Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Ariane Eberhardt

    Growing up in Fresno, California, Ariane Eberhardt first got interested in doing science by watching her father who was a physics Professor at Lehigh University. She admired the comfortable lifestyle that he enjoyed, teaching at a small university and working in a laboratory. She was also inspired by her high school physics teacher, and by the science fiction writer Madeline L'Engle; she explains, "a lot of women of my age were influenced by her book [A Wrinkle in Time] -that image of the mother cooking stew over a Bunsen burner while conducting experiments in a laboratory off the kitchen was fantastic. I wanted to be her." After earning her bachelor's degree in physics from the University of California at San Diego, Eberhardt worked in physics laboratories at California Polytechnical Institute (Cal Tech) and at the University of Washington. These were her best experiences as a scientist, because the work was "completely hands-on:" all day long she "got to play with toys," Eberhardt remembers. After this, she went on to earn her doctoral degree in physics from Princeton University in 1996. Eberhardt's dissertation involved studying X-ray defraction of self-assembled organic mono-layers, such as hydrocarbon chains. By subjecting the hydrocarbon chains to X-rays and observing how the rays scatter, she was able to learn about the detailed structure of the system and how it forms. Eberhardt then completed a two-year post-doctorate at Los Alamos National Laboratories, where she was involved with creating a "bio-sensor" -a badge that soldiers could wear in the field to find out if they had been exposed to biological warfare, or a civilian could wear to determine the presence of biological toxins, such as cholera, which interact with a specific receptor in human cells.

    Rather than seeking a post at a small university as she had planned, at this point Eberhardt decided to make a complete career change, leaving the laboratory behind for various reasons. Although it is "hard to untangle" which aspects of her experience derived from her being a woman, and which from being a scientist, Eberhardt encountered a great many subtle pressures which eroded her enthusiasm for this career. Her male colleagues would ask her: "Why are you in Physics? It's so hard." She felt that as a woman, she lacked encouragement and support from management and advisors. She came to resent feeling that "as a woman, you have to be better than the men to get your share of respect." Another reason for her career change was that as a scientist, Eberhardt came to feel like she was "putting more and more in, and getting less and less out. The more specialized your research is, the less impact it has on the world. I felt like I was wasting tax-payers money." She is now a management and information technology consultant at Princeton Consultants, a firm that, incidentally, employs a lot of former scientists. Princeton Consultants differs from other firms in that it not only helps businesses to look at the process for developing their product and see where it could be refined, but it also helps to implement these suggestions, by writing computer programs which address them. Eberhardt enjoys the problem-solving component of this work -"it's like a game," she explains- and the greater financial and personal compensation in the private sector than in research or academia. Given her experience, Eberhardt would not encourage other young women to pursue careers in science. She feels that "Madeline L'Engle has a lot to answer for." In addition to the greater career satisfaction Eberhardt enjoys as a business consultant, she now finds more time to pursue her other interests like bicycling and quilting, and to work on her first novel -which seems to represent a kind of response to L'Engle. The main character is a woman scientist who is increasingly frustrated and feels that she is at professional and personal cross-roads; Eberhardt isn't sure whether or not this character will follow Eberhardt's footsteps and leave her career in science.