Alumnae Voices: On and Off the Beaten Path
Featured Alumna: Karen
An Interview by Jane Viner '05
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
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?
Educational Background - The
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.
What were your academic
major(s)/minor(s) in college? How did you decide what to focus on?
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.
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.
activities did you participate in, if any? What were they important and
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
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?
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.
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!
| 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
stuck it out and once I got research going I couldn't imagine doing anything
What are you currently
involved in? Where do you expect
and hope that this work may take you?
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?"
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.
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
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
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.
| "science always grows in unexpected
knows -- science always grows in unexpected directions. I'm really looking
forward to eventually
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
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
doubts last longer than others, and talking about them often
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?
Into the Real
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
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
How did you overcome those self-doubts?
doubts last longer than others, and talking about them often helps. Having both
physics-friends and non physics-friends helps keep perspective.
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?
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
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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