Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Daughter’s Experience with Math and Science

This week’s guest blogger is Neil Gehrels. Neil is Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  He is Principal Investigator of NASA's Swift observatory and Deputy Project Scientist for the Fermi observatory.  He received his Ph.D. in physics at Caltech in 1981.  His research interest is in exploding objects in the universe such as gamma-ray bursts and supernovae.

My Daughter’s Experience with Math and Science
by Neil Gehrels

There were a few minutes of "meet the speaker" time before a talk I gave this Spring and a question came up about how my kids felt growing up with scientist parents.  "Well, my daughter liked science in grade school ….".  I could hear the audience groan, anticipating a story of teen peer pressure turning her in a different direction.  It was really a nice moment when the rest of the answer didn't go that way.   "I'm happy to say that she pursued that interest through school years and is now a graduate student in physics." 
Here is the story of Emily.  My wife, Ellen, and I are both physicists and our oldest offspring, Tom, was a kid who liked math and gadgets from day one.  Emily was born into a geek family for sure, and we may have even over-reacted to not pressure her in that direction.  She played with dolls, loved pink and had regular friends in the neighborhood.   She was a smart kid, but didn't fiddle as much with numbers and puzzles as her brother.  She liked people issues and was a drama queen.  One day at age 4, after a small argument with her mother, she left a note:  "Bay Mom, I am gon".  She had run away from home dragging a suitcase down the block.  We quickly found her, and later laughed at the memory.  We certainly enjoyed the diversity in our house.  
I have to say that Emily's interest in science snuck up on me.  One day in early grade school, it suddenly became clear that the nice notes from her teachers and her questions about Ellen's and my work were signs of a budding fascination with science.  The most gratifying thing is that she was never discouraged by her friends.  Very few of them had similar interests, but they seemed to enjoy each other's weird hobbies.  It is still not clear to me if we were just lucky in schools and friends, or if there is a change brewing in the world.  I look forward to learning more about this in CSWA and hearing other people's experiences. 
The end of the story is that Emily is now starting as a graduate student at Harvard, working in condensed matter physics.  My guess is that she will one day in the not-too-distant future be joining a CSW Physics group.   She still has that interest in people.