Working parents have many titles outside of “Mom” and “Dad.” And our fields and areas of expertise can usually be succinctly described to others. Human resources. Reporter. Administrative assistant.
But what if your work involved “how electrons behave in low-dimensional, correlated materials, where enhanced interactions are expected to give novel results,” particularly, “the effect of reduced dimensionality and correlations on electron coherence”?
This week’s Chambana Mom to Know, Nadya Mason, knows exactly what that all means.
Mason, who earned her degrees from Harvard and Stanford universities, is an assistant professor in the University of Illinois Physics Department. She’s also raising daughters Marlow, 6, and Hazel, 3, with her husband, Dillon. Balancing motherhood and work is a constant goal for Mason, who strives to keep her priorities in mind at all times.
As an African-American woman in a field dominated by men, Mason has traveled a highly visible path to her career, and has stepped forward as an advocate and guiding light for others who choose to work in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She has spoken at events across the country, to audiences diverse in background and age, in an effort to focus attention on the subject.
See why we think Nadya Mason is a Chambana Mom to Know.
Q: Wow! Is there even away to describe what you do to the non-scientists in our audience?
Sure! In my research group, we study the electronic properties of very, very small materials. How small? Down to a billionth of a meter (1 nanometer), or 1/100,000th the diameter of a human hair! Materials at this scale are interesting because the electrons behave differently than they do in the large-scale electrical wires; in fact, the electronic behavior can be dominated by quantum mechanics, much like single atoms. The electrons can also interact more strongly with each other, leading to “correlated” behavior you’d never see in larger structures. An example of a material we study is graphene, which is a sheet of carbon that is 1 atom thick. We study all of these things at very low temperatures, down to 10 thousandth of a degree above absolute zero (10 milliKelvin), because otherwise the quantum mechanical properties might be swamped by thermal properties.
Q: What made science appealing to you? How did you become interested in physics specifically, and what made you then choose it as a career path?
I always liked math and science. I was the sort of kid who did math word problems for fun. In high school, I had a sense that I wanted to do math or science, but wasn’t sure of the field. I was fortunate to have had many science internships starting in high school, including one summer doing biochemistry at a local university and another doing geophysics at a local company. From these experiences I realized that I loved experimental science, but that I did not want to do biochemistry or geophysics. Sometimes it’s as important to gain experience to figure out what you don’t want to do, as it is to figure out what you do want to do. I took many science classes early on in college, and realized that what I loved in all these classes were the physics-based explanations: for some reason, physics was able to fundamentally explain the world in a way that I wanted to understand it. In terms of choosing physics as a career path, I was again influenced by summer internships. I was able to realize that 1) I was most interested in condensed matter physics (the physics of “stuff,” like the fundamental electronics of materials), and 2) that it was possible to have a good career as a scientist. I liked working in the lab, and saw opportunities where I could do it full time. I also didn’t make these realizations in a vacuum; my parents were very supportive, and I had very encouraging mentors along the way.
Q: Background information on you reveals that you were once an Olympic-bound gymnast! How did you step away from that arena and dive into physics? Or did the passions coincide?
It’s funny, everyone seems to find out about my secret life as an athlete. I guess with the Internet, nothing’s really secret anymore. Yes, I spent most of my childhood — from ages 7-16 — doing gymnastics at a high level, i.e., training 25-35 hours per week. I made the Junior National Team when I was 13, and was ranked 27th in the country when I was 15. Unfortunately, that was the Olympic year, and only the top 20 made the Olympic Trials, so I didn’t make it. At that point I had the choice of whether to continue in the sport and train for the next Olympics, or else to stop and focus on other things. I chose the latter. I don’t think that gymnastics and academics coincided. Unfortunately, they were more antithetical, in that competitive sports at that level (and at that young age) takes a unique single-mindedness, to the exclusion of most other thoughts and interests. Perhaps the personality traits that were enforced in gymnastics — determination, hard work, willingness to sacrifice for a goal — have also been a great benefit in academia, particularly in a hard science. After I stopped gymnastics, I ran track in high-school and college, and took up modern dance in graduate school and as a postdoc. Expressing yourself with your body is so different from academic research that it’s a great complement to it.
Q: The sciences are seen as areas dominated by white men, and you are an outspoken proponent for including minorities of all kinds in science, technology, engineering and math fields. What barriers have you found or do you find for minorities in the scientific community? Knowing the road you have traveled, what advice can you give women or minorities beginning a similar path now?
I do feel strongly that there should be opportunities for people of all backgrounds in STEM fields. I worry that some of those currently under-represented are not choosing STEM for what I consider the wrong reasons: that they don’t see role models so they assume the field is not an option for them, that they have a poor math/science background and find it too difficult, that they are simply unaware of the available opportunities. If we lose people for reasons such as this, we are doing a disservice to the community, and are losing the chance to attract a larger pool of great minds to STEM. As for my own experiences, I feel very fortunate to have had a series of great mentors, supporters, and peers. I think one of the largest barriers for underrepresented people in the field is managing expectations, your own and those of others. As a minority, you stand out. People might expect you to fail; then, if you have a setback, you might get overly discouraged. If you succeed, you might worry about maintaining your success. Anyone who has ever been the only woman in a large room of men can probably understand how draining it can be to be in this situation almost all the time. So, the advice I give to minorities in STEM fields is, 1) Don’t worry about the opinions of others, good or bad. Focus on your work. At the end of the day, STEM work is quantitative and will stand on its own, 2) Find mentors and peers with whom you can relax, and who will support you through good and bad, 3) Focus on the end goal. That could be the fun of doing the work, the promise of a satisfying job, or just finishing the Ph.D.
Q: You have two young daughters. In what ways do you encourage scientific exploration in your house? What suggestions do you have to get other children interested in science?
I hope my girls grow up to love science! I strongly encourage inquiry in my house. This is something I stole from a story I read about [physicist] Richard Feynman: His father used to go for long walks with him in the woods, and instead of stating the names of the trees, birds, etc., he would point out features and ask Richard what he thought. “How do you think that hole got in that tree?” “Why do you think that squirrel ran away with that nut?” Giving kids answers doesn’t matter nearly as much as teaching them to be curious, to ask good questions. To me, the systematic asking of questions is the basis of science. So, we try to give our kids lots of opportunities to explore the world, by wandering through prairies, collecting things in our yard, looking through microscopes, reading books, even YouTube videos of weird animals.
Q: The position of assistant professor is not one without stress. There’s teaching, research, grants, and everything in between. How do you balance your commitment to your job and your commitment to your family?
Argh, it’s impossible! I just do the best I can. I try to be hyper-organized, so that I can maintain strict family time between 5 p.m. and when the kids go to bed. For example, on Sundays I shop and prepare meals for the entire week. I schedule everything, even laundry. I prep for classes late at night. I also try to keep my priorities in mind at all times. I can’t push myself so much that I get sick, or that I neglect my family. If something gets dropped at home or at work, then I just live with it. I can only do my best. If the time ever comes when I feel that I can’t do my job or balance my life properly, then I will have to find a new job, or re-adjust my commitments.
Q: Finally, as a former gymnast, active mommy of two and accomplished physicist, how awesome are your cartwheels?
Ha! They’re still pretty good! In fact, if pushed, I could probably still do a no-handed cartwheel — but then I’d be sore for the next three days.
Do you want to nominate a Chambana Mom or Dad to know? Contact us.