Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL
Were you always interested in science?
Yes. It was probably always my best subject and I found it easier to do math and physics than history or languages. The turning point was when I was 15 or 16 though. I had to do a project, a sort of research final, and I did mine on anti-matter in parallel universes and it was supervised by this really enthusiastic physics teacher. She was a particle physicist herself and really inspired me to continue on to study physics.
How did you hear about the INSPIRE Potentials Program?
I had sent an email to Oleg Yazyev asking him for advice for a master’s thesis. He referred me to the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) and I was in contact with Joost VandeVondele. They then both more or less simultaneously mentioned the INSPIRE Potentials program- I then looked into different labs that participated in it and this is how I discovered Nicola Spaldin’s Materials Theory Group.
What is your master’s project on?
I was studying a crystal called yttrium manganite in its hexagonal form. The idea was first to understand what the magnetic ordering in the crystal is, what the ground state of the crystal is, and also to try to understand why the crystal adopts this certain magnetic configuration. And now I’m actually continuing the work at the beginning of my PhD. Now the idea is to understand what the crystal does and what the magnetic ordering does above the temperature above which it is no longer magnetically ordered, that is, the phase transition temperature. Above this temperature, my crystal is a paramagnet and so there is complete disorder in the crystal in terms of magnetic order. The project was inspired by experimental work that suggested unusual magnetic behavior in the material and the idea now is to model the spin dynamics and try to visualize how the spins are arranging themselves through the critical magnetic phase transition temperature. During the rest of my PhD I will be looking into quantum phase transitions of multiferroic materials; i.e. materials that are both ferroelectric and anti-ferromagnetic in the same phase—hexagonal YMnO3 is actually a multiferroic too.
What did you like best about the program?
Well, the highlight for me was the research group itself. The groups involved in INSPIRE are all trying to promote science and academic careers amongst young women and I think it’s only certain types of groups that would do that. There are research groups that are all men on the floors above me here at ETHZ and I know it would never cross their minds to get involved in something like this. Also just being really encouraged to pursue a career in this direction. I’m sure I wouldn’t even have done a PhD otherwise. I wasn’t the best in my class in Lausanne. Everyone at EPFL is very bright and it can be discouraging, you can also be talked down to by professors quite a lot. The experience during my Master’s thesis was the first time I felt like someone actually did believe that yes, maybe Tara could pursue a career in academia. I didn’t even really like my first month—I was really annoyed with my project. At the beginning you have a lot of calculation errors and it’s not interesting at all—I remember telling my friends that I would never do this again. The turning point came when I had my first calculation that worked and gave me a result. The calculation showed that there was a tiny spin, a tiny angle, and just the fact my calculations could capture that physics, and that that physics was understandable from a theoretical point of view, that I could actually observe this with my calculations…I thought that was really cool. Being able to match the calculations that took a long time to get to work with actual physics, actual observations was really the turning point.
Do women face particular challenges in the sciences?
Yes, definitely, there’s no doubt about it. Where do I start? Just talking from personal experience, I remember having certain people not take me very seriously. I was a smiley, friendly girl in my year and I just don’t think I was taken as seriously as the strong, silent types. I think people have strong stereotypes when they think about scientists and women don’t often fall into that stereotype. I remember we had a tough exam in particle physics and a lot of people failed but I got a passing grade. It was on March 8th, Women’s Day, by the way. This guy in my class asked me how it went and I told him that it didn’t go great, but I passed. He had failed and explained it by saying that the professor didn’t like him, and so he failed him, but that I was a pretty girl and so he just let me pass. Some people just put you into a box in academia if you’re a woman. He didn’t understand why I got annoyed and thought I should take it as a complement.
And then the other obvious reason, in Switzerland, is that if you want a family and a career in academia, it’s much easier if you’re a guy than if you’re a woman. I think actually in my group now, there is absolutely no issue on that level and I’m really happy with the group in that sense. I know it’s not the same at other groups at ETH.
Any advice for young girls interested in the field?
Maybe don’t compare yourself too much to people around you, try and do it your own way. It’s very easy to compare your approach to solving problems to others and think that your way is not as good. I feel that everyone has their own way of doing science and I think that girls are usually more self-critical than guys and I think they should be careful of that.