Q&A With Deborah Berebichez: Seeing the World Through Physics Glasses

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 and now hosts National Geographic's Humanly Impossible. We're also releasing the Spanish-language version of Deborah's Story Collider story, "Passing On the Gift."

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Deborah Berebichez: Passing on the gift

Deborah Berebichez was told she couldn't study physics because it wasn't for girls -- until she got assistance for an unexpected reason.

Please note: This story is also available in Spanish here.

Deborah Berebichez is the Chief Data Scientist at Metis, a Ph.D. physicist and a Discovery Channel TV host. She is the first Mexican woman to graduate with a physics Ph.D. from Stanford University. Dr. Berebichez is the co-host of Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science TV show (2012 – present) where she uses her physics background to explain the science behind extraordinary engineering feats. She also appears as an expert on the Travel Chanel, NOVA, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and numerous international media outlets. Deborah’s passion is to empower young people to learn science and to improve the state of STEM education in the world and her work in science outreach has been widely recognized. She is a John C. Whitehead Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and a recipient of the Top Latina Tech Blogger award by the Association of Latinos in Social Media LATISM. Currently at Metis she leads the creation and growth of exceptional data science training opportunities. 

You can also find the story Deborah told later with her partner, Neer Asherie, here.


Episode Transcript

So, I’m going to tell you a story that’s not just a short story but it’s really the story of my life.  I grew up in Mexico City in a fairly conservative community where, since I was very young, I was pretty much discouraged from doing anything technical or scientific or mathematic.  My mother came from Guatemala and married my father when she was 19 years old and had me when she was 20 and pretty much told me that I better not like anything studious or academic because no boys would ever talk to me.  To be honest, I think she was right.  But I kind of, you know, I keep hoping.

So I grew up in this community and I was just really curious about math and physics and all that, but I never had the courage to do it or explore it because it just wasn’t allowed and it just wasn’t for me.

Then also, I happen to be kind of gregarious and social, so forget about it.  It’s like even worse because you’re either social and you have friends or you’re studious and you do math, that’s it.  

So I grew up in this community and I really was extremely inquisitive.  I annoyed pretty much everyone around me, my teachers, my parents, my friends, because I ask everything, “Why?  Why?  Why does this happen the way it does?”

And in came high school and I said, “I want to study physics and philosophy.”  I guess, I thought philosophy is kind of like physics.  It uses a different method but it still asks questions about the world and why things happen the way they do and so on.  But it didn’t really go well with anyone.

My mother was appalled.  Like, “No way.  You should just study a more feminine career, you know, like entertainment or communications, if it is that you’re going to school.”

And my counselor in high school was, “Math is not really for women and let me help you and gear you towards a more feminine career.”

My friends were the same.  Like philosophy and physics have nothing to do with each other.  So I decided to repress those feelings and really focus on something that was more viable.  So after high school, I enrolled in the philosophy department in a private college where all the nice kids went in Mexico, and all my friends and what they call in-the-meantime, while you find a husband and you can get married and so on.  

So I was studying philosophy but, quickly, I realized that the more I tried to suppress those feelings of passion for math and for reading the biographies of all these amazing scientists that I couldn’t share with anyone, the more I tried, the more it was bursting.  I really felt like I couldn’t take this anymore and I was just faking it through the world.  I saw my life as meaningless because I had to pretend that I didn’t like all these things that were surrounding me.  I didn’t have all these questions.

So I enrolled in philosophy and, after two years, I was devouring the courses like philosophy of science and logic and all these equations and all that that I got a glimpse of, but I was terrified.  I wasn’t really the typical student that was great in math, like the math wizard in the class.  I wasn’t bad at it but I really wasn’t... like I didn’t have parents who were incredibly cultivated who had PhDs in Engineering from the United States.  Nothing like that.

So I said, “Okay, this is really not my lot in life.”  I continued with philosophy until, one day, I just said, “I gotta try.”

I applied to schools in the U.S. because I found out that in the U.S., you can study many subjects, not just one.  So I got a scholarship, fortunately, to attend Brandeis University which is a small school in Massachusetts.  I arrived there and I realized that there were other women studying math and science, and I was very happy about that.

I enrolled very fearfully, but I enrolled in this course that was a very intro course called Astronomy 101 where we were like 200 students and there was a microphone in class and there was no identity.  It was just like a sea of faces trying to pass with a good grade and that was it.  But I was so curious and so passionate about every little thing they said that I became very good friends with the teaching assistant who was a graduate student from India.  And I just got back from India a day ago, so this is pretty special for me to tell you this story today.

This man by the name of Rupesh just told me that my eyes would light up every time that I asked questions about the universe and the planets and the orbits, and I wanted to talk to him beyond the tasks of my assignments.  I was really deeply curious about why the world worked the way it did.

So one day, we’re walking, I was selected to attend the leadership course that summer, and we’re walking.  I had a scholarship for only two years because I was a transfer student from Mexico.  I was walking in Harvard Square in Boston and I sit down next to the Divinity School and a tree and something just burst in me.  With tears in my eyes, I tell Rupesh, “I just don’t want to die without trying.  I want to do physics.”

We didn’t have cellphones at the time but he called his adviser, who was my professor at the class.  He didn’t even know who I was.  And he said, “I have a student here.  She’s is Philosophy.  She is dying to do physics.  She has a scholarship for only a year-and-a-half more, two years.  What can we do?”

So this adviser says, “Bring her to me.”

I go to a meeting, he hands me a book and he says, “This is a book called Div, Grad, and Curl,” which is vector calculus.  Pretty advanced math for somebody who didn’t even remember algebra.  And says, “If by the end of the summer you can do this, we’ll let you skip through the first two years of the physics major.”

I’m like, “Holy cow!  This man is joking.”

Not only that, but I find out that the reason why they’re doing this is because there’s another person quite a bit older than me, Ed Witten who, by the way, is a genius in physics and he’s the father of String Theory, a famous physics theory, who had done this before at Brandeis.  He switched from history to math.

So this professor thought, “Oh, she’s going to be able to do it.”

So I spent this crazy summer where I was so hungry for knowledge and so incredibly interested and passionate about physics that I persevered like crazy.  I saw no other thing than my first love, which were equations.

And Rupesh, this Indian man, sat with me every day after my two hours of lab in the morning and taught me.  But because of time constraints, it was like, Saturday, derivatives.  You got to understand.  I mean, people took derivatives for like a whole semester or a quarter.

And then Sunday, integrals.  I didn’t even have time for the theory.  It was really just like practice and practice.  That’s why I always tell people that if I was able to do it with that background, anyone could do it.

So I persevered and across two months in that summer, Rupesh managed to not only believe in me but tutor me and mentor me in all these topics.  And I presented the test come September and I passed and I enter the Physics major in the second-and-a-half year.  

And here I am in class.  Rupesh says, “Now, you’re on your own.  Goodbye.”

And here I am in class and I’m like, “Holy cow!”  All these people.  These are like the physics geniuses, the math wizards whose parents were either the top engineers or Nobel Prize winners and all that.  And here I am, little me, I have no background, very little knowledge of things.  So I just tried to not burn too many capacitors in the electronics lab and kind of walk my way through things.

But I’m really in love with knowledge and I keep hiding it from my parents.  I recall my visits to Mexico where I was mostly introduced to potential bachelors and I had to hide the fact that I like math.  Sometimes I would read books about the history of science because I wasn’t really allowed to confess that I was studying science.  

It’s kind of a funny thing because I guess, in the U.S., I learned that it was kind of prestigious to be a scientist and, back home, it was something that I had to hide.  So it was a big realization that I was sort of a strange person within my community.

So I graduated, after a lot of work, with highest honors in physics and philosophy from Brandeis.  Then I went back to Mexico and, a few years later, I was crazy enough to… not even really knowing who I was writing to, but I wrote an email to this researcher in California who invited me to do work with him.  Basically, I got admitted to do my PhD with the most current Nobel Prize winner, who is now the Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu.

I worked at Stanford and I managed to finish my PhD.  In 2005, I became the first Mexican woman to gain a PhD in Physics from Stanford.  Thank you.

Then the reason why I find the story about Rupesh compelling is because, for those two or three months when Rupesh was teaching me and believing in me nonstop, I always wanted to compensate him for his tutoring. 

I asked him… you know, every day I would buy him lunch or something but there was just so many things that I wanted to do for him or pay him back.  And he said, “No, let me tell you a story.” And this is, I believe, a very sort of Indian culture story.

He said to me, “When I was growing up in the mountains in Darjeeling, there was an old man who used to climb up every day and teach me and my sisters English, math, and the tabla, which is a musical instrument.  And every day my father said, “Let me pay you because you’re educating my children.”

And this old man said, “No.  The only way you could ever pay me back is if you do this with someone else in the world.”

So Rupesh chose me and he did that with me.  That’s how my mission to encourage and educate other people who, like myself, feel attracted to science but that for some reason, whether it be financial or social or any other reason, feel that they can’t do it, those are the people that I try to reach and encourage and illuminate and tell them that no matter what, education is the best gift that you can give to yourself and to your loved ones because nobody can ever take that away from you.

Thank you.

Q&A With Matt Mercier: From the Aquarium to Edgar Allan Poe

On stage at the Story Collider last October, Matt Mercier told an extraordinary story of a high-school physics love triangle (really!), which became one of our most popular podcasts. What he didn't say in that story (because it wasn't relevant) was that he worked for a while as the docent of the Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx. We couldn't let that rest, though, so I called him up to talk about his work there, and discovered an unexpected connection to science . . . in the form of an aquarium and Poe's version of the Big Bang.

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