Alumnae Voices: On and Off the Beaten Path
Featured Alumna: Karen Daniels '94


An Interview by Jane Viner '05                        August 11, 2003

Now that summer is in full bloom, many students are thinking about the next step. Whether it is planning off-term internships, applying to graduate school application, or arranging post-graduate jobs, these choices are important and can be overwhelming. One of the best ways to decide if a certain path is right for you is to talk to someone who has lived through it! Karen Daniels, ’94 currently pursues research as a postdoc in the physics department at Duke University. In this Alumnae Voices article, Karen describes her journey through college and graduate study. She shares her obstacles, triumphs and gives advice about sticking to your convictions!

An Early Start

When did science first spark your interest?
My earliest memories of it are from elementary school, where I was always on the lookout for more math and loved the kids' science show "3-2-1 Contact" on PBS.

How were you involved in science before college?
Nothing more than taking good classes in high school and reading on my own. Stephen Hawking's book "A Brief History of Time" really caught my interest when it came out.

Educational Background - The College Years

What were your academic major(s)/minor(s) in college? How did you decide what to focus on?
I chose Dartmouth partly for the mountains and partly for the engineering school, having liked the way it encouraged students to not only study different branches of engineering, but also the liberal arts. My freshman year I signed up for the honors physics sequence (which was HARD!) and a WISP internship at Thayer, but I realized that I really liked the way physics was making me think and stuck with that as my major. Along the way, I picked up a math minor out of scattered courses in math and computer science (they were the same department then) mostly as a hobby.

I sincerely regret never taking a biology, geology, chemistry, or engineering course, but I can't imagine having given up such courses as creative writing and costume design and my LSA to do so. Ironically, I've since headed into a more engineering-like branch of physics and have picked up some of these missing science pieces along the way through more informal means. But, with a strong foundation to build on (both from physics and from Dartmouth liberal arts in general), that's been a pleasure.

What science-related activities did you participate in, if any? What were they important and why?

My WISP internship was my first experience building scientific apparatus and using a machine shop, and the Presidential Scholars internship I started my sophomore year got me involved in numerical work on plasma physics in planetary atmospheres. I also did an astronomy REU program. All of these gave me skills to draw upon as I've sought out my own niche in physics, even though the research topics now seem a bit distant from where I ended up.

Into the Real World

What made you decide to pursue science as your career?
I never considered anything else, really! My extended family has more scientists than one family really needs, so it was always there. As a middle school student, I was convinced that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my microbiologist uncle -- until I actually saw what growing microbes entailed!

During college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do after graduation? Did your path change?
Going into academia has been a possibility since early in college -- or at least something I knew I'd like to do i f I managed to get there. But, I certainly wasn't ready to do a PhD right away even though various people (parents, professors) tried to convince me that I should. I had enjoyed various informal teaching roles at Dartmouth, at the skyway, and running physics/math study groups. And, I was eager to share my love of physics with younger students. So, I headed off to teach middle and high school physical science, physics, and astronomy in New York City at a private school. I figured I'd do it for a year and then apply to grad school.

Three years later I knew that as much as I loved teaching, I wasn't done learning physics yet, and that it was now time to give grad school a try. I told myself I'd try it for a year and go back to teaching if I didn't like grad school. My first year of physics courses at "I stuck it out and once I got research going I couldn't imagine doing anything else."
Cornell were really hard (as had been my first year of college physics!), but I stuck it out and once I got research going I couldn't imagine doing anything else. By this point, academia was looking more and more appealing: I'd get to do both teaching and research. I should also add that my three years of teaching gave me much more ability to think on my feet and got me excited about building experiments (instead of just doing theory as had been my inclination earlier). It wasn't only the students who were learning!

What are you currently involved in?
I've been a postdoc in the Duke physics department for the past year. Basically this means that I pursue research, but still in a professor's research group. After another year or so, I'll hopefully get a faculty position as an assistant professor and develop my own research group in addition to getting back into the classroom.

I've studied such things as chaos, nonlinear dynamics, fluid dynamics, flows of granular materials, and statistical physics. I get to answer questions like "where do ordered patterns in nature come from, instead of just plainness or turbulence?"

How does your college career impact what you currently do?
My academic work made it possible to pursue a physics PhD, but other activities such as doing trail and cabin building work with the DOC certainly helped me on my path to building physics apparatus and working with power tools.

What's the most rewarding component of your current work?
One of my favorite aspects of my PhD research was the beauty of the chaotic patterns my experiment produced, and then finding simple explanations for why they behaved the way they did.

What do you find less fulfilling?
I hate it when the equipment appears to break all laws of introductory physics, to the point of absolute frustration and bewilderment! (This just happened again yesterday building a simple electrical circuit.)

What, if anything, surprised you about your current work?

How much fun it is to talk science with colleagues.

Where do you expect and hope that this work may take you?
"science always grows in unexpected directions" Who knows -- science always grows in unexpected directions. I'm really looking forward to eventually
becoming a professor, although I'm still uncertain how much I want to emphasize research vs. teaching. Ideally I'll find a place where I can do both well. Beyond that, I'd love to get involved with science literacy issues at some point.

How have you dealt with balancing work and family - have you had to adjust your schedule or look for a j ob that is more flexible?
What physicists dub the "two-body problem" is a huge challenge for the many scientists whose partners are also in academia, as is the case for me and many of my peers who are looking for permanent positions. Too many of my peers are in commuting relationships, and I hope I never find myself in that position long-term. Finding two jobs in the same place requires luck, persistence, research, canniness, and who knows what else! This story is only just beginning (I've only had my PhD for a year), but it looms large.

What else do you do outside of your work?
Garden, cook, sew, knit, (I need to keep the girlie side of me active), read good books, play the cello in a community orchestra, hike, bike, travel (but I really do still find time to work).

Did you have any mentors that encouraged you or any individuals that discouraged you? There are so many [mentors that encouraged me]! My parents certainly never let me forget that I had long ago decided to get a PhD, and my partner was already a grad student at the time I made the decision to go back to school, which helped me find the courage to take the plunge. Working one-on-one with physicists (at Dartmouth, my REU, and in grad school) is what really kept the process going all the way through my
"Some doubts last longer than others, and talking about them often helps" education. And, of course, older physicists continue to mentor me now, providing advice, encouragement, and perspective.

What were the resources you found most valuable in deciding your path and in finding jobs?
Dartmouth career services got me information and interviews about teaching at private schools, where you don't need to be certified. Applying to grad school, I found it tough to get information and just played it by ear. Visiting schools helps a lot, since grad programs all have different systems and different strengths.

Into the Real World

Did you ever doubt your capabilities and/or knowledge in your major/career?
All the time: as long ago as the day I wrote "tork" in my intro physics notes (to the snickers of classmates) and as recently as the electrical circuit fiasco yesterday!

How did you overcome those self-doubts?
Some doubts last longer than others, and talking about them often helps. Having both physics-friends and non physics-friends helps keep perspective.

Even being around people all the time in the lab, the lack of female faces can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt. It's amazing, however, what a simple act like meeting other women for lunch or complaining about the need for a second stall in the women's bathroom can do for your morale even though it has nothing to do with physics or your ability to do physics.

If you could change anything about your career path, what would it be and why?
I can't imagine a better decision than delaying graduate school until I was more certain I wanted to be there and more ready to handle the demanding workload.

What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in the sciences? Explore different disciplines and take as much math and computer programming as possible since they're in every science now and are often where the big advances are happening. The excitement of pursuing a glimmer of an idea through to its conclusion can't be beat -- it's a great career! "Explore different disciplines and take as much math and computer programming as possible since they're in every science now and are often where the big advances are happening."

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