Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics
Girl Geeks/My Story
Koller, Noemie Benczer
Noemie's Story
Koller, Noemie Benczer
Professor II

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Phone: 732-445-2525

Ph.D., Barnard College, 1958

Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers

Areas of Interest: Experimental Nuclear Physics, Nuclear Structure and Ion-Solid Interactions.
I was born in Vienna, Austria but we moved to France right after due to the rise of Hitler to power. When World War II broke out, we had to leave again and managed to escape occupied France in 1942 to go to Cuba and a year and a half later to Mexico.

In Mexico, I attended a French school. The school had a strong curriculum, very academic, very bookish, and intellectually very broad. Since these were war years there were few students and we had essentially personalized instruction. The teachers really worked one-on-one with us. Why did I go into science? I think science was an intrinsic curiosity that I must always have had. There were not many resources for laboratories so my early science education came from books. There was a great deal of math taught but very little science, other than theoretical, which is mostly mathematics and discussing the fact that science was developed by great French men. My parents bought me many books and I did a great deal of outside reading. My father was a chemist by training and he bought me biographies of different scientists and, of course, of Marie Curie.

Growing up in Mexico and having traveled the world round I was able to broaden my views considerably. I wanted to go back to Europe for college, but my parents were nervous that another world war would erupt and agreed to let me go as far as New York. I applied to Columbia. I didn't yet understand the difference between a University and a College. At the time, Columbia College did not accept women and so I went to the all-woman sister school of Columbia College, Barnard College. I wanted to major in Biology because my parents encouraged me to practice medicine, but I did not have a passion for it - I did not like the sight of blood. At Barnard they told me that they did not really have a strong biology program at the time, but they had a good Physics department across the street and Columbia College courses were open to Barnard students. I did not know anything about Physics, but it fitted well with my math interests and I took up the subject.

By this time I already spoke French, Spanish, and German and had had a strong liberal arts education. Barnard gave me two years credit for the French high school so I only attended undergraduate college for two years, studying American history, math, and physics.

In my senior year, I worked doing some calculations for a nuclear physics professor, and had almost no idea about what I was doing. I applied to Columbia for graduate school and worked in the nuclear physics laboratory. My PhD adviser was a woman, but I did not choose to work with her because she was a woman. I picked her because she had good projects and worked well with her students. We developed a strong personal relationship that lasted until her death a few years ago.

After graduate school I came to Rutgers. I had married a fellow student, also a physics major, and we both looked to find positions at universities close to each other. He took a position at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and I came to Rutgers, the first woman hired in the department and, also, the first female professor of Rutgers College. The Physics department here was wonderful. Mason Gross was president of the university.

Many might say that being a woman is the greatest challenge to having a science career, but I didn't really feel that prejudice. I did not really consider this a challenge: I did what I had to do. I did not realize that being a woman could be a handicap. I did not experience any overt gender discrimination in my culture and did not expect to experience any while working at Rutgers. I never realized that the outside world was so anti-feminist. The only discrimination I noticed was in color.

Now, I realize that I had support behind me that shielded me from any gender discrimination I might have encountered. My colleagues have always had great attitudes and have collaborated with me throughout the years. I think that woman in other more antagonist departments today really have a tough time.

I didn't have my first child until after I had received tenure because to get tenure, you have to work. Again, I was very lucky -- because I speak Spanish, I was able to hire a nanny from Chile who do did not speak any English. I was perfectly happy for my children to learn Spanish and so the arrangement worked out well. Everyone has to solve the problem of balancing family with work and I was lucky I was able to solve it. Our nanny stayed with our family for forty years, although she does not take care of the kids any more. Now I help take care of her.

My father had a strong influence on me, not only as a scientist, but because, for him, I could do no wrong. Thus he gave me exceptional confidence. My mother also had great influence on me, because for her I could not do well enough. Every time I did well, she wanted me to do better. So of course, at the time, I resented it, but it has helped me set high standards for myself and now I appreciate it.

I have led a charmed life as a scientist, wife, mother, teacher and friend to many, many people in many countries in the world.