I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (About Black Holes)

Dr. Deirdre Shoemaker is a professor at the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Tech. She co-founded the Center along with three male counterparts.  While we're interviewing, one of her grad students walks in her office and makes coffee. She talks with him like a loving parent would their child.

ILLUSTRATION BY MEAGAN GUILD

ILLUSTRATION BY MEAGAN GUILD

She serves as both an experienced scientist and a mentor to her students and colleagues. Much of her worldly advice can be summarized in the change she wants to see for women scientists:

"I want more mediocre women. You don't have to be perfect!”

Here's an inside look at a woman making waves in an overwhelmingly male-dominated fields.

L: When did you first show an interest in science?

D: I think I was like 11 or 12. I read A Wrinkle in Time. I watched Star Trek when I was younger. I don't remember a time when I didn't want to do science. I remember specifically the science and study of black holes and astrophysics, but before that I don't remember.

[For those of you who don't study black holes in your daily lives, they are objects that are so dense, nothing can escape from them once captured. The only earthly example of this I can think of is when you see a large group of people congregated around something, you immediately feel drawn to join them.]

L: How did you hear about black holes at 12?

D: I did a project in school. And everybody was like, “Great, we don't know what you just said.” I knew about space-time curvature somehow from A Wrinkle in Time and from Star Trek. I don't remember where I pieced in the black holes in my head.

Here's space-time curvature, or the warping of space due to massive objects, in real life: 

BRIAN GREENE/ VIA MAKEAGIF.COM

BRIAN GREENE/ VIA MAKEAGIF.COM

L: Have you ever been discriminated against within the scientific field?

D: You know it's hard cause you can't always...tell. Sometimes janitors have made comments that are absolutely ridiculous, like, “What are you doing in this office? It's too big for you.”

Everything else is a little more like, “You're getting something cause you're a woman and you have to battle.” When I was an undergrad people did say, “You shouldn’t study this,” but that didn't stop me. It's not like anyone ever really stops you from doing it, it's just that I imagine a lot of girls wouldn't be so pig-headed. So I was worried that my generation had to be REALLY pig-headed about it. Even my mother was like, “Why are you working so hard? You should get married.” She comes from a different generation, so you have to look at everyone's filter and why you're taking that filter unto yourself cause yours is the only one that matters, right? But that doesn't mean it's easy, and I think you still get the impression that you have to work a little bit harder and you have to be less sensitive because men, while they may not say it, you get that feeling of discrimination.

L: Do you remember any female leaders or professors in physics from your past?

D: There were some, but the problem was they were always so strange. The first one I really bonded with was in grad school. She made her own clothes and she would use them to tell us about topology when she made a mistake. She was the first one I connected with as a human.

L: I understand that early in life, gender roles tend to be perpetuated, even by kids toys. So if you were an early childhood educator, how would you integrate science education—even physics education—into the curriculum?

D: I find little kids to be a delight. I mean they want to jump into a black hole and I'm like “NOOOOO!” They're so imaginative. It's just unfortunate that we can only teach such simple stuff. And I don't know how we work the really cool stuff into the curriculum with teachers who don't understand the cool stuff. I enjoy talking to [kids] when I get the opportunity. There's all that potential; we just don't know how to translate black holes and make it so they're learning algebra. No it's not even algebra; it's arithmetic! Cause one black hole plus one black hole equals one black hole...ah, I don't know how to do it. That's too hard. I used to think that you don't need female role models, but now I think you do and it helps us to have more women in the field. I think their excitement about science helps us. I think we just have to sell the story.

L: Why do you like studying black holes?

D: I like places in physics where you can find out that we're wrong. So for me, I got into the black hole gig as a serious profession. When I was an undergrad, I [heard] about gravitational wave detection and I thought “Aha! We're not just thinking about them. Now at some point we'll be challenged by the data and we'll have to say 'Is this the right way to do it? Or is there something we're going to learn that's profound?’” I like the fact that black holes are that funky ultimate expression where we don't REALLY understand how they have a singularity (an infinitely dense point in space where all of a black hole's mass is concentrated) the universe tells us.

L: Are there any scientists who inspired you, besides Einstein?

ILLUSTRATION BY MEAGAN GUILD

ILLUSTRATION BY MEAGAN GUILD

D: No, it was probably more like Spock. [laughs] Most scientists, when you're old enough to research them, were womanizers. I used to get upset when a student came into my office and told me they wanted to be like Feynman. I was like, "Walk back outta here! I am not helping you be Feynman" (he was a theoretical physicist from the mid-20th century who, after losing his wife, exhibited crude behavior with waitresses and married women). The women I meet inspire me, but it wasn’t always that way.

L: So, you are married to and work alongside the chair of the [physics] department. Do you feed each other ideas and teach each other?

D: Yes we do, but in a very aggressive way. [laughs]

L: How so?

D: It's very hard for us to write a paper together because you have to have one voice win, and we struggle with that. But we will bounce ideas off each other, though not very often. When I was first in the field as a faculty member, I needed my own identity. [My husband's] twelve years older than me, so he wasn't allowed to talk to my students. It had to be all me. You have to be VERY careful, because you can't be writing papers with your old adviser, let alone your husband. We do exactly the same thing at home. We pick, pick, pick. I differentiate myself, so it's hard for us to really collaborate.

L: I was told by a female engineering friend, and also APS, that women tend to study biology and chemistry more than physics. Why is that?

D: My hypothesis is that we want to impact the world in a really positive way and it's very hard to justify how when studying black holes. It's very easy to justify in biology. You're curing cancer. You're doing something really obviously beneficial. So I think that's very attractive to women, and I think they have a broader interest base, from the exit interviews I do with students who drop out of physics. I try to get them to talk to me first when they're female. They tell me they have so many interests, something blocked them in physics, and they jump ship for something that seems easier to them. I watched my niece do this. She wanted to be a scientist and now she's an economics/history major because it seemed too hard. You must absorb that [from your environment], and then make a decision at a crucial moment. They'll never say, "I've been told all my life I'm not good enough, and now I believe it.” No one's gonna admit that. Maybe Big Bang is helping. I'm always for it because at least it gets people talking about [physics].

L: So, tell me more about the Society of Women in Physics.

D: There was a year when a whole bunch of women came in, and a big bunch of them were leaving and I was having a panic attack. We finally get these women to come to Tech and they're leaving within a year. And then I found out from my undergrads that there was one less female a year, like they were also leaving. And we had a ton of female faculty; we have more faculty than we do students! So I tried to find people that we could gel with. Right now, we're the most active [organization]. I mean it's ridiculous the amount of things we do: tea parties, ice skating parties, all with physics talks beforehand so they can get money from the department. The tea parties are hysterical because half the male faculty goes! It's very cross-gender. We have hard conversations once a month about topics like religion and science, discrimination in science, gender issues in science. So they bring up really tough things. I think it's about community. They're enjoying it, the rest of the school is enjoying it as well, and now we're having 30% of this incoming class be female.

L: So, the American Physical Society states that the percentage of women receiving graduate degrees and participating in postdoctoral research is increasing.

D: Woot!

L: Why do you think that is?

D: People have worked really hard to get women into faculty positions, and not by lowering the bar as people like to say. But by paying attention to the fact that their lists were all men and saying, “Huh, what is this all about?” Maybe women are having children later so they feel more comfortable with school.

L: Are there any female-driven resources, like blogs, conferences, or clubs that you would recommend for girls or women who aren't sure about studying physics?

D: There's been a lot of publicity recently about the famous professor who had to step down for discrimination, and the Nobel Laureate guy who said women fall in love with you in labs...

D: The interesting thing is that's not tolerated right now. There was community uproar, and from that I found all these blogs. They are nice because they are personal perspectives about what it's like. In astronomy, there are some really nice resources, physics not so much. There are more women in astronomy. That's an interesting gateway.

L: OK, last question. How are you celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity?

D: By giving my 800th talk. [laughs]

Currently, Dr. Shoemaker is using a computer model to predict physical events that will involve black holes. The radiation that comes from them will provide lots of information about the nature of those black holes. Her work focuses on gravity and relativity. She currently runs a gravity research group through the American Physical Society (APS), acts as an administrator of the Society of Women in Physics, and is a strong proponent of female involvement in physics.

 

Feature photo VIA meetup.com