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An Interview with Helen Quinn


These interviews were collected at

The Standard Model at 50 Years: A Celebratory Symposium.

This was a celebration to honor the founders of the standard model, two of which were Helen Quinn and Mary Gaillard.


Question: Why did you major in physics?

Helen: It was the easiest major to complete! The funny thing is, I started University in Australia. Then after two years at Melbourne University, my family—because of my father’s job—moved to the United States, and I moved with them. And, some professor at Melbourne University wrote a letter that said I would get a bachelor’s degree in a year if I stayed there—because it's a three-year degree—so I should be put in an equivalent position when I got to the U.S. I think on the basis of the letter—and nothing else—Stanford gave me a year of credit for my last year of high school. So, I arrived at Stanford with three years of credit and no major. And I had to find a major I could complete.

So, I went around with my notes from the courses I had taken [and began] talking to people in various departments. In the physics department, I happened to present to Jerry Pine. [He] was then an assistant professor at Stanford and [later] a professor at Caltech [doing] biophysics, but at that time, he was a particle physicist. And, he looked at my notes, and he said, "Well, you've got a good basis here, but I can't really say that there is a correspondence between the courses you've taken and the courses we have. So, why don't you, it's just the beginning; we are already in the middle of this quarter... so for this quarter, just go audit courses. And, then you tell me which ones you think you've taken, and I'll sign for it." [In] many other departments, the professors said, "Oh well, there's this course... and you've done these things, but you haven't done that... so you need to take that course." And if I looked at any other major, it would have taken me more than two years to finish it. I could complete a physics major in four quarters, from the last quarter of that year and then the whole next year.

So, I kind of slipped into the physics program at Stanford. And, there were places where I was behind and places where I was ahead, and I just had to make up for that in my first quarter and then [by] my senior year I was like the other seniors, like the advanced seniors at Stanford. I was taking the courses that they were taking, and I guess somebody noticed that I was doing reasonably well, so they encouraged me to go on to graduate school, which I would not have thought of doing for myself. Doing a Ph.D. was way beyond the world I grew up in. The notion of a Ph.D. in physics would never have occurred to me.

Question: So you got your bachelor's in physics because it was easy, but we are always told that theoretical physics is the hardest thing you can go into. So why did you go into that?

Helen: Well, because first of all, I know I am not an experimentalist. I have no skill in that direction. I can do certain types of things with my hands, but dealing with electronics and making it work and all that, that was not where my strengths were. And, my strength was actually mathematics and mathematical ability. In fact, in high school, my math teacher said to me,

"Helen, you could be a mathematician, because you are so lazy. You will never do a problem by the straightforward grind through it way, you always have to find the clever way."

And, I think she was actually partially scolding me for not just grinding through some problems, but I interpreted it after some thought as encouraging me to keep thinking for myself. So I had a really good high school math teacher, and I was in a good position from the point of view of mathematics. The courses, the applied Math course [in particular], that I had taken at Melbourne University was really a physics course. So, all of that is a kind of strong background. And, the other thing was SLAC was just being built. So there were people around me who were very excited about particle physics because they had this new tool that would surely tell them new physics, so when you have people teaching courses who are very excited about what they are doing, you tend to get excited yourself. And that's what I did! I got excited. [At one time] I actually thought, you know I'll probably be a high school physics teacher, but Stanford won't accept me if I just apply for a master’s degree, so I'll apply for a Ph.D., and when I'm ready I'll quit. But I kept getting more and more interested. And so I stayed on and did a Ph.D. BJ (James Bjorken) was actually my thesis advisor.

Question: What was he (James Bjorken) like as a thesis advisor?

Helen: Very hands-off, very laid back. He's an interesting person that makes you think. But he also, I mean, that was the time when the deep inelastic scattering experiments at SLAC were beginning to happen. And BJ would show me negatives and say, "Hey, what do you think about this?" So it made the theory even more exciting because there was something we could equate it to. I was always, I asked him the other day, "Did I seem like a confident student?" He said, "Oh yes. I'd give you a practice problem, and you did it in no time flat." Well, I know that when I handed him back that—the answers to the problem—I had no clue what it meant. I'd done the math, but I couldn't figure out the physical interpretation. But, he'd look at it and say, oh, look, she solved the problem. So from then on, he'd give me problems to challenge me, and things progressed. And, I had a really interesting Ph.D. problem, and that, of course, set me in good stead to go on in my career.

Question: Can we talk a little bit about the ups and downs that are common when doing a Ph.D. in physics?

Helen: It's not just doing a Ph.D. OK, doing theoretical physics, there are going to be times when you are totally frustrated, right? The psychologists talk about this. They talk about engagement, interest, [and] identity. So engagement means if somebody shows you something interesting, you can get interested. Interest means I'm sufficiently interested in this subject, and I'm going to go find out more about it. And, identity means I find it so fascinating that even when it’s not [interesting], I'm going to keep doing it because that's what I do. And, so that's a progression to go for anybody to go from a place where you think you might be interested in something, to the place where you are totally engaged with what’s going on, to the place where you say that's who I am. And, as a graduate student, I wasn't sure. Every graduate student has times when they think

"Why am I here? Am I capable of this?"

and that's because the problems are not easy. And, there is an awful lot you have to learn for you to prepare to solve what's at the forefront of the field, which is what you are asked to do as a graduate student! You are supposed to jump right in and move very quickly to be competing with people who have been doing it for 10 years or 20 years or however long that theory has been around.

Question: Sometimes, I worry that what I'm working on isn't relevant or going to have an impact. Do you think that this plagues everyone at some point in time?

Helen: You have to [somewhat] trust your thesis advisor. That your thesis advisor knows what’s important to the field and knows what is an appropriate problem to give a student at your stage of development. So, you're not going to get the most critical interesting problem in the field as your first research kind of test problem [that explores] can you do research, can you figure things out for yourself, and [then] the next problem will be a bit more interesting particularly if you do a good job with the first one. But, it doesn't matter what the problem is. Whether you chose it yourself or whether your advisor chose it, there are going to be times when you feel you can't do this, and it doesn't make sense to me. I'm beating my head against the wall, and I'm not getting anywhere... and what you have to do is have sufficient confidence in yourself that if you keep working at it, you can get passed that. And that's a really pretty critical piece. That inner confidence, not only am I interested and I want to do it, but that I have the capability to do it, and I just haven't quite gotten there yet.

Not that I can't, but that I haven't yet.

That's a very different interpretation. I've been working because, you see, before you get to be a graduate student, no one gives you a problem that you can't solve in a matter of hours. But, when you are doing research, it might take you three months to solve a problem. It may take you more than that as you work with others and collaborate and redefine the problem and move on, so it's just a different class of problems than any you've been asked to work on before. So yes, it feels hard, of course, because if they weren't harder problems, somebody would have solved them. And, the real trick is taking that problem and formulating it into a problem you can do, which may not be the whole of the question you asked. Taking some part of it that you say, this I understand. This piece I can make some progress on. And you'd be surprised how often that allows you to make progress on the part you thought you didn't understand. So just persist. Persist and speak up. Those are the two things.

Question: What are some of the challenges that women in physics face today?

Helen: Well, I'm not really sure about nowadays, because I've been retired since 2010, but I don't think it's changed all that much. When I got my Ph.D., women were 2%, and now they are 15%, but 15% is still a minority. So the challenge for most young women is how to speak up and make themselves heard in a population that's predominately men. And, this starts in middle school and goes on through high school and university as an undergraduate. And, once you are trying to be a professional in the field, it becomes critical, right? You must acquire your voice. And, be able to say what you are thinking, not too tentatively. Women tend to be a little more tentative.

I have three brothers [and] a father who liked to have family arguments just for fun. I learned to argue with the boys from the time I was, I don't know, eight years old. I think that really helped and really put me in a good position when I found myself—very often—the only woman in the room.

Question: You suggest things women can do to fit into the culture of physics, but is there anything that men should do to make it more welcoming for women?

Helen: Actually, the American Physical Society has a program where groups of senior women in physics go to departments to evaluate the climate for women in that department and tell the department what it needs to do to make its climate better. And, in fact, it is just making its climate better [as a whole] because what happens is [if] the climate is bad in the department, more men will just stick through that bad climate, and women will say this is not a place I want to be and move out. So, if the department doesn't feel comfortable—and you think there is sympathetic leadership—tell them to invite one of those reviews from the American Physical Society, and they'll bring a committee of senior women who will say to your department chair the things that you could say but [they] won't hear it from you. If you tell it to me, and I tell it to the department chair, then [they]'ll hear it. So, that system has worked very well for most departments, so departments who don't want to get better with this don't bother inviting such a committee; most departments are not actually deliberately being exclusive. They're just not aware of all the things that are affecting their students.

Question: What do you think are some of the most common things you end up telling departments that they can work on?

Helen: First-year graduate students are members of your department; they’re not on test, right? You should invite them and include them in everything that's going on. Rather than saying until you pass your orals, I'm not interested in talking to you. This is a very common [thing]. The old-fashioned version of that is the professor who stands up and says, you have neighbors look around you. Only one in ten of you will be here at the end of the course. [Which] means I'm a really bad teacher; I can not teach you this stuff. I can only teach the ones who already know it. So, it's the same thing with the climate in the department. When the department says, we don't really have the energy to spend time with you until you have passed your quals, that’s saying we think that most of you will fail because we don't know how to teach you to pass. So, don't take it as a judgement on yourselves; take it as a judgement of this department hasn't figured how to teach well. And, this is what I spend my retirement on, science education, mostly at the grade k-12 level, but I talk a lot with people who do physics education research at the college level and the graduate level. And, a lot of it has to do, [with the fact that] there are no strategies for teaching for general enough use. And, the strategy of standing up there and talking for 50 minutes is known to be a bad strategy.

So, push the department on updating its teaching methodologies. Push the department on thinking of inviting students in—rather than failing students out—and as an attitude, you have to admit students. Even for undergraduate majors, the same is true. You have to invite them in. You can't tell them, “if you aren't good enough, we don't want you.” Because that’s an assumption that they're not good enough, so, there is a whole mindset, right? It's the mindset of how physics is a wonderful subject and most people—if they are willing to work hard enough—can learn versus physics is hard and you are not smart enough.

It's the notion that people have god-given abilities, and it doesn't depend on anything else than what you were born with. And that's clearly not true. It depends on how many opportunities you [have] had, and the teachers you've had...

Credits: Thank you so much to the interviewers Shamreen Iram, Laura Johnson, and Klaountia Pasmatsiou for their questions and for recording this excellent interview!


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