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An Interview with Mary Gaillard


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 choose to study physics? What got you interested in it?

Mary: Well, I took physics when I was a senior in high school. In those days, you always took physics last. And I decided to major in physics. Then, I ended up going to a small college in Virginia where there were hardly any physics majors.

Question: Which college did you attend?

Mary: Hollins.

Comment (Laura): Actually, I've been there! I went to a summer school there.

Mary: Well, I'll be darned. Well, there was one woman there who was a professor in physics [Dorothy Montgomery]. There was [about] one physics major every two years [at Hollins]. But, [Dorothy] had worked with Oppenheimer. So she was a research physicist, but she had been at Yale—on soft money—her husband was on the faculty, but when he died, they let her go. She was offered a job at Columbia, she told me, but she had two young children, and she didn't want to raise them in New York [City], so she moved to Virginia. And, it was just by good luck. Because, well, I went to Paris [due to her being at Hollins in Virginia] for a year as an undergraduate, and she [also] got me into a lab in Paris. And then she got me to apply to Brookhaven for the summer school, and there I worked with the Columbia group. And that is what really got me interested in particle physics.

Question: What were the challenges you faced as a female graduate student?

Mary: I started graduate school at Columbia, and that was fine. I mean, I had a little bit of trouble. [In] the more mathematical courses I did very well. But the physics courses, well there was one course, classical mechanics, which was taught by this old guy, and he would go to the blackboard before the class started. [You] had to go to class early and copy everything down. And then he would take notes all the way through, and you had to turn in everything at the end of the semester. He never graded anything. So you never knew what you were doing. [The] first semester of that, I failed, and I never knew why. But he would also [mark it wrong] if there was a factor or two or a sign mistake, [as in the whole thing is wrong]. In fact, the second semester, I aced everything. [And] there were only like two women in my class, but I had a lot of friends. I had friends to study with. I didn't feel isolated. I remember one nasty guy, but I ignored him. So, I was fine [at Columbia]. But then I got married to a Frenchmen and moved to Paris, and that's where all the problems started.

Question: So you finished your grad school in Paris?

Mary: It used to be in France that there was essentially no graduate instruction. Essentially people would go to summer schools. There is this famous summer school [and] that's where people learned as students. When I got there, they were just starting this graduate instruction taught by theorists. And a friend of my husband said, you will never be taken by the theory group, so you should get into a lab. So I went around to all the labs in the region, everybody turned me down. And then one guy said you came to get married, not to do physics. Nobody ever asked me for any references or anything like that. Except one guy said to me, well, you couldn't get a recommendation letter. And, I said yeah sure I [could], and he changed the subject. I don't think that was the answer he expected. And so that year was the worst year of my life. I mean, I was totally depressed. But then, in the end, we went back to Columbia because my husband had his experiment, [so he] was going back to finish that experiment. So I went [to] Columbia and [then] came back to take the exams in Paris, and I came out second in the exams, and then they took me in the theory group.

And so I went through all this misery because someone said, oh, you'll never get into the theory group. So then we went to CERN, and there was a guy [from just] the south of Paris. He agreed to be my advisor, [but] he wasn't there most of the time. So I was working by myself. And so I started out in a basement office with as many as five other people. And then I started doing stuff and publishing papers, and I got to go up the floors. Eventually, after I had my thesis, I got onto the first level. It's called NCSR, which stands for the national center of scientific research. And so, I got the first rank position in that, and I gradually went up the ranks.

But I couldn't get a job at CERN. I wasn't even offered a postdoc at CERN. [Or what they call] a junior staff. And then I was starting to get more and more well-known and giving talks all over the world. Getting invited to stuff. So finally, a couple [of] people at CERN insisted that I be considered for the staff position that was coming up. By that time, I already had an offer from Fermi lab, and then I got an offer from Berkley. And so, by that time, I knew if I wasn't going to get that position at CERN, I was going to leave. And I did leave, and in fact, CERN did not hire a female staff member until the mid-90s.

Comment: Oh wow.

Mary: But there still hasn't been a women senior staff position in theory at CERN.

Question: What should we do to bring more women into physics?

Mary: Oh boy, that is a good question. Well, when I moved to the states, the first thing [they said was], now you have to talk to the American Crucible Society, and now you have to be on the committee on women in physics. And then I chaired [that committee] for a year, and I was also put on some blue ribbon panel for the APS. And, the idea was to try to transfer women from industry or national labs to academia so that there would be more role models. But, most of these people with all the influence were men, and they never showed up to the meetings, except the first meeting. So eventually, that thing fell apart and didn't do anything.

Also, when I was at CERN, I wrote a report called the status of women in technical careers at CERN, something like that. Actually, that report was eventually used when they finally formed a committee on diversity at CERN. I was actually invited to go there and talk about my book. It was a joint thing with the library and this committee. And so I learned that they were trying to do something. But it is something I don't know [the answer to] because the same problems keep coming up. We've had conversations with women graduate students. Now they are like 15% roughly in a typical graduate class, but they still complain about the men putting them down and men [saying] something even if they don't know what they are talking about. And women are afraid to speak up. There are all these problems, and I don't know why. Right now, even there are only a certain number of role models. And I don't understand why it's so difficult. You know, part of the problem, I think, is getting young children to take the math classes they need when they are in school.

Comment: Even if you get them interested, the culture is still not welcoming. We have wondered about how to get women who are in physics to stay on in physics. Women drop out at high rates.

Women do drop out at higher rates than men. I mean, there have been some notorious cases of sexual harassment; one was at Berkley that you probably heard about in the astronomy department. But, more often, it's students [and] TA's that make the atmosphere so bad. [To solve the issues] there are all these programs that are effective for diversity training. The worst of them all is the online forms that tell you how to behave, and you try to get through them as quick as you can. I know I've done it too! And, so it's a really hard question. It's almost incomprehensible to me that it is still so difficult.

"Follow your passion and don't get discouraged by what other people say." Mary Gaillard

For more information about the life and career of Mary Gaillard, check out her book A Singularly Unfeminine Profession: One Woman's Journey in Physics.

*Note: Due to sound quality and background noise, only as much as could be understood was transcribed (as best as possible).

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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