In Love with Science: Stories about loving science

This week, we’re presenting two stories from people who made science their one and only.

Part 1: Parmvir Bahia struggles to appease her parents’ desires for an Indian son-in-law while also satisfying her own desires to be a scientist.

Parmvir Bahia is a short, British-Indian, neuroscience PhD working at the University of South Florida. She studies the role of nerves in the respiratory system and how they might hold the key to understanding diseases like asthma and COPD. When not researching or writing long lists of self-describing adjectives she runs the science communication and outreach initiatives: taste of science – a science festival for adults, and a podcast called 2Scientists. She also enjoys running on trails and glasses of red wine, but not usually at the same time.

Part 2: Monica Dunford finds physics cold and boring until she gets a summer job in a lab that changes everything.

Monica Dunford is an experimental high-energy particle physicist working on the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. She is currently at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Prof. Dunford’s research ranges from combing through petabytes of data in search of new elusive particles to crawling in small, dusty places connecting thousands of kilometers of cables.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Parmvir Bahia

It’s a lovely day in England and by that I mean it’s not raining.  I’m eight years old and at my uncle’s wedding. I’m dressed up to the nines dancing around, but I think I’m awesome because I have no reason to assume otherwise.  

A random auntie comes over to speak to my mom and the subject turns to that of children.  My mom points out my two sisters and I and the auntie says, “Oh, no sons?”

“No,” says mom.  

“That’s okay,” she says unconvincingly.  “Girls are all right too.”

Parmvir Bahia shares her story on The Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in October, 2018. The show was presented in partnership with the RockEDU and ASBMB’s SciOut 2018 un-conference. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Parmvir Bahia shares her story on The Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in October, 2018. The show was presented in partnership with the RockEDU and ASBMB’s SciOut 2018 un-conference. Photo by Zhen Qin.

That’s when I realized that the boy-child is king and his birth is to be celebrated and the girls are reduced to what kind of marriage material we are and become a lifelong kind of damage control exercise.  “She's too fat, too thin, too tall, too dark. She can’t cook, she goes out too much, I've seen her with boys.”

And even aged eight, I’m getting super frustrated.  I’m like, “Fuck’s sake. What is it that they can do that I cannot?  Like, okay, you can pee standing up. I don't see anyone winning awards for that.”  

So for my parents and I, this is the beginning of a struggle between what I can and what I should do.  My dad, on the one hand, is teaching his daughters how to use power tools, how to change a light bulb, how to rewire a plug, and my mom, in the meanwhile, is telling me how, before I was born, she expected me to be a boy.  That kind of stings. She thought I'd be clever, an engineer or something, as if that’s something that’s not possible for a girl.

She goes ahead, though, and she names me ‘Parmvir’.  For those of you that don’t know, Sikh names are unisex.  But ‘Parmvir’ tends to go to boys because it means ‘The Greatest’ or ‘The One True Warrior’.  This does mean, though, mine taken with my middle name means I am ‘Warrior Princess’.

Admittedly, it would be much easier to be called ‘Xena’ than ‘Warrior Princess Parmvir’ but where’s the fun in that?  

So names aside, my sisters and I, being girls, had to be protected even on the mean, leafy suburban streets of London.  That meant no going out, no after-school activities, and definitely no boyfriends. We were to go from our parents’ house to our husband’s.  So in the absence of any kind of social life, it meant I put my head down and studied.

I realized that I loved science and I excelled at it and that’s something that my parents were proud of.  At some stage as an undergraduate, I realized that somebody would pay me to do experiments for a living. Like how awesome is that!  I loved the idea of being at the forefront of something new, being able to use super cool new techniques. When I first heard of fluorescent proteins or saw an action potential from a nerve, you should have seen my little face.  I was in nerd heaven.

As an idealistic twenty-year-old, I realized at some stage, to get ahead, I should probably get a PhD.  

“No.” mum says, “You're going to be too old by the time you're done.”  You realize she's insinuating I’m going to end up an old maid.

So I channel my inner Xena, I stand up for myself, and I remind her that she also had to battle with her family in India in order to get a masters.  She put off getting married until she got married to my dad at the ripe old age of 26. I wanted to share with her this was my dream. I knew that she hadn’t been able to live hers because when she moved to the U.K. she wasn’t confident enough with her English to carry on teaching, so that meant she ended up working in factories the rest of her life.  

“Fine,” she relinquishes, “but no one wants to marry an over-educated girl.”  

But I complete my PhD in pharmacology and I go on to do my first postdoc.  All the while, my family is rushing me to meet suitable boys, me fending them off whilst dating decidedly unsuitable boys.  I have a thing, you see, for tall, skinny, dark-haired, white men and I was staying very true to type. Of course, because I’m not meant to have a boyfriend, as far as they're concerned I don't have one.  

Now, the time comes to find a new job and I’m offered a neuroscience postdoc at the University of South Florida.  Aged thirty, the desire to marry me off is ramping up to fever pitch and so I’m ready to cross the Atlantic for that reason alone, even to Florida.  But as a scientist, I get to rationalize that it would look good on my CV to have a stint in the U.S. and so I packed my bags and I moved to Tampa.

There, in a new city with no friends, I sign up to a running club and that’s where I meet a cute and funny Spaniard called David, who also turns out to be a scientist.  We share in the scientific highs, we commiserate when another grant goes down the pan. He's also a big fan of outreach and science communication. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be here today.  

We go from being acquaintances to friends, from friends to a couple.  And whether it was because I realize I trusted him with all of my passwords or - we’re like that - or that he makes me laugh until I cry, or whether it’s just his tolerance of this foul-mouthed, short-tempered, crazy woman that he tolerates with this superhuman patience that I realize that I don’t want to be with anybody else.  

So when my mom said no one wants to marry an over-educated girl, replace the ‘no one’ with ‘no nice Sikh boys’.  And I get it. They wanted me to marry someone of my own culture because the England they experienced as immigrants in the ‘70s was not the England I experienced as a first generation growing up there.  So they had these ideas about code of honor and continuing that culture.

David, in the meanwhile, is probably not finding this very easy to understand but he takes this all with amazingly good grace.  You may be wondering maybe I should have spoken to my parents. I’m sure everything would have been fine. Like what’s the worst that could happen?  

I heard the horror stories about, for example, a Sikh woman, a neighbor of ours, who married a Jamaican guy.  Her parents disowned her and so they’ve never met their awesome grandchildren. Or the girl who had a boyfriend of a different religion who knew her parents didn’t approve, who was trying to run away except the parents found out.  They killed her and they buried here in a concrete floor. And while there's no universe in which I imagine my parents ever trying to hurt me, there was a possibility they wouldn’t speak to me again.

So not wanting to confront this, David agreed to stay my not-so-little secret.  Until one random Sunday morning, he's babbling on about applying for a green card and how this would be so much easier if we were a couple.  

I’m like, “What?  What are you talking about?  You mean like a married couple?”  And that’s how he proposes, as awkwardly as only a computer scientist can.  How could I possibly say no?

Obviously, the time came to kind of ‘out’ myself from this secret.  As you may have realized, I’m not exactly a shy and retiring type. I have, as we say in the U.K., got a mouth on me.  At that time, I was thirty-three years old. I had a PhD and I traveled the world. I'd given talks at big conferences and yet the idea of raising the subject of David with my parents has me shitting bricks.  I try and convince myself that at this stage they'll be happy I’m marrying anybody but it’s not helping to calm the nerves at all.

So the time comes and it coincides with the trip to the U.K. for my sister’s big, fat, three-day Indian wedding.  With all the food, the clothes, the drunken dancing, this is just the icing on my shit cake.

After the festivities are over, everybody else has gone to bed.  It’s just my mom and I left on the sofa. She turns to be and the subject turns to the inevitable.  “So when are you going to find a nice boy to marry?”

Parmvir Bahia shares her story on The Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in October, 2018. The show was presented in partnership with the RockEDU and ASBMB’s SciOut 2018 un-conference. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Parmvir Bahia shares her story on The Story Collider stage at Caveat in NYC in October, 2018. The show was presented in partnership with the RockEDU and ASBMB’s SciOut 2018 un-conference. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.  “Actually, Mom, do you remember David who got stranded in London for Christmas last year?”  

“Yes,” she says.  And I finally explain who he is, where he's from, what he does, all the shit they should have heard from me years ago.  

Then she says with the face of a lifelong vegetarian that’s just been offered a ham sandwich, “You are going to get married, right?  You’re not just going to live together?”

“Yes, mom.  That’s the plan.”  

“Okay,” she says.  

And I’m not sure I heard the exact words to share with you how relieved I was but that one little phrase meant the decades of pressure and expectation and guilt were finally lifted from my shoulders.  

She looks kind of sad.  I was trying not to kind of jump up and down on the sofa with joy.  Yay for happy endings. She can’t have been that sad, though. She turns to me at the end of it and says, “There are no Indians in Tampa?”

“All right, mom.”  

My dad, in the meanwhile, is too excited at the prospect of going to Spain for our wedding.  He seems to be overlooking the whiteness of his future son-in-law.

I'd love to tell you that my parents, everything that they did was for our benefit.  They honestly thought they were doing the best for us. And my mom in this story will have come across as complete hard-ass, which she is, but at the same time she is quirky, she is funny, she is the most forgiving person I know.  She loves her kids with all of her heart and now David is one of them. In fact, actually both of my parents adore him. He's free tech support as far as they're concerned.

While some cultural changes are very, very slow and painful, I’m now forty and my mom will still ask me if I've made David’s dinner.  Actually while I’m here, she's worried he's not eating properly. But it feels like, as a culture, my family is starting to come around.  

So I now have cousins, one married to Robby and one married to Steve.  David has met the clans both in the U.K. and in India, so he has been accepted.  But there's more than one kind of acceptance and there's one that we have to have for each other is academics because that’s weird, frankly, like it’s a weird situation to be in.  And our relationship works because of our shared love for science and the fact that we tolerate all the crap that comes with being a scientist. It works because he sees me as his equal and it works because I am that over-educated girl.  Thank you.

 

Part 2: Monica Dunford

I was in crisis.  It was my freshman year of college and I discovered that I hated chemistry.  Well, actually, let’s be honest.  I was bad at chemistry.  Every single one of my chemistry experiments was ending in explosion.  If the purpose of the course had been to create the perfect mushroom cloud then I would have been acing the class. 

Now, to make matters worse, my backup plan, which had been to major in creative writing, was going even worse.  I had never seen grades so low.  Suddenly that year which had started off with such youthful optimism was literally going up in smoke. 

Monica Dunford shares her story with us at Prachtwerk in the Berlin Science Week in partnership with Springer Nature’s Springer Storytellers program in November, 2018. Photo by David Ausserhofer.

Monica Dunford shares her story with us at Prachtwerk in the Berlin Science Week in partnership with Springer Nature’s Springer Storytellers program in November, 2018. Photo by David Ausserhofer.

So one day after one of my physics classes, the professor was announcing that they were looking for help in the summer in the labs.  I wasn’t interested.  Physics to me was everything that was boring.  It was cold.  It was passionless.  I mean, honestly, does anyone like boxes on an incline?  I mean, does anyone here get excited about friction? 

So they would be paying six bucks an hour, he continued, and I suddenly stopped and looked up.  Six bucks an hour.  Now, that was a rate a girl could sell her soul to the devil for.  So I applied and, much to my surprise, since I basically met none of their requirements, was accepted. 

The first day on the job was one of those typical Southern California days, beautiful blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, perfect temperature.  The professor of the lab took me downstairs into the basement and it was cold, dark and loud.  He swung open the door in one gesture and says, “This is my lab.” 

And I am greeted with what looks like a pile of junk.  Off to one side there was this water tank made out of plywood and trash bags and in the middle of the room was a table that was full of scraps and other bits of wire.  Then off to one side there was this freezer that looked just like the one my dad had got at a garage sale for like 15 bucks and my mother was so pissed. 

Then I thought to myself, “This surely can’t be cutting edge research.  This junk pile here cannot be cutting edge research.  I mean, there must be some mistake.  The real lab must be behind some door somewhere.  This can’t be it.” 

But he was in another world.  He gazed around the room like a man in love.  “This is my lab,” I whispered. 

Now, my 19-year-old self looked up at him and thought, “What a loser.  What a loser.  Am I really going to spend my summer in this cold, dark place?”

But six bucks an hour is six bucks an hour so that’s how I spent my summer, in that cold, dark place. 

And it was assembly line work.  I was basically working on putting together light-sensitive light detectors called PMTs.  I would take one out of the box, I would put it on the table, I would test it.  I would put it into the tank of water, I would test it.  I would into the freezer, I would test it.  I sent all this data to some graduate student upstairs who I never saw, and I did this hundreds of times. 

There was no moment of epiphany that summer.  There was no moment of revelation.  There was no moment of even real fun.  But it was in that junkyard that I discovered and learned how to do cutting edge research. 

I remember once, I was sitting at the table trying to fix something and I went through a bunch of papers looking for the instruction manual.  And I had to break out in laughter because it was like I have left the instruction-manual territory long ago.  This is cutting edge.  When something arrives to you sleek and fancy, like your iPhone, that’s no longer cutting edge.  That’s production. 

Research is a long and winding road full of twists and turns and sharp jabs sometimes.  And it is, therefore, by definition just messy. 

So one cold, dark lab led to another.  I found myself working in labs, working in mines underneath mountains, in mines that were 2,000 meters underground.  In going dark and deep I discovered a love for the vast and infinite. 

Now, I’m a particle physicist, which means that I study the tiniest particles we know of, tinier than any atom.  Yet these particles hold the key to a lot of things about the universe.  For example, why is there no antimatter me?  Why do we have galaxies?  Why are we even here?  These were the questions that I wanted to find the answer to.  This was part of that long, windy road that I wanted to be on. 

Besides, I realized I kind of liked the junkyard feel.  Actually, as a matter of fact, my grandfather actually owned a junkyard.  So it was, in a sense, sort of like coming home.

After I finished my PhD I couldn’t get on a plane to Geneva fast enough.  In Geneva, Switzerland they were building the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest machine built by man, or so it’s marketed.  It was about to turn on.  It was about to start.  And my timing was going to be perfect.  I wanted to be right there in the middle of it when it started. 

We were working nights and days and weekends to get this machine working, to get the detector working.  I work on the ATLAS experiment and it’s one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.  It’s big in every dimension.  It’s five stories tall, it’s 7,000 tons, it has more than 3,000 kilometers of cable and, most importantly, it has a 15-page author list. 

So I was working on the electronics and I was doing everything from testing the electronics to making sure they're working correctly to literally on my hands and knees, crawling under the floor to run cable. 

Monica Dunford shares her story with us at Prachtwerk in the Berlin Science Week in partnership with Springer Nature’s Springer Storytellers program in November, 2018. Photo by David Ausserhofer.

Monica Dunford shares her story with us at Prachtwerk in the Berlin Science Week in partnership with Springer Nature’s Springer Storytellers program in November, 2018. Photo by David Ausserhofer.

And we were running into problems everywhere.  This is the detector that took 15 years to build and we were getting cables coming from the U.S. that weren’t fitting to electronics boards that were coming from Brazil, that weren’t interfacing with other boards that were coming from Germany.  So there we were, working, as I said, nights and weekends just to get this thing running. 

Now, at the same time there were 15 pages of other physicists and technicians who were working on getting the accelerator working, the LHC.  The LHC is basically the easiest thing you could design.  You take two things, in our case protons, and you smash them together.  Out of that collision comes a lot of stuff and the ATLAS detector is like a gigantic camera taking a picture of all of that stuff.  So we were like working like mad to get the detector working and the LHC team was working like mad to get the accelerator working and it was all coming to the day of first beam. 

Finally, the day of first beam arrived and it was a big event.  Hundreds of news agencies descended on CERN like some sort of swarm of locusts.  They were just flowing everywhere.  It was so big that we were actually the Google emblem for the day.  So to fail on this day would be to fail in front of every Google user on the planet. 

So it was pretty tough.  The pressure was high.  I kept telling myself that I was excited but the truth was I couldn’t sleep.  I kept staying awake at night thinking to myself, “Please, God.  If it fails, don’t let it be my cable.” 

Just to up the ante a little bit, we were going to do this, we were going to run the beam literally for the first time in front of the press.  We weren’t going to do a single test run beforehand.  We were just going to do it right in front of them. 

Now, at the time, that sounded like a good idea, but in retrospect it was probably pretty stupid.  So the LHC, therefore, was going to throw us a little bit of a softball.  Usually, we take two beams and we collide them together but that’s pretty hard to do.  The beams are microscopic.  And our detector has to be timed to the nanosecond.  So if our detector is not functioning correctly what it means is that, essentially, we take the picture at the wrong time and we miss the event.  We were very afraid that this would happen. 

So the LHC was going to send a single beam around and it was going to smash that beam into a metal plate.  That was going to be the equivalent of a floodlight of particles.  The logic behind this was basically, well, we've got a hundred million channels.  Let’s just hit them all.  One has to be working. 

And so that’s what we did.  We sent around a single beam and we tried to hit every single one of our electronics simultaneously. 

On the day of first beam, I remember walking into a control room and I was passing news truck after news truck after news truck, and my heart just sank at each one.  It’s not that I was afraid of failure.  Research is all about failure.  It’s about failing, tweaking, failing, tweaking, tweaking again, failing again.  It was failure going viral.  It’s one thing if your experiment doesn’t work as planned.  It’s a totally different thing when your grandmother calls you to tell you your experiment didn’t work as planned. 

So on the day of first beam when the LHC called the ATLAS Control Room to tell us that they were sending beam, it’s like the entire room just stopped breathing. 

Now, the ATLAS Control Room is the absolute antithesis of that physics junkyard feel.  It has very sleek, modern desks.  It has an almost apologetic number of flat-screen computers, it has huge projected monitors across the front showing a variety of diagnostics and screens.  There's not a single piece of trash.  It’s immaculately clean.  So if you leave in anything, like a little scrap of paper, it’s gone, like a fairy just took it away. 

Monica Dunford hangs out with fellow storytellers before the Story Collider show at Prachtwerk presented at the Berlin Science Week in partnership with the Springer Nature's Springer Storytellers program.Photo by David Ausserhofer.

Monica Dunford hangs out with fellow storytellers before the Story Collider show at Prachtwerk presented at the Berlin Science Week in partnership with the Springer Nature's Springer Storytellers program.Photo by David Ausserhofer.

I think the press must have been a little misled when they were standing in the Control Room because I think they must have been expecting production.  They must have been expecting something sleek and cool and fancy.  But despite the look of the Control Room, this was still cutting edge.  So when beam arrived at the detector there were no lights.  There was no flashing anything.  There was no immediate indication that beam had even arrived or that we had recorded it.  All there was was a bunch of physicists hunched over their computers desperately looking for that beam data. 

Finally, somebody found it and they brought it on to one of the monitors in front of the room.One head looked up, two heads looked up, and suddenly everybody looked up.And there it was.Data.For the first time in 15 years, data.After so much sweat and toil and pain, data.For me, it was as if this room full of photographers and full of cheering physicists just fell away. I stood there and I found myself a woman in love. Thank you.