Driven to Discover

Two Barnardians who graduated almost 50 years apart discuss their lives as women physicists

By Liz Galst

Photo by Getty Images

Maybe the words “joy” and “physics” don’t seem like an obvious pair. But to a pair of Barnard alums, they go together like “gravity” and “pull.” Myriam Sarachik ’54 and Laura Newburgh ’03 are two physicists who’ve found deep gratification in a field where even today fewer than 20% of Ph.D.s are awarded to women. (Sarachik, a distinguished professor at City College in New York City, is a pioneer in condensed matter physics; Newburgh is a cosmologist at Yale.)

This January, Sarachik is slated to receive the American Physical Society’s Exceptional Achievement in Research Award, which recognizes “contributions of the highest level that advance our knowledge and understanding of the physical universe in all its facets.” So now seemed like a good time to bring her together with another Barnard physicist to explore life in science as women.

On a fall morning, with Newburgh joining us on Skype, we gathered in Sarachik’s cookbook-filled kitchen, where there was much delight: delight in all Sarachik has accomplished as a physicist, including foundational work on how electrons move in metals (something that eventually became known as the Kondo effect); delight in her ability to make her discipline relevant to the uninitiated; and delight in her perspective as someone who can look back on the sweep of history and know she played a part in changing it. 

The ensuing conversation was equal parts physics and joy. 

Liz Galst: Can you explain what physics is and what attracted you to the field? 

Myriam Sarachik: Physics is difficult to define. It’s a discipline that looks at questions about how nature works at all levels. How do electrons move inside solids? How does matter change phases from gas to liquid to solid? Or from being magnetic to not being magnetic? There are very large questions that physicists are trying to answer, which go to the fundamental ways in which the universe works. 

Laura Newburgh: My elevator pitch is: We’re interested in the most fundamental questions of how matter is and how it moves.

Sarachik: About how I came to physics at Barnard: My father was really pushing me towards physics. But way back in the 1950s, the College had very few physics courses. So I took most of my physics courses at Columbia.

At the time, there were maybe three or perhaps four women physics majors on campus, in all four years combined. More often than not, I sat in the class and I was the only woman there. I didn’t dare ask questions. I was afraid I was going to show everybody how stupid I am. “How can you ask such a question?” So I couldn’t and didn’t. For many years I didn’t. 

In terms of what attracted me: I think what’s driven me is the need to know. I derive much joy from suddenly understanding something. It’s the exercise of discovery. 

Newburgh: That’s what gets you through a failure. In physics, we fail like 99% of the time. But you have to fail all those times to get to the answer at the end of the day.

Myriam, when you were on campus, what were the expectations for Barnard physics graduates after their bachelor’s degree? 

Sarachik: Well, it was a very different time. And there was a lot of discussion — on campus, off campus, in magazines — about whether women should stay home and raise the children, or whether women had a right to go out and do their thing.

Back then, women within and outside academia didn’t expect to be able to go out and establish their own ambitions without enormous sacrifices. In terms of the Ph.D., I could not have done otherwise. I just didn’t fit into the construct as it existed back then. 

Another thing that influenced me was I had a friend, Noémie Benczer ’53 [now Benczer-Koller], who was an undergraduate physics major at Barnard who decided to get her Ph.D. in physics. She just did it. She just did it! I looked at her, and I was like, “Well, she’s not talking about not being able to, or not being allowed to, or it being inappropriate. She’s just doing it. So, if she can do it, why can’t I?” 

Galst: That’s part of the Barnard influence, right? Even if you yourself are not so confident, you’re surrounded by people who give you the courage you need. 

Sarachik: A third thing is that my husband, Phil, whom I met as an undergrad at Columbia, was very bright — he’s still very bright. And the faculty approached him and asked him to continue for his Ph.D., which is something he never aspired to. I did, but he didn’t. But they wanted to pay him, and they wanted him to do it. And he looked at me, and said, “Should I do it?” I said, “Of course!” And then, if he’s doing it, well, shouldn’t I? 

Newburgh: Almost 50 years later, I had something similar. There were three physics majors in my year at Barnard. And my high school physics teacher told me that I would not make it in physics. Physics has the fewest women of any of the sciences, and even a decade ago, there were people telling me, “It’s not a possible career choice for you.”

I’ll mention a couple of things I benefited from in my generation of being a Barnard student that helped see me through. There was grant funding for me to be able to do research as an undergraduate. So I went to California and did research in astrophysics. That was the first time I did research. Once I started doing research, I realized this was what I wanted to do with my life. It was a really transformative thing to be able to do. Barnard enabled that. 

And also, because I could do research at Columbia even as an undergraduate, that opened up a broad bunch of things I could try out. I did research in condensed matter, and particle experiments, astrophysics, and analysis. I got to try a lot of different things before I moved into graduate school and settled on cosmology. I appreciated that a lot as a Barnard major. I’m sure it was very different half a century before. 

I think what’s driven me is the need to know. I derive much joy from suddenly understanding something.

Myriam Sarachik

Sarachik: A lot of things have changed. Recently, at a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, which is a regional conference organized through APS [American Physical Society], I was asked to say a few words at the banquet. I looked around at a hundred women physics majors. It was mind-boggling, just unbelievable to me, that things had turned around to that degree.

Things within the field changed while I was in it. At Bell Labs [the physics mecca where Sarachik worked after graduate school], I was one of only two women members of the technical staff; the only other woman was Betty Wood ’33, a crystallographer who was the first woman scientist Bell Labs hired. I chose fairly straightforward experiments, and I was lucky that a number of them addressed unresolved issues and brought results that turned out be important. In a field that was almost entirely male, a woman’s contribution was generally not taken as seriously as that of a man. But the truth is that there are a lot of very good people out there. If you extend your hand, they will take it, and they will try and smooth the way for you. 

Newburgh: There are benefits to being a woman physicist, too. People do remember you. You’re more memorable than the three guys who spoke before you on the panel.

And I think coming into physics without thinking that I belonged there might have made me able to take more risks — risks that put me above the crowd — than I might have taken otherwise, because, well, worst-case scenario, it doesn’t work out, which is probably what’s going to happen anyway. I don’t know if men think the same way. But at least in my own becoming a physicist, that probably shaped things a bit. 

Galst: Do you have any advice for Barnard students studying physics now? 

Sarachik: Look, the only advice I can give is choose a partner in life who really gets in there and helps you when the going gets rough. Because there’s nobody who doesn’t have rough patches. And whatever you choose to do — and it need not be physics — work hard. Put yourself into it. Try to make a difference, and believe in yourself. You know, we all have our insecurities. I showed you some of mine, about being stupid. Despite that, I must have some fundamental belief in myself to have been able to push on and push on. I think that that matters. You have to respect yourself, and believe in yourself. 

Newburgh: I think Myriam covered almost all of it. But make sure you do what you love. For some people, that’s going to be their job, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be other things, too. You have one life. In physics or not, use it well.

Latest IssueSpring 2023