An Astronaut, a Physicist, and a President

By Archana Anandakrishnan

Days are longer in summer and shorter in winter.” I was told in my science class. Really? I wondered. Growing up in the southernmost state of India, I had not noticed anything odd like that. (Being near the equator, the amount of sunlight South India receives is almost constant all year round.) It was only when I moved to the United States (far away from the equator), to pursue graduate school, that I experienced this effect first hand.

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Me (in grey) and my sister (in blue) in our school uniforms. Morning fight for space on our dad’s bike 😉

There were many things like this that I didn’t quite grasp when I was in school. I always wanted to experience what was taught and experiment with things. Sometimes, school was very hard! But, thanks to my wonderful teachers and my parents, I began to enjoy the process of learning. I would like to tell you how three people – an astronaut, a physicist, and a president, whom I never met or spoke to, taught me valuable lessons in life.

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Dr. Kalpana Chawla before her first trip to space.

THE ASTRONAUT:
When I was young, my parents insisted that I read the newspaper every morning. Thanks to this habit, one day in 1997, I read the story of an Indian born woman who was going to space on board the shuttle Columbia. She was Kalpana Chawla. Kalpana means imagination in many Indian languages, and true to her name she kindled the imaginations of many Indian girls and girls from all around the world. I was thrilled! The idea of a girl born in my country making a trip outside of the earth was mind-boggling. By embarking on a journey of her own, she redefined the boundaries of what could be achieved for many young girls like me. The stars were suddenly within my reach! The next few years, I would follow Kalpana like her shadow. I read about her life and her education. I decided that I would go to the US and earn a PhD just as she had done. I wrote poems and gave speeches about her at school events. Kalpana would go to space one more time in 2003. On her return back to earth, the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated killing all 7 astronauts on board. I was shattered and I couldn’t accept what had happened to her and the other astronauts. Like Dr. Nancy Santagata had written in her post about Sally Ride, people like them were not supposed to die. Kalpana Chawla was my first role-model, and by doing what she loved to do, she inspired a nation of young women.

THE PHYSICIST:
During our summer vacations, we traveled by train to visit my grandparents. I would buy a book for myself to read on the train. On one such train journey, I was introduced to “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist. The book explains the current understanding of the origins and working of the universe to the non-scientist.  Hawking explains in the book that there is a possibility that a grand unified theory could explain all the fundamental interactions in nature (except gravity). He said physicists were pursuing a theory of everything that would have been present at the beginning of the universe, or could manifest in the high energy collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider under the French-Swiss border. About 15 years after I read this book, I find that I am also a part of this pursuit, now as a physicist myself. It reassures me that I am where I belong. Stephen Hawking is an author who, through his writings, inspired me to think about how the universe works.

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Dr. Stephen Hawking, physicist and author.

In 2001, Hawking visited India, and celebrated his 60th birthday in my home country. I had read his books and was excited to see the man on the face of every newspaper and news channel. Since the age of 21, Hawking has been suffering from the motor neuron disease, which has left him severely paralyzed and has also affected his communication. Yet, his enthusiasm for physics is evident in his works. Reading his story, I learnt that physical handicap did not matter if you were determined and that I could learn so much about the stars without leaving the earth.

THE PRESIDENT:
In 2002, India got a new president, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In India, the largest democracy in the world, the President is elected by the members of the Parliament which is the equivalent of the Senate and the Congress in the United States. The new president was different, very different! He was a scientist. I had set my eyes on becoming a scientist, and to see one become the President of my country was a proud moment for me! Kalam was instrumental in advancing India’s space program and defense technology and was known as the “Missile Man” of India. At the same time, he was a beloved teacher, a visionary, and a source of inspiration for the youth and children of India. Even during his days as the President, Kalam would make it a point to address students in schools and colleges. He was a President who kept the future in mind, and being a scientist to me, he was an ideal leader. He wrote many books addressed to the youth of India. Reading his book “Wings of Fire” instilled in me patriotism and passion to succeed as a scientist and a citizen.

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Teacher, Visionary and a former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam

Success stories have always inspired me. There are many scientists whose stories motivate me, but these three characters have been the most influential in my life – An astronaut who taught me that I am no less or no different as a girl, a physicist who taught me that passion is the only thing I needed for a successful career, and a President who taught me that it is important to be an informed and good citizen (more so as a scientist). Today, I see that behind every success story, there is an individual who is passionate about what they do. I see it in my Professors, I see it in other scientists and I see it in the leaders I admire. Look around for your role model. Role-models never cease to exist!

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About Archana Anandakrishnan

photo I am Indian student pursuing my PhD in Physics at the Ohio State University. I came to the US in 2007. After obtaining a M.S. in Physics from the University of Oklahoma, I moved to Ohio State. I am a theoretical physicist and I work on theories beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, including supersymmetric and grand unified theories. I enjoy watching movies, and travelling. I am married to a physicist, and our goal while we are in the US is to visit all the 50 states 🙂 ! (My score: 25/50)

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The Still, Small Voice

by Casey Berger

It was hard not to laugh at the look on her face. Her eyebrows shot up and she leaned forward in her chair:

“You?” she asked, her voice rising in pitch.

My high school physics teacher and I were catching up – I had just moved back to Ohio from the West Coast and stopped by my old school to visit. In the midst of the pleasant chitchat, I casually mentioned that I was back in school to get another bachelor’s degree, en route to a PhD in physics. That was the cause of her shock.

“You?” She repeated, her eyes still wide. “You are the last person I would have expected!”

She may have been exaggerating, but not by much:  her surprise was genuine, and to be expected. In high school, I was very intimidated by physics, and while my grades were always good, my confidence never caught up.  As a child, I had been fascinated by the sciences, but by the time I graduated, I had been discouraged by the subtle voices telling me it wasn’t the field for me. Fortunately, I had other interests and talents, so the idea of pursuing a career in the humanities was also a comfortable fit. It was easy to let go of the idea of physics as a career, but I never let go of my love of science. I just believed I was destined to read about the advances in physics, and never to be the one making them.

I admired my high school physics teacher, a diminutive Pakistani woman who more than made up for her tiny stature with an abundance of personality. She would tell us stories about her days at Caltech, about being the only woman in her PhD program. I admired her strength of will, but from a distance. I wished I had what it took to do what she did – to pursue something I loved despite hardships, despite discouragement.

It turned out that I did have “what it took,” it was simply hiding behind my fears. I went to college, studied film and philosophy, and graduated with honors. My fears followed me across the country as I packed up my life and moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to tell stories. Mostly, I wanted to reach people, to make them think and yearn and listen. But I never let go of my love for the sciences. That little, quiet voice in my heart kept encouraging me, until I finally made the best decision of my life to this day: to go back to school.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that it was the right decision for me, but in that moment, it felt anything but certain.  I had a job as an executive assistant in Hollywood, and a career path to film executive laid out neatly in front of me. I had other options – I didn’t have to return to school.  What ultimately allowed me to make this decision was a question asked of me by a mentor of mine. We were discussing my options, and whether or not I should make a drastic change to my life, and he asked me to set aside any concerns about money, the opinions of others, or logistics and just say what I would want to do with my life next year, if I could do absolutely anything in the world.

“Go back to school to study astrophysics,” I said, the words out of my mouth much more quickly than I had expected.

Over the next few weeks, I did some research. I found ways to answer all the questions about how I would pay for it, when I could start, and what I might “do with that,” as they say. What drove me those weeks, and in the weeks and months that have followed, was that sense of certainty I had when I cleared away all the material concerns. In my heart, I knew what I wanted. And to be frank, physics is not the only thing I want to do with my life, and that’s okay, too. Scientists are not one-dimensional beings who inhabit laboratories and rarely see the light of day. I am still passionate about telling stories, and I hope to find ways to tell stories about science.

In my first semester at Ohio State, my decision to return to school was validated. After spending time away from school, I had the energy to dive back in. When you are where you meant to be, it’s like the stars align. That’s not to say there were no difficulties – returning to school brought with it financial challenges, required me to dust off old skills that had been sitting on the back shelves of my mind for years, and I have many years of school in front of me. However, my studies give me energy as much as they take away. After days of homework, classes, and working various jobs to pay tuition, I found myself exhausted. The difference is that my exhaustion now comes with a smile, and when I go to sleep, I can’t wait to wake up and start all over again.

What I discovered from this experience was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned: follow your dreams, no matter where they lead. It’s okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to be pulled in different directions. When you start to feel confused, and you start to feel like you’re just going through the motions, clear away all those logistical questions and listen to your heart. You can trust yourself – it’s a surprisingly hard lesson to learn for some of us, but you always can trust yourself. Be who you want to be, and don’t be afraid to revise your goals when you need to. There’s always a way, and if you are following your passion, it will always be worth it.

Believe in yourself now, as early as possible. But also remember that it’s never too late to start.

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About Casey Berger

Profile picI recently returned to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after a few years working in Los Angeles, California, to go back to school at Ohio State University. An eternal student, I am pursuing my love of knowledge all the way to a PhD. I hope to use my experience in the media and my education in the sciences to bridge the gap between science and pop culture.

Happy New Year!

by Nancy Santagata

A Day in the Life was initiated last year by three female members of the Department of Physics at The Ohio State University: Prof. Amy Connolly, postdoc Nancy Santagata (that’s me!), and graduate student Megan Harberts.  We want to tell stories, aimed at young audience, about what it is like to live and work in physics.  Since our first post in July, we have published biweekly blogs written by our many amazing friends, both male and female.  We are so pleased by the positive response from both contributors and readers, so on behalf of the editorial board, Amy, Megan, Jasneet,* and myself, I would like to extend our sincere thanks and wish each of you a very happy 2013!

Happy New Year!

*You might recall Jasneet Singh’s post about her summer research experience in Prof. Brillson’s lab at OSU.  We were so impressed that we asked Jasneet to join us here at A Day in the Life.  She’ll help ensure that the stories are understandable to our high school readers, as well as keep the older ladies in line (tee hee) and up to date on the latest stuff, like social media. (Look for us soon on Twitter!)  We are extremely happy to have Jasneet with us, so please join us in welcoming her to the blog!

Looking back, 2012 was a really exciting year for us.  Since our first post by Megan in July, we have had a blast reading and discussing our bloggers’ stories (and hope that you have as well!).  Of our 12 posts thus far, the three most popular were Shawna Hollen’s nonapolagetically girly description of how scientists are simply big kids with fancy toys, Anne Benjamin’s account of why she chose to be a physicist, and Richelle Teeling-Smith’s thoughts on the unfortunate stereotypes that we face as female scientists.  Of course we’d like to thank each of our bloggers for sharing their personal stories, and we’re certainly looking forward to many more in 2013!

Our host WordPress.com compiles blog statistics for us, which they’ve nicely summarized in this super cool annual report.  One of our favorite stats is the “Top Views by Country” map.  This stats map tells us how many people have viewed our blog from each country.  Quite honestly, Amy and I might be obsessed with this map.  I like maps in general, but to see all of the different countries pop up one by one in such a short period of time is totally awesome – see for yourself!

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We have readers from six of the seven continents! Perhaps we need to advertise more in Antartica? 😉

In addition to all of our readers from the US (highlighted in red with 1970 hits!), we’d like to acknowledge those of you that found us from all over the globe:

Canada (24), United Kingdom (18), India (15), Mexico (9), Switzerland (8), United Arab Emirates (6), Philippines (5), Turkey (4), Sweden (4), Australia (4), Serbia (4), Argentina (4), Estonia (3), Tawain (3), Republic of Korea (3), Colombia (3), Brazil (2), Indonesia (2), Portugal (2), Russian Federation (2), Spain (2), France (2), Ireland (1), Poland (1), Italy (1), Egypt (1), Singapore (1), Thailand (1), Netherlands (1), Saudi Arabia (1), Japan (1), Guam (1), New Zealand (1), Hungary (1), Pakistan (1), Malaysia (1), South Africa (1), and Germany (1).

If you’re one of those people listed above, either from the US, or from India, or Colombia our South Africa, or a teeny tiny island in the South Pacific like Guam, thank you!  We are so grateful that you’re reading our stories.

Looking ahead, we have several goals for 2013.  One of those goals is to increase participation from our readers, because, while we of course love sharing our stories with you, we want to hear from you too!  In fact, in the spirit of the New Year, we can start working on this resolution today.  I’ll leave a comment wishing everyone a Happy New Year and challenge you to do the same.  And because I love languages (estoy aprendiendo español!), I encourage you to leave your message in your native language.  It will be a lot of fun to see all of the responses that we get!

Thanks again everyone, and Happy 2013!

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About Nancy Santagata

nancyAlthough I am a chemist by training, my research lies at the intersection of chemistry and physics.  I use cryogenic scanning tunneling microscopy to study the properties of atoms and molecules at surfaces and interfaces.  Basically, with my microscope I can “see” atoms and molecules, and it’s pretty cool!  Outside of the lab, outreach and teaching are personal priorities of mine.  In addition to helping to create this blog, I recently started teaching general chemistry at Ohio State.  Teaching is incredibly challenging, but also tons of fun!  I have the best jobs in the world.  🙂