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Q&A: Physicist Kathryn Schaffer moves in the art world

31 March 2021

A toxic culture led her to nearly leave physics.

As an undergraduate studying philosophy at a liberal arts college, Kathryn Schaffer became “obsessed with trying to understand why science claims to be a different type of knowledge.” Her philosophy-of-science professor—who was also a physicist—told her that he couldn’t answer from a philosophical standpoint. “If you are going to understand why scientists believe what they do, and why the knowledge is different,” he said, “you just have to do science.”

Physicist Kathryn Schaffer
Credit: Anita Evans

She took on the challenge. And she remembers the moment a few years later when she got it. She was more than a mile underground at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Ontario, monitoring computing systems. “I saw the characteristic Cherenkov ring pattern of a neutrino interaction flash across the screen,” she says. “It made my heart stop.” The experiment recorded only about 10 such events a day, so it was rare to see one in real time. “I realized at that moment that I fully believed this preposterous thing: The neutrino had traveled from the Sun, through the Earth, and interacted in our detector.”

In 2005 Schaffer earned her physics PhD from the University of Washington for research on neutrino oscillations. For her postdoctoral studies of the cosmic microwave background, she helped to build and use the South Pole Telescope.

After that, though, Schaffer walked away from physics, having realized the culture was toxic for her. “I voted with my feet,” she says.

Despite her intentions, her departure turned out not to be total. She is now a tenured professor of liberal arts and for nearly a decade has coordinated the science program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). It’s been fantastic and welcoming,” she says. “A lot of interesting things float my way because I’m around creative people.” (See the news story about art and science in the April 2021 issue of Physics Today, page 24.)

PT: Tell us a bit about your childhood.

SCHAFFER: I grew up in rural Ohio. The adults around me were more on the creative side. All through middle school and high school my parents were very excited when I wrote good poems, but they weren’t particularly excited when I did well in math. On top of that, I was always at odds with my science teachers in high school. So my early experiences with math and science were horrible.

PT: What changed? How did you happen to go into physics?

SCHAFFER: In college I took classes in philosophy, logic, and religion. When I asked why science was special, my philosophy of science professor told me to jump straight into modern physics and differential equations. So I taught myself calculus from a book, and I caught up.

PT: You did your PhD in physics at the University of Washington. How was that experience?

SCHAFFER: I think the only reason I got in was because it was a year when they weren’t looking at the GRE, with the intention of increasing the percentage of women in the program. I had mostly studied philosophy. And missing introductory physics is a big deal—I had not done pendulum problems or basic optics problems. I bombed the physics GRE. And I hadn’t done undergraduate quantum mechanics.

What I pieced together over time was that, because there were not many women in most physics and engineering programs, they decided to deviate from their usual admissions process. They looked at liberal arts colleges. I got in, and so did a couple of other female colleagues. But we were really far behind. The first couple of years was utter hell.

Impostor syndrome is a thing, and mine felt pretty well grounded at that time. At the first advising appointment I went to, I saw that my file from the admissions process had written on it, in red letters, “This student is exceptionally poorly prepared. Watch out for her.” No one expected me to succeed. And my preparation was terrible.

PT: Why did you persevere?

SCHAFFER: Because physics was the hardest thing I’d ever tried. Once I had gotten into it, I think I felt a very strong drive to prove that I could pull it off. I was behind. I struggled. I had bad grades. But there were clear signs I could pull it off. It wasn’t a complete and total shit show.

Many of us worked on problem sets together, and I was able to make useful contributions and at times felt I understood the ideas best in the group. I passed our department’s qualifying exam the first time through. Mostly, though, when I got into a research environment, my work ethic and communication ability immediately made me valuable, and I could see there was more to the practice of physics than being able to pass classroom exams.

PT: How did you get into neutrino physics?

SCHAFFER: I stumbled into it in my second year, and it was a very good fit right off the bat. I ended up emphasizing data analysis and software.

PT: You worked on the SNO project that led to Arthur McDonald sharing the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics with Takaaki Kajita. What was your role?

SCHAFFER: The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory experiment was designed to study the solar neutrino problem, and we succeeded spectacularly. I did a lot of cross-checking and systematic error analysis. Everyone was working hard, and no senior person was available to step in to make sure a paper on the interpretation of our models would be finished on time, so I stepped in. It was a weird role for me. I wasn’t a junior graduate student, but I was not yet working on my own thesis. The moment was crucial and exciting. I took charge, ran meetings, resolved arguments, and figured out how to move forward. And when we announced the big results at the University of Washington, I got to deliver part of the talk. That was a huge privilege.

Later, a piece of my dissertation was to provide supporting analysis to add strength to our original results. For that work, I received the 2007 dissertation award in nuclear physics from the American Physical Society. To start graduate school totally struggling and to end up winning a national dissertation award was huge.

PT: Later your postdoc took you to the South Pole, right?

SCHAFFER: Yes. I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. I shopped around, and I was drawn to the South Pole Telescope project both because I was curious about the cosmological microwave background stuff and because the South Pole sounded really cool.

PT: What was it like working in Antarctica?

SCHAFFER: The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a crazy place. It’s very intense and exciting. I thrive on that level of intensity in a certain way. But it’s also where I started to feel that sexual harassment and gender bias began to seriously disrupt my career.

PT: Tell us more about both—the intensity and the sexual harassment.

SCHAFFER: I went down as a team member building and deploying the telescope and the first set of detectors. We were debugging everything on the ground. At the South Pole, you have a time limit: It’s only warm enough for aircraft travel for about four months a year. You have to get out by a certain date, whether or not the telescope is fully operational. You have to make sure the telescope works before the majority of the team “leaves the ice,” or you could lose a whole season of observing time.

It took me a long time to catch on to the lousy culture, like it does for a lot of people. I thought any issues were my fault. But the harassment was constant. Constant blatant bias, insensitive commentary, a sexually charged environment. That was my reality on a day-to-day basis. I loved the work, but I hated that I constantly had to operate on more than one level—that I couldn’t just be there as a scientist. I had to figure out, What just happened? How do I respond?

PT: Can you give some examples?

SCHAFFER: As the female in the group, I was always the person who was given younger students to mentor. One summer I had nine, and no one else had any. As the female in the group, instead of being given opportunities to talk at major conferences, I was given opportunities to talk in outreach contexts. The bias was systematic.

The South Pole Station had a macho locker-room environment with a high degree of sexual humor. And other postdocs expected me to rearrange things so they could have their exploits in the lab. They had their own rooms, but it was much more exciting to get laid at the telescope.

At some point back in Chicago, I was mentoring a younger female graduate student. Whenever my supervisor mentioned her, he would say, “She is really good.” He never used that phrase for any of the male graduate students. I connected that he did that same mental correction with me, and that was probably why he never offered me the speaking engagements—even though he had me in his office every day to consult about what we would do next.

Once that bias became clear to me, I analyzed things constantly to see what I could trust in the environment. I had witnessed conversations in which people were blatantly sexist. I had been in situations in which people touched me. People commented on my appearance. I remember people commenting inappropriately about clothing, racial differences, religion. All of it.

PT: So you’d had enough?

SCHAFFER: I hit this point where I realized that if I stayed in the field, I’d be working with the same people for the rest of my career, and I was going to experience the same level of constant anger for the rest of my career. I decided to bail.

PT: Was it a hard decision?

SCHAFFER: It was a big deal to walk away. I had worked so hard to get to that point—from the red writing on the top of my admissions file to the fancy fellowship at the University of Chicago.

I had told my supervisors many times that there was a problem with the culture, and that I found working at the South Pole impossible. They would say, “Physics is tough. Have you thought about teaching?”

One of the tricks I used to reassure myself that I was doing the right thing was to read job ads for all the faculty jobs and postdocs that I could possibly apply for. I would let my stomach curl as I read them. I would be, like, “Oh, I know those people and I don’t want to work there” or “Oh, I know what’s going on there.” It would reassure me that I did not want to apply for those jobs. And then I read a job ad for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it did not make my stomach hurt. So I thought I would try it.

When I announced to my colleagues at the University of Chicago that I was going to SAIC, one of them captured the entire thing so well. He said, “Kathryn, no one will ever take you seriously again if you do this. If you really love physics, you need to be tougher than this.”

PT: So how has it been at SAIC?

SCHAFFER: It’s been great. I built up all sorts of things I was interested in. I spent a summer at Los Alamos National Laboratory working with a group on nuclear nonproliferation detector development. And I was supported by my department and my institution. When I went through tenure, I felt like I was showcasing everything they had let me do. The process was supportive and awesome.

Up until tenure, I continued to work with my colleagues from the South Pole to get publications. And I needed letters. But as soon as I got tenure, I stopped. I didn’t want to work with harassers and with that culture.

I have organized collaborative art–science projects. I work with artists on gallery exhibitions and sound works. And through those interactions I got really interested in music. And because of demand from the art world, I became interested in the interdisciplinary understanding of quantum physics.

PT: Please elaborate.

SCHAFFER: In 2016, Gabriela Barreto Lemos, a quantum theorist from Brazil, was a scientist in residence at SAIC. She, her partner—also a quantum theorist—and I started having conversations about quantum-foundation issues with a group of artists. We held a symposium, and we wrote a paper, Obliterating Thingness. Someone found the paper online and circulated it to academics, and within a month I was being invited to give talks to the social sciences world.

PT: Why is quantum physics relevant for social sciences and artists?

SCHAFFER: There is a massive effort to use the mathematics of quantum physics as a modeling tool in cognition, semantics, finance, and basically everywhere. No one is saying that quantum physics explains, for example, decision theory, but the mathematical formalism of quantum physics has been applied to model decision making, and in certain cases it gives better results than previous methods of modeling.

Take the concept of quantum entanglement. In physics, it’s not primarily expressed through words. As a physicist, you are either going to reference data or write equations, or both. But there can be a concept of entanglement that doesn’t have those anchors. That’s more the space of interdisciplinary conversations.

Moreover, quite a lot of features of people’s everyday experience are similar to the ideas of quantum physics. Gender fluidity is a poignant example—the idea that gender is not necessarily a fixed feature of any person’s identity, but in a sense is actualized in the performance of it or in the interactions through which it emerges. We who think about quantum physics in an interdisciplinary context are embracing ideas that have been discussed in feminist, gender, and queer studies for decades. The vocabulary is pretty darn similar to the vocabulary we use in quantum physics.

Physicists think it’s weird that there may be an interdisciplinary discourse on quantum physics. But it’s 20 years late to recognize that there already is.

PT: Do you still consider yourself a physicist?

SCHAFFER: To me, being a physicist was a horrible thing. But now, in my music practice, I build guitar pedals, which is circuits. And I write code for sound synthesis and art. So I am writing code and building circuits. The context is a totally art-based context, but it’s the same thing I used to do.

PT: Do you miss anything from your earlier research career?

SCHAFFER: I really like thinking about uncertainty, and I really like the process of convincing myself—and thus defending to the world—how you can take a bunch of recorded numbers or whatever from a set of detectors and get a claim about the world that you believe and that matters. Like with the neutrino signal.

PT: What has changed for you during the pandemic?

SCHAFFER: Two things have converged. One, I have an eight-year-old daughter, and it became clear I’d be homeschooling her for at least a year. It’s not really possible for me to work with my kid at home; if I see that she’s bored or miserable, I can’t function. The other thing is climate change. I have hit a point of personal frustration with institutions as a vehicle for addressing this in any way.

We bought a farm in the beginning of the pandemic, and we have been doing a combination of home schooling and environmental rehabilitation. For me, climate change is such a big issue that it has to come first. It’s not about the next generation changing things. It’s about us changing things. Now.

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