piece of equipment in the laboratory was the very first model of a hand calculator. Otherwise I was using adding machines and graphing by hand. The data were taken on photographic plates. The lab hired women to count the tracts of particles emitted during nuclear reactions recorded on these plates, viewable under a microscope. I tried to count the tracts once, but it gave me a migraine! I was really glad I just had to interpret the data.
In the laboratory, my advisors didn’t quite know what to do with me – I wasn’t a secretary, but I wasn’t a boy. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t being treated right until I saw a fellow male student working in the lab being brought into more formal and informal conversations. I did not get my name on any papers, even though I should have had my name on at least one, if not four publications, as an undergraduate. They gave me acknowledgements, which I thought was fine at the time; I eventually found that this was not the way to treat students.
However, from my undergraduate research experience, I was accepted into Stony Brook University as a graduate student. Another career changing opportunity was when, as a rising first-year graduate student, I participated in a summer research project at Brookhaven National Laboratory. I absolutely adored the scientist I worked with there, Rick Casten. He was the first person who treated me as a student and I able do my PhD work with him. We continue to be close personally and professionally; I have dinner with him and his wife whenever we are at meetings together.
I also continue to be close with the woman, Professor Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, who helped me get connected with my first summer job at the U Penn Nuclear Physics laboratory. I consider her to be my role model. Even though she never was my direct supervisor, she was an excellent mentor figure. I have many happy memories of working together during midnight shifts in the lab. Her memoirs, A Matter of Choices, have been published by Rutgers University Press.
One of the challenging times in my career was when I was a junior in college and the bottom fell out of the job market in Physics. The graduate students in the department were posting their fifty rejection letters they were receiving, applications that had been typed and processed by hand and typewriter. My research advisor at the time said that if, by the year I earned my PhD, the field had not turned around, it would be dead. And he was right. When I had finished my PhD in 1978 and completed a post-doc in 1980, there were more faculty positions open than there were good people to fill them. In the end, I accepted a faculty position at Yale University, and was short-listed for several other places.
Yale was definitely the right place for me at the time. It does not have tenure track, but instead the “ten-year track.” Many people stay there for ten years, are not asked to stay, and then find that they have to do something else. I went there expecting to stay for five years and then move on to a national laboratory. Many of the people I admired held positions in such institutions. However, after about a year at Yale, I realized that I belonged at a research university because I liked working with graduate students. At the beginning of my sixth year, I was offered a tenured faculty position here at Rutgers University after searching on the job market for two years. Every step along that path led me to Rutgers, which is where I belong. I had (and have) many research opportunities here at Rutgers. I came here because Rutgers had an in-house nuclear physics lab. Unfortunately, we lost the funding for the lab, but I have sustained my funding from NSF. I now run a very big project that is based in Oak Ridge National Laboratory, supported by the Department of Energy. In addition to being Dean, I am also a very active researcher. I actually run a project that, as an undergraduate, I would have thought would have been too large.
Shortly after I became a full professor, I was asked to be Director of the Graduate Program in Physics and Astronomy. I had worked as Director for nine years when the opening occurred for the Vice Dean of the Graduate School; I applied for and received the position. I have been in the Graduate School since fall 2002, the last year and a half as Acting Dean.
Overall, my parents were very important in influencing my siblings and me; they really pushed education on their kids. Neither of them have an earned high school diploma so they felt that having a strong education was the only way we could be successful. Their influence encouraged me to take a very narrow path in my learning. This included their sense that if I got married, I would waste my college education. It was not until after I received my PhD that I thought I might get married someday. I got married in my early forties. My parents are very happy I am married and that I also established my career.
My mother grew up in Czechoslovakia and left her home as a refugee in 1945 ahead of the Russians. She had been three months away from earning her high school degree and graduating when they closed her high school, gave the boys degrees, and gave the girls nothing. After we permanently settled in the US, my mother worked mostly for the federal government as a secretary, first editing the English of officers. Eventually she worked more on the business-computer side, continuing as a volunteer for the Red Cross even after she retired in 1987. My father received his GED when he was in the army. He had quit high school and enlisted during the early part of World War II. He met my mother in Germany after the war. After retiring from the military as a sergeant, he had a second career in the postal service. Because of their emphasis on education, I have a PhD in Nuclear Physics and my sister has a PhD in Biochemistry. My brother was more the artistic person and does architectural renderings.
While I hope to continue to be active in graduate education at Rutgers, I will never give up, at least for the next ten to fifteen years, my research. I am a graduate dean because I want to make a difference for graduate students, but there are other ways for me to help graduate students, including those working directly with me on my research. My research is something that is not just a fallback, it is something I am passionate about and that I will continue.