A Career in Physics: Putting the Pieces Together

March 19, 2019

Professor Norman Yao discussing his experience in post-doctoral research.Physicists get to puzzle over the great mysteries of the universe. But they were not born solving equations and pondering quantum mechanics. To get where they are today, professional physicists had to fit the pieces together in their own lives. Recently, a distinguished panel explained to Berkeley Connect Physics students how they solved the puzzle of finding and pursuing their intellectual passions.

Dr. Maurice Garcia-Sciveres, who is affiliated with the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, started his journey as an undergraduate studying physics at a liberal arts college with a lackluster physics department. Consequently, in graduate school, he felt unprepared. He didn’t know about the different experimental areas in physics. However, he still felt a passion for the field–he appreciated that there was so much he didn’t know and so much he could learn. This curiosity encouraged Garcia-Sciveres to stick with his love of physics even when he was struggling.

Dr. Marjorie Shapiro is a physics professor at UC Berkeley. She is an experimental particle physicist.  She explains her work in layman terms by saying her research team bashed protons together, looked at what came out, and hoped it would lead to something grand. During high school, Shapiro struggled to find her stride. She enjoyed French, but didn’t enjoy all the memorization. This led her to physics. Shapiro, like Garcia-Sciveres, was drawn to physics because she appreciated the expanse of knowledge awaiting her in the field. Shapiro appreciated that she didn’t have to actually memorize anything — instead, physics was a way of “solving a puzzle.” Shapiro saw physics as focused on ideas and innovations, and she loves to find solutions to problems.

Dr. Majorie Shapiro discussing her journey into physics.Shapiro realized recently that she had prepared her whole childhood for this field. When she was younger, Shapiro’s father, a physicist, used to take her sailing. He’d ask questions like, “If the wind is blowing east, and the ship is going north, which way should we turn the boat to make it travel west?” When Shapiro started learning about vectors, she realized that her father had taught her physics without her even knowing.

Professor Mariska Kriek focuses on cosmology in the Department of Astronomy. She likes to think that she “works in the galaxy.” Through her work, Kriek can look at how a 13 billion year old galaxy is evolving. In this way, Kriek escapes the boundaries of time; the universe is a time machine that she explores.

In high school, Kriek kept on shifting from interest to interest. In the Netherlands, you have to pick a major early on. In a moment of serendipity, Kriek ended up in astrophysics because that’s what she happened to like at that moment. But her journey wasn’t over. Even though she had decided she wanted to work in business instead of academia, Kriek still had to complete an astronomy project—and she fell in love with it. This led her to study at Princeton and Harvard, and finally, teach at UC Berkeley. “If I had followed my initial path, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said with a smile.

Dr. Achmet Yildiz is an Associate Professor in the Physics department. Born and raised in Turkey, Yildiz knew he wanted to become a physicist by the time he was in high school. He attended college with mass matter physics constantly on his mind, but over time his interest shifted towards biophysics. Biophysics fascinated Yildiz; unlike many other areas of study, he could conduct experiments in biophysics relatively quickly, without years of preparation. This led to Yildiz attending graduate school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he received his PhD in 2004. He advised students to study what they care about; the passion will show.

Professor Norman Yao has been a faculty member for “just over a year,” a fact he relates with laughing pride. His love of physics was sparked by an inspiring biophysics professor at Harvard. “Part of what appealed me to doing physics was the notion of discovery and puzzle solving,” Yao commented, echoing Shapiro. He didn’t mind what problem he was solving, as long as he was solving something. He took classes in poly-mechanics, biophysics, and more. But the most formative experience for him was doing research with his professor—he says he learned more in the lab than in class. Yao loved his undergraduate experience so much that, against everyone’s advice, he stayed at Harvard for his PhD. Afterwards, Yao came to UC Berkeley for post-doctoral research and has been here ever since.

Advice to aspiring physicists

Some Berkeley Connect students asked about getting into graduate school. Kriek suggested that getting research experience, as Yao did, is great preparation for  graduate school . Yildiz seconded this, recommending students conduct research in an industry setting to see if that’s a good fit. He also advised that work ethic is of utmost importance. Sure, your experiment results and your grades are important. However, the “ability to focus on a particular problem and attack it from different directions” is what sets you up for success.

Yao said that a letter of recommendation, especially if you do research with a mentor for a long period of time, makes a big difference — a bigger difference than a single B- grade. Yao acknowledged that sometimes, when you receive a bad grade, you think to yourself, “Maybe I shouldn’t pursue this path.” Shapiro confessed that she sometimes faltered on her path because of the fear of failure. And you may fail sometimes! You may have holes in your knowledge. However, “You can still find and develop your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll work with people with other skills and you can all work on something together.”

Written by Melody Niv, Berkeley Connect Blogger