I’m watching Contact again. “He said that you are brilliant,” says the man on my screen. “Driven. A major pain in the ass, and obsessed with a field of study he considers tantamount to professional suicide.”
“Anything else?” says Ellie Arroway.
“Those were the highlights.”
Brilliant. Driven. A major pain in the ass, I repeat to myself, and my resolve hardens a little further.
“You said you had a question to ask me?” My academic advisor is abroad right now. The distance makes the video call blurry but his voice is clear. We’ve talked about my workload this semester (“Do you sleep?”/”Do you?”) and the paper we co-authored with some of his colleagues and other students from my own cohort, being published soon. My name in print, first on a list. He’s talked me through the submission process and now turns to the reason why I asked for this meeting in the first place. And I cannot afford to swallow my words now.
“Yes.” I hesitate. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this past summer, and about last spring, and—well—I think you saw, you know, how engaged I was in the spring when we arrived at the more theoretical side of our research.”
He smiles a little sheepishly. I think—maybe—he knows what’s coming.
“I want to do theory,” I tell him, “and I think I might be able to better accomplish that in the pure physics track, not in astronomy.”
He responds without hesitation. “If you think that’s best for you, then certainly. Have you looked into more study abroad opportunities? You might be able to find more theoretical classes elsewhere, if that interests you.”
“You’re doing a very good job. You’re always so organized,” says the department chair, “and I appreciate that.” He’s been drowning in his own responsibilities, I know, and is a couple of days late getting me answer keys for the problem sets I’m supposed to be grading. “I’m sorry for getting behind,” he tells me.
“Not at all,” I try to reassure him. “I know how things can pile up.” His smile is a little thin. “Yes, well, I wish they wouldn’t.”
For a moment, I feel his pain for him—late nights in his office, a whiteboard covered in blue-ink scrawl, a thousand tightly knit equations ringing between his ears without pause. He may sleep even less than I do.
“I talked to my advisor,” I blurt out. “I’ve been thinking quite a lot—I think I’d like to switch to pure physics.”
“Ah,” he says, and maybe I’m a fool for thinking that his eyes brighten a little. “Well, it’s an easy process, just a note to the registrar. I hope,” he adds, “I hope we’re able to offer more topics courses in the next couple of years for you.” He asks me if I heard about the new Nobel laureates, tells me a little about the research he did with an older student over the summer. Gravitational waves. Cosmological implications. About as timely as it gets. I can’t bite back my
excitement completely—I would want nothing more than to be that student. Waging war on dense problems like those day and night. A kind of fulfillment in my work that I haven’t found anywhere just yet.
I can wait for answer keys. I write my own solution sets, recording them with clear structure and careful notes and questions that students are likely to ask me at office hours. Every task is a chance to improve myself.
“This is a pretty high-level book,” my differential equations professor tells me, tilting his head at the thick yellow tome I’m now cradling in one arm, “but asymptotics are a really cool and useful subject, and—”
“Prove it.” That’s not me. That’s the other visiting professor sharing his office. He shrugs. “Prove it,” he repeats.
“Convince me that asymptotics are cool.”
“Well,” says my professor. “OK. So if you want to—” He goes to the whiteboard. The concepts he’s talking about are unknown to me, and his explanations are definitely aimed at the other professor, but the steps are familiar enough that I’m able to follow along without much difficulty. He pauses a couple of lines into his example. “And the coefficient here is…”
“Four,” I interject, and they both start and look at me like they’d forgotten, for a moment, that I was there. And after that I can tell that my professor is speaking to both of us, not just his colleague. And although the ideas are unfamiliar, I can see the patterns developing in red and blue marker, and I feel a little more sure of myself.
“Is there a specific application of differential equations that you’re interested in?” My professor asks at the end of what quickly became an hour-long chat.
“I mean,” I say, “I’m a pure math major. I appreciate the computational aspect of this class, and it’s very timely, but I think I just want a more theoretical context for all the applications we’re doing.”
“Wow,” says my professor. “You’re really going to like real analysis.” The other professor does a fist pump. “Take combinatorics!” he says over his shoulder on the way out the door.
One of the students who comes to my office hours has a tone . He uses it when he comes seeking my help and I evidently backtrack to something too elementary for him. “No, no, I know that,” drawling, patronizing, like he isn’t the one who needs my help in the first place.
I put on my own tone for him. Sweet, polite, like he’s a child, except I zero right in on his mistake and tear his work down to the foundation. “Let me know if I can help with anything else,” I tell him in my normal voice, because that’s genuine. That’s what I’m there for.
I don’t like the condescension in my own tone. But I also refuse to accept the small differences in how I am treated versus my male counterparts in science. I shouldn’t let that kid speak to me that way when he would never dare to do so with the other tutors (both male). I shouldn’t feel obligated to laugh at everything the physics society president says—gold in his mouth, waiting for our smiles, our acknowledgment. And I shouldn’t feel out of place where I am, fighting for the opportunities that I want—no—that I deserve; because I may still be working on the “brilliant,” but I am driven, and I can be a major pain in the ass. And to the professor I met this summer who told me that theoretical physics was, in general, a dying field: I’ll prove you wrong. Just wait. I’ll prove you wrong. ♦