Over the course of The Story Collider's Women and Science issue, we'll bring you several interviews from the Double Xpression: Profiles of Women into Science series, starting with this profile of Deborah Berebichez, a physicist, author, and media personality who was the first Mexican woman to graduate with a physics PhD from Stanford University. She hosts National Geographic’s Humanly Impossible and will appear on the Discovery Channel’s upcoming You’ve Been Warned.
Below is the story she told at The Story Collider's "Culture Shock" show in partnership with the Cervantes Institute, in her native language of Spanish. (Click here to hear it in English.)
DXS: First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?
My parents, family, and peers would all ask, “Oh, why don’t you study a more feminine career?”
I grew up in Mexico City in a fairly conservative community, and as a child, I was discouraged from doing and studying science. My parents, family, and peers would all ask, “Oh, why don’t you study a more feminine career?” Although I was pretty good in school, I wasn’t exactly a math wizard. I used to say that I loved philosophy and physics – because philosophy was a deep discipline of asking questions about the world. And physics studied the world itself.
It was clear when I was born that my personality was was quite different to the one of my mom. When I was growing up, my mom was scared because she didn’t know what to do with this little girl that was smart and always asking questions. She is not a naturally curious person, so she kept trying to tame down my curiosity and kept telling me not to tell boys that I was interested in math and science because I would never find a husband. According to her, the life goal for a girl was to find a husband, have kids, and that’s it. Women didn’t have to have a career. (Not that there is anything wrong with not having a career.) My high school teachers and counselors were not so different and encouraged me to go into philosophy or literature, not into math or physics. And my friends in school told me I literally had to be an out of the world genius to be able to study physics.
Given the circumstances, I started studying philosophy in Mexico. There were some classes with logic, and some with a little bit more math, and those were the ones I just devoured! And, at the same time – secretly – I was reading the biographies of scientists. For some bizarre reason, I was hugely attracted to their life stories. I didn’t have any family members, or anyone else for that matter, that had pursued a career in science, so I didn’t have a mentor or a role model. I felt an extreme kinship with Tycho Brahe, who in the late 1500’s was locked in a tower, doing all of these calculations for years, hated by everyone in the town. Go figure! I felt some kinship with these scientists. But I didn’t have the courage nor the means to switch majors. I did confess that I wanted to study another area (physics), but in Mexico one cannot study two majors. So, I studied philosophy for two years.
In the middle of it, I felt way too curious about science and I decided to apply to schools in the US. It was hard at the time because college in Mexico was a lot cheaper than in the states. At the private school where I was attending, my tuition was about $5,000 per year. If I were to come to the US, I would be looking at costs exceeding $35,000 per year. I couldn’t really ask my dad to help me with that price tag so I started to apply everywhere and anywhere that had scholarship opportunities.
I ended up getting a letter from Brandeis University saying that they would let me take this advanced placement test and write an essay, which, if I did well, would give me a full scholarship. I received a full Wien Scholarship and was to continue studying philosophy in the US. This was probably the nicest thing that has ever happened to me because it opened the path of opportunity.
Brandeis transformed me as a person – I saw females doing science! But, the bravado moment that changed my life was a very general course called Astronomy 101. The teaching assistant, Roopesh, was a very sweet man from India and he saw that my eyes would just light up when I was in that class – I was much more curious than the random student that was just taking it to fulfill some requirement.
I started to tell him, with tears in my eyes, that I just don’t want to die without trying.
At the end of that year, Roopesh and I were walking around Harvard Square and stopped to sit under a tree. I started to tell him, with tears in my eyes, that I just don’t want to die without trying. What I meant by that is I don’t want to die without trying to do physics. Everyone’s questioning of my decision made me question my actual ability. Everyone telling me 'no' hampered my development. I mean, I was good at math, but I definitely didn’t have the same background as all the kids coming in with advanced math and physics courses.
I told Roopesh that I don’t even remember how to solve the equation (a+b)2 – even my algebra was rusty! But, he believed in me and went back to his professor and told him my story. This professor decided to meet with me and ends up telling me about someone who had done this sort of thing in the past. His name was Ed Witten and he went on to become the father of string theory.
He said “Witten had switched from history to physics, and I will let you try too.” With that, he handed me a book on vector calculus called ‘Div, Grad and Curl’ and told me that If I could master it in three months by the end of the summer, they would let me switch my major to physics and also let me bypass the first two years of course work. This would allow me to graduate by the time my scholarship ran out.
I have never in my life experienced the level of scientific passion condensed into such a short amount of time and I am jealous of the person I was that summer. I had so much perseverance and focus. I don’t think I can ever reproduce that intensity again. From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, and even in my dreams, I only thought about physics. Roopesh, who became my mentor for the summer, taught me.
I always wanted to pay Roopesh for his tutoring, but he would never accept any money. He told me that when he was growing up in the mountains of Darjeeling in India, there was this old man who would climb up to his home and teach him and his sisters English, the musical instrument Tabla, and math. Roopesh’s father always wanted to pay the old man for his tutoring, but the man always declined. The man said that the only way he could ever pay him back was if Roopesh did the same thing with someone else in the world. And by mentoring me, Roopesh fulfilled his payment to the old man.
Out of that, that became a seed for my physics journey and purpose. It is now my life's mission to do the same for other people in the world – especially women – who feel attracted to science but feel trapped. They for some reason, whether it is social, financial, etc., just can’t find the way toward science. That is the motivation that dictates my actions.
I was able to pull it off and graduated Brandeis Summa Cum Laude with highest honors in physics and philosophy. I went back to Mexico afterwards to figure out what to do next and to spend some time with my family. At the same time, I did a master’s degree in physics at the largest university in Mexico UNAM. My curiosity for physics didn’t diminish and in 1998, I randomly applied to two physics PhD programs in the US. I applied very, very late, but, fortunately, I won a merit-based full scholarship from the Mexican government who provided me with funding, which made it easier for me.Because I loved biophysics, I did a search on who was doing this line of research. I came across Steven Chu, who is currently the secretary of energy. At the time I was applying, he was at Stanford and was one of the first to manipulate a single strand of DNA with his ‘optical tweezers.’ To me, his story was fascinating! Without really knowing who he was other than what I found on the web, I wrote him an email asking him if I could work in his lab. Had I known who he was – that he had just won the Nobel prize in 1997 – I would have been too intimidated.
I was admitted to Stanford and was invited to work with Dr. Chu, but after two years I decided to switch labs. As expected, it was a very challenging environment and having only studied two years of physics at Brandeis, I wasn’t as prepared as most of the other students. I struggled for the first two years. Everyone worked so extremely hard at Stanford and there I was, struggling to be the best, but, in the beginning, I couldn’t even be average.
Fast forward four years. I had worked my butt off and ended up becoming the first Mexican woman to graduate with a PhD in physics from Stanford. It was the best day of my life – I kept thinking that I was so blessed to have my parents live to see this! It was so moving, I was crying so much and I couldn’t believe what had happened. My friends had flown in from all over the world to be with me. It was amazing.
When people hear what I do, they – especially teenage girls – feel intimidated. But, when they hear the whole story, their tune changes. I tell them that I know what it is like to not understand something. I was not the kind of person where comprehension of my science came naturally. But I did it. And if I can do it, anyone can do it! My story can be inspirational to someone who comes from a background completely lacking in science because they, like me, can reach their goal.
DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?
I was always a very curious girl growing up. I had a lot of interests, one of which being theatre. I wanted to be an actress when I was young, but my father didn’t let me pursue that as a career, which was probably a good idea. But, during high school, I went to an after school drama program. I wrote my own plays – three of them – and performed one of them. I was in heaven when I was on stage.
In NY, I have tried to do a little bit of that. Of course, I’ve never done any big roles, but I will be an extra in a film, or if there is a small production being made in Spanish, I will play a part. It doesn’t matter how big the role is – I just love doing something creative and getting into a character.
DXS: What types of productions and/or films have you done?
I don’t think I would come up in the credits as an extra, but I did a movie with Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Megan Fox in the movie “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” It was a very, very fun film! In theatre, Jean Genet, who is a French playwright, has a play called The Maids, and I was the madame.
DXS: Do you find that your scientific background informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?
For me, physics is not a subject that you just teach in a complex way in a classroom. Rather, physics is something that is related to everyday life.
I have a concept that I call “physics glasses.” And what I mean by that is, for me, physics is not a subject that you just teach in a complex way in a classroom. Rather, physics is something that is related to everyday life. From the moment you wake up, you can just put on your physics glasses. It is a mode of thinking – it is a way where although reality can be very rich and diverse, physics goes very deep and it abstracts commonalities, general principles that apply to many things. To give you an example, I asked the kids in the audience of my TEDYouth talk, “what do the sun, the ocean, and a symphony orchestra have in common?” When just looking at them on the surface, there isn’t much in common. I mean, they are all beautiful things but they are not obviously related. But, to a physicist, they are all waves. You have sound waves, light waves, and water waves and you can interchange many of the concepts in physics to explain all three.
Where most of us see the world with our eyes through light waves, other might see the world differently. Take, for example, my friend Juan, who is blind. He “sees” the world with sound waves – he senses sound as it bounces off the objects around him. Through this, he can bike, play basketball, and do a load of activities using sound as a guide. This is one of my favorite analogies because, really, physics “infects” the way I see the world.
To give you a more specific example in the creativity realm, when I got to NY, I felt really un-feminine. When I was studying physics, I felt that if I was even slightly feminine, I wouldn’t be respected. It didn’t help that some of the other women in the physics program at Stanford were more of a “guy's girl,” always wearing a baseball cap and t-shirts. Now, since I am Latin, I first showed up wearing a skirt to class, but I quickly learned to dress down. Looking feminine would assure that no one would talk to me in class.
So, when I got to NY, I had an explosion. I wanted to know what it was like to express myself as a woman and my friend suggested that I do some modeling. So I did. It was a brief, lasting about a year. But during that time, my friend, who was a designer from Mexico, asked me to work with her and I wrote and did some videos about the physics of fashion, which also included the physics of high heels video.
Some people could consider fashion to be superficial, but not me. I love fashion and color. But, other scientists generally looked down upon you for liking this sort of thing. This fueled my desire to prove to everyone that there actually is science everywhere, including fashion, and that they shouldn’t be snobs about it. There is complex science in how different materials work, how they interact with the environment and you can prove to the women, like my mother and friends back home who think that science has nothing to do with their everyday lives, that it has EVERYTHING to do with it. So I talked about a Newtonian theory for color – how to pick the right color for you based on how much light the color would reflect on that day, etc.
DXS: Like a more sophisticated version of colors based on your “season?”
I also did pieces on the materials, including some of the newest engineering accomplishments with fabric. For example, I hooked up with a woman and helped her to design a fashionable and very scientific coat. It ended up costing $11,000, but it was made up of nano fibers and it had a patch in it that could detect the temperature and the probability of rain. Based on this probability, it could change permeability of the fabric. It was a very light coat that was comfortable in nice weather, but when it would rain, it would become impermeable to water once it detected a high probability of rain, transforming into a raincoat.
DXS: That’s incredible! I wish it wasn’t $11,000!
Yeah, that’s usually the problems with these technologies. They are often so novel, but one day I’m sure we can figure out how to make things like this scalable.
Science is very much what guides my thinking when I am being creative and I wish I had more time to do creative things while being influenced by a scientific mindset.
DXS: It is so cool that physics has such an incredible overlap with everyday living. Like, when we take a shower, I want to know “how is the water getting pumped from the ground or through pipes and make its way out of the showerhead?” But, as a biochemist, I often find it hard to relate everyday things to biochemistry, but I would like to!
It's funny that you say that. When I try to teach girls that the worst thing they can do is memorize. Critical thinking is so important and they shouldn’t take anything at face value, and they should even question teachers and authoritative figures in their lives. Always ask: what goes into making this? Why is this here? Why is it this way and not another? Constantly ask questions. That s the gift that physics will give you.
DXS: Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently—either more positively or more negatively?
I think it is because I am bubbly and friendly and that often makes an impression as being unintelligent. For them it seems that if a woman is intelligent, she is very cold and distant and serious.
Without saying I am a scientist, I can tell you that people have come up to me and told me that before they even hear me speak, they think I am dumb. They are usually surprised that I am smart! I think it is because I am bubbly and friendly and that often makes an impression as being unintelligent. For them it seems that if a woman is intelligent, she is very cold and distant and serious.
I’ve met a lot of physicists, and yes, some of them do tend to be that way, often as a reaction to how others treat them. Or, people would say to me that, because I am Latin, my cultural identity comes across as being warm and the last thing they’d expect me to be into was something as cold as physics. So yeah, I have definitely been judged so many times!
It even happens in my current job on Wall Street, especially with my male peers. When there are off site client meetings, I’m often accompanied by my male sales colleague. Sales people are generally required to know less about the complexities behind our risk models compared to someone on a more research-oriented role, like me, and he will bring me along to these sales meetings in case the potential client has more sophisticated questions that go beyond what he can comfortably answer. Many times upon meeting the clients for the first time they think that I am the sales person, there to be the smiling face to sell them something, and that he is the risk modeler. They always direct their mathematical questions to him.
It came to a point where I became so annoyed that I decided to stop caring. Now, my sales colleague goes out for drinks with the clients and I know that I am going to be invisible. So I don’t go anymore. I know that I am always going to struggle to get the full intellectual respect in that industry – it will always be a challenge.
DXS: Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?
Yes, absolutely. For example in Mexico, unlike the US, you absolutely have to do an honors thesis project as an undergrad in science. Because I had already studied philosophy for four years, I wanted to do a thesis project in philosophy. But I also wanted to do one in physics. I recall that back in 1997, when you presented a dissertation in front of the physics community, if you had any power point, forget it. You would be immediately be called dumb or not a good physicist. Because, who takes the time to do something fancy! If you had any color in your presentation, forget it!So, literally, the smartest students in physics were people who didn’t really communicate that well, or didn’t really speak English that well, or just didn’t really make an effort. Their slides were on those overhead projector things with those rolls of plastic sheets, and most of their talks were so confusing and couldn't be interpreted! But they were respected! It was just assumed that if the formula looked complex, they were probably right.
So what I did was completely different. I infused my talk with my spiciness and color. I did an artwork of liquid crystals, which was my research at Brandeis. Liquid crystals are little cigar-shaped molecules that actually make up the screen of your laptop. If you pass an electric field through them, they all orient themselves and that is how we can use them for displays in our laptops and TVs. I colored these cigar-shaped molecules with purples and reds and greens, and I tried to explain it at the most basic level. This is because of one my philosophy professors in Mexico, who told me that if you cannot explain what you do to your grandmother or 6 year old niece, you don’t understand what you are doing - I loved it!
And I said to myself that I shouldn’t care what they think. I pretty much expected to not gain a lot of respect from the physics department, but it had the opposite effect! I actually had one of the professors from that department come up to me and tell me that he had never really understood what a liquid crystal looked like or what it really was! He said that “finally I understand [liquid crystals] because of your drawing. Thank you!” It was incredible!To see the effect on people and from then on, I bounced up in down, I made jokes, I put in creativity. It doesn’t always have a great effect on very serious audiences, but the younger generation is definitely appreciative. When it keeps going well, you gain confidence. And, for me, I even started wearing high heels to the next talk. When someone commented about my attire, I would counter, hey I have a PhD!
DXS: How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?
This question is deep and a little bit of a struggle at the moment. This is because I still have that fear – when I arrived in NY, I did that short stint in modeling and I expressed myself and I would dress very creatively – just like my other girlfriends who were not scientists. But I did feel a little bit of a backlash. By that I mean that I would post a photo of myself on Facebook or something like that. They were pretty pictures, not at all seductive or provocative, and my high school mates, usually male, would write me saying: “I always knew you as a serious person and you have achieved so many things – I am just telling you for your own good that this can really damage your image.” That made me reply with “so you’re telling me that being smart is actually kind of a bummer?” That actually means that I have to dress very differently from what other women wear for the rest of my life?
I remember feeling very upset about all of that. I think that not being taken seriously is still a little bit of a fear of and I think my website has damaged my serious image a little bit. As a scientist, I was very secluded from the outside world. I didn’t have a lot of friends when I moved here, but I did know an amazing and powerful woman who happened to be the CEO of Blip TV. She was insisting that I do videos! So she invited me to her place and showed me how to do video. Being the quick woman that she was, she asked me to make up a name for myself on the spot. When I didn’t answer, she instantly coined “The Science Babe” for me. I was like, sure, what a cool idea!
If you are smart, if you are empowered, you will be a babe no matter how you look. I am trying to shift what people think of when they think “scientist.”
It was kind of a cute name, but because English is not my first language, I don’t always understand some of the cultural connotations associated with some English words. A few months later, I started to get a few emails from mothers who were upset that I was using my looks. They would say things like “Are you saying that women have to be in the kitchen or wear short skirts to be scientists?” I would answer that no, that was not it at all. I would further explain that I was trying to change the definition of “babe.” If you are smart, if you are empowered, you will be a babe no matter how you look. I am trying to shift what people think of when they think “scientist.”
I don’t feel quite successful with The Science Babe. It seems like there are quite a few people, especially some from the older generation, who say that they’d love to introduce me to fancy science organizations but are worried that the name “the science babe” will make it difficult. Also, I had the BBC wanted to talk to me about doing a TV show in NY, and then they said but there’s so much bad stuff out there about you! And I was like, what do you mean? They answered “All these things with the “science babe” brand…”
It doesn’t happen all the time, but some people are really critical about the science babe theme, citing that its way too feminine. Other female scientists that haven’t gone that route have perhaps discounted my seriousness about science. They assume that what I am doing is not really that important because I do focus on the science everyday life, which is simpler, and it is too much color and too much vivaciousness for our field. I feel like my femininity has decreased over the last few years because I’ve been too nervous about not being taken seriously. It s almost like the balance tipped the other way. I feel like perhaps I’ve feminized things to a fault and now I want to appear more serious. So, I am changing my website to “Science With Debbie” because I really felt the backlash.
It is a struggle to find the balance between being able to express my femininity and presenting myself in a way that people will take me seriously. In a way, I wish I had a little more courage to not care that much about what people have to say about the science babe but, unfortunately, agents have told me that if I don’t go to the “dumbed down version of femininity” I would get better speaking engagements. Being feminine has literally affected my career, and it’s because of other people’s perceptions. I’m never going to be bland, but I will try to change things so I am more serious.
DXS: Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?
The fact that I am approachable and pretty down to earth has allowed me to reach corners of society that more distant and fancy scientists would never even consider. For instance, I am going to a small university to give a talk. Some of my friends ask why I even bother, especially considering that this institution is not the most renowned university. But, I feel the opposite – it is these corners that need the influence the most! Similarly, when I go to Hispanic high schools, many of the mothers have never seen a scientist. And there I am, a scientist from Mexico, speaking to them and their kids. It is that powerful combination of being a smart and warm female that can be shocking, which is cool.
In line with this, there was an experiment where women were asked to draw a female scientist. Most drew a plain, relatively unattractive woman. Immediately when you break that mold, it has an incredible effect. People say, “Hey! She kind of looks like me and she dresses like me. Maybe I can do science too!” Some girls are afraid that by being smart, boys won’t talk to them. My femininity allows me to be a voice in a field that has tended to isolate themselves from the public, which is bad. Some of my colleagues have become a little snobbish. The fact that I have serious credentials (PhD and 2 postdocs) shows that I had to work like crazy – looks and personality can only go so far. It s hard work that gets you there! Serious science communication has a lot of math and problem solving in order to explain things accurately to the public. So I still feel like I am doing science!