On Becoming a Feminine Physicist/Thinker

Photo by Aaron Landgraf of 508 Films

At the beginning of college I majored in Psychology.

Actually no, at the beginning of college I actually did major in Physics. I went to a rural college in Northeast Missouri (Truman), and even got accepted into the STEM program with a group of ten or so select women from the entire region’s set of applicants for a competitively funded program designed to help students be supported in the STEM fields.

I took an AP calculus course and a physics course registered under college credit in high school, but did not finish the whole course length because I graduated in the middle of the last semester of my senior year (another story). This was enough to grant me acceptance into the program, and I was just as shocked to realize I had been accepted since my interest in physics was only as new as the end of my high school junior year.

I never thought of myself as a physicist. My whole life people “wanted” me to be a writer, journalist, artist… which actually I am still all of that. “I could see you being a writer,” they said. “You should go to school for journalism!” they said. “You don’t seem like really a science type of person… you should be a therapist!”

I think I was mathematically inclined since childhood, I would want to find numerical patterns in my cereal and in fact there is a picture of me as a child lining of pieces of Cap’n Crunch in a grid and counting them, making sure they were aligning in the right spots. Maybe a symptom of OCD, who knows. I did that with my mother’s high heels, I did that with my butterfly hair clips. I found beauty in accessories and food, and I wanted to align them to be in order. I find a similar feeling when I look at mathematical structures. Math creates order, and in fact it is mathematical design that allows for control of material to create symmetrical beauty in accessory form.

I gave up being a physicist because I had too low of self esteem to even consider myself even being able to formally push through the intensity of the formal college program of physics. And honestly, it was rational. Physics is a difficult degree program. And if you are a girl who was not encouraged to explore mathematical concepts on her own since twelve or six (that is how I think men can come ready to college to pick up these degrees… they are subjects they have been exposed to/thinking of for the past number of years), then diving into a 100% mathematical program is almost unrealistic and puts a lot of pressure on yourself especially if they want you to finish in four years!

I went through with the psych degree and even now plan on finishing it up here in December. But I did not want to give up my exploration of physics. I took the opportunity to fulfill the neuroscience certificate program offered at my university in my junior college year to initiate a biophysics computational neural modeling project with the Director at the Center for Neurodynamics. The Director is in fact a she–and She has been my mentor since last year, and we discuss what it is like for women to pursue the STEM fields, especially physics.

In the Truman program, I was the only declared physics major, but all of the participants ended up being women (unintentionally). Most of them chose nursing and biology. The program director said I was interesting since I was a young female interested in physics, and it is still an anomaly to come across other women in the field, too. There are more female physicists at my institution (who are actually kind hearted and nice) luckily, so I’ve been lucky and grateful to have that kind of inspiration and support. I do not know how I would have been if I did not have, too, the female behavioral neuroscience mentor to encourage me to start learning Python and computer programming, which reminded me of my original college interest in math and science.

I was encouraged, I think, because I spoke up and showed interest. I had enough confidence to know that I could pursue my academic interests, and a rebellious attitude enough to not give up in the face of everyone’s encouragement and support of “softer” disciplines, what they saw in me were my good “listening skills” and “”compassionate” self, things that I did not think defined me but were merely symptomatic coping skills I had learned to manage an intense traumatic childhood and upbringing. My personality was not showing. Nobody knew who I was. But they acted like they did know who I was. Assumptions upon assumptions, and my whole life was one assumption bombardment with another… to this day I am still bitter at the lack of respect for my autonomous self discovery process.

People don’t understand the difference between traumatic coping skills learned in childhood, from personality, and I think it makes people like me, women, minorities, etc., confused as to who we really are. The conflation between us as discriminated people make it difficult to pursue what we really want because we are always using our energy to fight against all the people that paint us false beliefs about ourselves and want to bombard us with what they think we should do, where our direction is, etc. etc. instead of asking us what we want to do, and ultimately I think sometimes distracting us from pursuing substantial endeavors. Careers are built out of fighting “oppressors”, institutional departments now hiring women and minorities for their identities as oppressive cagers, and not as scientists, thinkers, creators, actors.

The assumptions as a kid hurt me as I grew up, and I am only now beginning to assert myself as an aggressive, assertive, analytical but artistic thinker–as a female. I find, though, now, that if I am truly an assertive woman, I do not get discriminated by the traditional male oppressor, but the new woman who has engrained the belief that I cannot be any other type of controversy other than the oppression fighter. But I do not want to be known for a person battling my traumas. I was a person who embodied trauma in her personality until I wast 22, just a few months ago, even, and I found it inherently dissatisfying and insulting to my talents as a thinker and artist.

But how to assert myself?

Some of my friends criticize women and minorities in that we should just shut up and just DO what we want. Start businesses, pursue the science degrees, demand for more pay. And I think they are right. Both of the perspectives of the oppressed stance and the “Just DO” attitude is right. But in the latter case, it truly is not easy. I personally took the challenge because I thought I could do it, and I am doing it. But I found it takes special kinds of personalities to truly thrive in the STEM and business environment and it becomes complicated when you add the extra layers of past historical discrimination either in your childhood from possible sexual abuse to the broader culture either in school (your peers and teachers encouraging you to pursue English or Psych, or television).

This past semester after I really embraced my assertive self, I had to take a break from school. The semester prior I wrote an opinions article that may or not have been a good opinion (I don’t even know, but it was certainly assertive and aggressive), I challenged men at the international Society for Neuroscience conference, and even in the plane, I friended and argued with male colleagues in my literary industry, where I also do work, and more. And I was shocked at how they treated me.

The typical case went so that I approached men at the conference, perhaps at the computational networking social or poster sessions, and they would be so happy to talk to me. I dress fashionably and value appearance as much as intellect and this itself is an anomaly. I felt they wanted to impress me sexually, so when I became analytically critical of their ideas they often shut down and became subtly angry, the conversation would often end. I told them I did physics research without a degree in physics, the conversation went from enthusiastic and boastful to insecure. And they said they “had to go”. I told them I did computer programming and men physically put their bodies in my plane space while avoiding the side of their neighbor male. Men were threatened by me, and it was hostile, actually, and I did not feel welcome. And considering my prior trauma in childhood from men and culture, I felt hopeless. I wanted to give up. I was breaking up with my boyfriend, who also hurt me, I had the opinions staff from the newspaper harass me for ruining their lives by asserting my ideas in public and attempting to put responsibility on me for lynching their family members due to my opinions. The reality in which the world receives an assertive woman with individual ideas counter to the mainstream is shocking.

But it is true, I should keep going, I told myself. But how to best do that? I am luckier than most women because I have an intellectually supportive father who encouraged me to pursue my professional endeavors. He treated me as a person capable of reason my entire life, and so I believed that I was, and that I still am. I think that is how I can remain so strong still because even though the rest of the culture does not appreciate me, I have someone (and more I am finding) people who do, who will critically engage with me and help develop my analytical skills because I am a person, not woman, not man, just a person interested in exploring abstract ideas. Through this support I learned to be very good at professional and academic endeavors, and I do come from a wealthier background so I always have the safety of falling back on the support if I need to, which takes an immense pressure off of my life that others I think do not typically have. Luckily, in St. Louis, where I currently reside, there are quite a few opportunities open to women and minorities, and just business thinkers, opportunities for cross-university work between WUSTL and UMSL for neuroscience and bioscience backgrounds, and more. It really is growing. And at the same time I criticize social justice enthusiasts for not taking advantage of these I also understand that it is not an easy thing to discover, and in fact that is a conversation I have with the program coordinators at WUSTL all the time. They are aware of this. Are we all aware of how we are holding ourselves back?

My worst mistake was not knowing when to listen to others and when to listen to myself. Sometimes you do need to listen to others, but ultimately, like true friends and therapists, you know what is best, even if you misinterpret it all as initial hostility and hate, and true people will support your endeavor. “Do what you want, I don’t care as long as it doesn’t interfere with my own empowerment (and hopefully empowers me too)” is my motto.

So listen, my insides said to me. Be a physicist, mother fucker.


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