This summer I interned at SLAC National Accelerator Labs in Menlo Park. I got paid by the DOE to work on a project team that was building the next generation of cryogenic dark matter detectors. My main project was the simulation of electric field behavior at the surface of a slab of germanium so we could optimize the design of the detector to minimize background noise. Disclaimer, I’m a biology major. The last physics class I took was in high school. I applied to this program on a whim because I think astrophysics is the bomb.com and I just was really curious about what experimental astrophysics research was like. I had zero expectation of success and I already knew that the return-on-investment would be minimal to my “future career path.” What really sold me in the end was being able to live on Stanford’s campus (free housing courtesy of Stanford Residential and Dining Enterprises) and being in the Bay Area, which had just captured my deepest fascinations about tech, design, and the future.
I spent half of my time in a lab and half in a cubicle. When I was in the lab, I tinkered with prototype parts of the detector and did mechanical tests of tiny components. When I was in the cubicle, I ran simulations and watched open lectures on astro- and particle physics. I participated in all the lab meetings, even the soporific ones. What intimidation I felt being in a room with 7 other male physicists quickly dissipated because my immediate superiors were so encouraging and welcoming that the other ornery engineers got used to my presence. There was no way to tell whether my words actually carried weight, and if they didn’t, whether it was because I was female or because I was not a physicist.
My mentor Noah, who was my biggest advocate, is a genius Stanford grad student who did research at Cern as an undergrad, right around the time the Higgs boson was discovered. He traveled for half of the summer, so I would Skype with him twice a week and send him an average of 26.5 emails per day. Mike, the other staff scientist in our cluster of the cubi-verse, wore a different Hawaiian shirt every single day. I loved to ask him astrophysics questions because he had a knack for explaining the most incomprehensible mysteries of the universe with humor and lucidity. I also somehow latched onto two engineering mentors. Tsuguo became almost like a father figure, and he encouraged just about everything I wanted to do. He also entrusted me to handle the dilution fridge and, during the week of a collaboration-wide meeting in Minnesota, to act as the “lab manager.” Pelle, the electrical engineer, was the hilariously dark-humored and irreverent Swede who supplied the daily banter. There were exactly two women in the group of about 13, one an engineer and the other a particle physicist.
The vibe in the building is exactly what you would expect the vibe at an astrophysics research institute to be: a progressive but masculine muskiness with endearing undertones of social discomfort and your typical ivory-tower hauteur. I say this with zero denunciatory intentions. I liked that cerebral sense of belonging, where people were familiar with each other if for no other reason then at least because they are colleagues in the same quest to answer the biggest questions about the universe. The break room contained a cutting-edge espresso machine, and people took breaks often to have ristrettos and talk about the most recent advances in telescope technology. On Fridays we all went to KIPAC Tea, a lecture series powered by poppy seed cake and strawberries, the availability of which was announced promptly at 10 am by a Victorian bell.
One interesting tidbit: one day I was in the old engineering yard and couldn’t find a bathroom for women, so I used the men’s bathroom instead. This was certainly an anomaly, especially in the Bay Area and Stanford in particular, where gender-neutral bathrooms in dorms have become the norm. I feel at least a little bit appeased by the free pads and tampons in the women’s bathroom in the astrophysics building.
Among the 40 people who were also a part of the SLAC internship program, over half were women. Our program director was very intentional about addressing diversity and also really conscious about bringing in women speakers for our after-work lecture series. But beyond that, the male-female ratios were expected for a group of old-world physicists in Big Science projects. I’m encouraged by my cohort, but the female-funnel through increasing echelons of academia is still painfully visible. Although I am planning on leaving academia for personal interest reasons, I feel guilty about becoming a negative statistic. I don’t know how to think about all this yet.
In more ways than one this was my favorite summer ever. I got to do this really cool thing, but I also got to explore San Francisco and its amazing design community, something I’ve wanted to be a part of ever since studying abroad in Copenhagen. I met not only future astrophysicists but also photographers and UX strategists. I ate a lot of ice cream and napped in a lot of parks. I biked 30 minutes to dance classes every week. I saw a lot of otherworldly sunsets.
But at the end of the day, I have to remember to be grateful for the unseen forces that coalesced to make my summer possible. I only got into this program by extraordinary strokes of luck because my program director was the sort of person who recognized the value in trying to do something about which you know nothing and because the people who opened their lab to me were so brave to take a chance on a biology student. The nebulous thought that has been spinning in my head for a while finally clicked into coherence this summer: luck is definite and real. But for luck to change anything, the hard work has to already be in place. Coming from two years of un-successful research, I’ve learned to accept failure less as a reflection of my abilities and more as an unfortunate but temporary circumstance. This realization motivates me to keep going every day. So this is my advice: you are talented, smart, and competent regardless of external outcomes that may have nothing to do with your internal value. May your incredible lives be driven not by a need to impress but by curiosity and happiness.