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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Princeton Prof Isobel Ojalvo: Early Curiosity leads to High Energy Particle Physics Research.

Episode summary introduction: She grew up enjoying Math and Science, overcoming societal biases about girls and science. She went on to pursue a PhD in Physics from the University of Wisconsin Madison, making a stop at RPI for her undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics.

Today Isobel Ojalvo is a High Energy Particle Physicist, and Assistant Professor at Princeton University.

In particular, we discuss the following with her:

  • Being a Girl in STEM
  • Decision to be in Academia
  • Why High Energy Particle Physics Research?

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Professional Journey Highlights [1:50]
  • As a Girl in STEM  [6:01]
  • UG Years at RPI [8:47]
  • Boeing Job inspires Research Career [13:30]
  • Back to School - PhD at U of Wisconsin Madison [19:35]
  • 7 Years in Geneva - with Colliders [25:17]
  • “Super Fascinating Particle” Physics Research [28:12]
  • Teaching at Princeton [34:55]
  • HS Girls in STEM: #1 Stick with it [39:41]
  • HS Girls in STEM: #2 Find a Mentor [45:04]
  • Today’s Students: Lots of Ways to help you Learn [48:02]

Our Guest: Dr Isobel Ojalvo is a High Energy Particle Physicist and an Assistant Professor in the Physics Department at Princeton University. Prof Ojalvo received her undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. Prof Ojalvo then went on to get her PhD in Physics from University of Wisconsin Madison.

Memorable Quote: “Finally, when I got into Research, that’s when I felt like I know what I want to do, I am happy doing it, and I am interested to work very, very long hours, because I was interested in everything I was doing.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:10 

When she started conducting experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, as part of her PhD, she knew High Energy Particle Physics was her thing.

Hi! Welcome to this episode of College Matters. Alma Matters.

Isobel Ojalvo is an Assistant Professor in the Physics Department at Princeton University. Professor Ojalvo grew up enjoying Math and Science in school. Today, she shares this passion and knowledge with her students at Princeton while pursuing research around what she calls the ‘super fascinating particle” in Physics - Higgs Boson!

Let’s huddle and listen in, as Prof Ojalvo reflects on her Physics journey so far.

Venkat  1:03

Thanks for making the time to talk about your professional journey so far and provide some insights. As we may have talked earlier, this is, you know, our audience is typically aspiring students from all parts of the world, focused on Asia and Middle East to a large extent. But, you know, these conversations are generally beneficial to all just about everybody. So, thank you for really making the time here. It's very

Prof Ojalvo  1:33

Thanks. No Problem.

Venkat  1:36  

Cool! So maybe we can just dive in. We could share a little bit about your professional background, give us an overview, and then we can dive deeper from there.

Prof Ojalvo  1:50  [Professional Journey Highlights]

Sure. Um, so I'm a High Energy Particle Physicist. I'm an Assistant Professor at Princeton University. I'm an experimentalist in particular, so most of my work actually has been with the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And I'm an, I'm a member of the CMS experiment, so Compact Muon Solenoid. So, I've worked with this experiment for approximately, probably close to 10 years now as a graduate student and a PostDoc, and then now as a, as a faculty member.

So before that, I actually say, I went to my I grew up in Minnesota, and I did my undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is this small engineering focused school in upstate New York.

And then after I graduated, I actually, I went straight into engineering for two years. And so was, I spent some time at Boeing in El Segundo, California, lived right next to the beach, actually. It was, it was kind of a, it was a nice change from Minnesota and I came from upstate New York. And I worked there, working on survivability analysis for Satellites. So basically studying space effects on electronics boards and trying to make sure that they would survive their planned lifespan, which is typically around 15 years. So we think, to think about things like so micrometeorites, everything from, from that to radiation effects to single event upsets and all these sorts of interesting things that can happen in space.

But, but, from there, I decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in industry and applied for graduate school, and applied for Grad School at the University of Wisconsin Madison got in. And yeah, so happy to be back in academia. Definitely, it wasn't the, the most trivial of transitions, I would say. But definitely worthwhile, and it was definitely a great experience to try out working in industry.

Venkat  4:06  

Definitely. So maybe we start a little bit at the beginning you know, how did you decide to pursue physics ,was that sort of a passion or just kind of fell into it? How did that happen?

Prof Ojalvo  4:21  

So, um, in many regards, I was actually quite lucky. So, my parents always made a very strong emphasis on education. Um, but the the best elementary school actually, in my area was a Catholic school, even if my family wasn't, it's not religious, my father's Jewish and so we weren't very religious, but even from that time, you know, we were forced, we were required to attend religion classes and, and, you know, they would talk about things about the origin of life and the origin of the universe in a religious sort of way.

But, you know, even from the time I was quite young, I found it a little bit unsatisfactory, okay, interesting story, but I wanted to understand deeply what is what are the what is the origin of the universe? Why are we here? How do things fit together?

 So, even from, from that time, I was quite interested in pursuing physics and understanding the world to a deeper, to a deeper level. And so that kind of it caused me to pursue physics and mathematics quite, quite strongly.

I was also always interested in computers and taking you know, taking things apart, putting them back together, understanding what things are made of. So that combined with mathematics, I think I fell into your experimental physics quite, quite readily, because I like building things and I like doing and I really enjoyed mathematics and I really have a deep understanding or deep curiosity about, about why we're here and how things work together. And all these things that are quite pervasive for physics.

Venkat  6:01  [As a Girl in STEM]

So, did you find any challenges getting into physics and math? Or was that pretty well encouraged in your school and stuff? I mean, how did you find...? And I'm asking this question on the as, there's a lot of discussion about girls and stem and all that. But, you know, you obviously, it was a passion at a pretty young age. And you, I'm assuming, got all the encouragement and motivation to do that.

Prof Ojalvo  6:31  

Yeah, so from a, from a parent's point of view, they were they're quite happy if we're pursuing STEM. But, but I often found myself to be the only girl in many of my classes or, you know, one of, you know, one of maybe 10% of the class or 5% of the class, especially when I did something that's more physics or engineering related.

So I so I'd say you know, and also I, there were some non subtle, there are some subtle upsets, okay, feeling Like the old being the only woman and or the only girl in, in some physics summer programs, or are in the chess club, and but then you know, every once in a while you'd also have I would have some somebody who was not so subtle about and tell me, ‘Oh, well girls don't actually have any sense of direction just so you know’. And I just thought that someone said that to me when I was probably about 14, 13 or 14 years old, and I just thought I was completely obviously I remember to this day that someone decided that they needed to tell me that, that women don't have any sense of direction.


So, it was quite funny for me to be honest, because I always enjoyed, you know, following along on the map, we were going in the car, I just thought it was quite silly. But you know, it's something that I definitely noticed and remembered.

So it's so from that point of view, you know, it's a little bit more Like you're you don't necessarily feel like you're the the general demographic or you feel a little bit like you're a little bit alone and yet not being part of a regular group, certainly but, but overall, I will say that my family was very, my parents were very supportive of receiving physics and mathematics and things like this. So, so, that was lucky in that regard.

Venkat  8:28  

You obviously brushed all that off. So you went off to RPI. So, so talk to us a little bit about that experience. I mean, the RPI experience you did Physics and Math, you said there. How were the undergraduate years and, you know, how did that shape, sort of what was to come?

Prof Ojalvo  8:47  [UG Years at RPI]

So I really enjoyed my time at RPI. So it was actually one of the first I was one of the first classes where they require they had this laptop program and so they required it everybody In the school have their own laptop. So this was a new program at the time. And so that was actually, it was a very good thing for them to implement. So they were very technology focused.

This was back in the mid to, you know, mid to early 2000s. They're very, very technology focused. They, it was, it's a relatively small school with relatively small class sizes. So oftentimes, I would have, I think my largest class was probably on the order of 200. But that was for a General C++ course. But usually it was on the order of, you know, 20 or 25 students per class.

Venkat 10:03


Prof Ojalvo  10:04

Yes. So it was, it was really nice. Um, and, you know, there's there's some choice I was I was worried at the time that I wanted to go to a school that wasn't really in a big city because I actually cared quite a lot about my education and I thought that being in a large city would be a little bit distracting. So I picked something. So Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is out in Troy, New York, which is near Albany. And so it's a it's a quieter place and very conducive to I think, you know, working hard and, and focusing on your studies.

I know it's not for everybody, but this was something I was looking for, in my undergraduate experience. So but also Rensselaer has, has very good financial aid programs. It's a, it's an expensive school but so they have this thing called the Rensselaer Medal. So, So this was something that I had gotten. But, but essentially, it's a scholarship program and you could even ask your high school teacher to nominate you for those. They give it about one per, per High School and then they, they offset some of the cost of you attending, yeah, of you attending Rensselaer. Um, so that was quite useful for me actually. I very much appreciated.

Venkat 11:07  

No, that's that's really nice, nice to know as well. Now how are the students? How are your peers? How did you find the general student body and your classmates?

Prof Ojalvo  11:19  

I will say, that it was a very um, it was a, very tech savvy, I don't want to say nerdy but it was a, very savvy. Very, It was very nerdy, is internet, tech savvy school actually, really, I really enjoyed that about it. Everyone was, was super interested in Engineering and Computing. People are doing LAN parties. You know, there is a strong emphasis on paying attention to technology.

I think they've, they've branched out a little bit more in recent years to have a bit more all around education, and have, more liberal arts program. But just to give you an example of so that it used to be religious school and it's not anymore and they put the computer lab in the previous church to say this is how serious they take their technology there but okay, it's a very, Yeah, it's the the students there, the class sizes are small, you get to know your, your core cohorts very well.

 You see the same people over the entire four years. You're there. Um, you get to know the faculty very well, even as an undergraduate. Yeah. And they, they do look after you actually. Yeah, I formed some very, very good relationships while I was at Rensselaer, and people who you know, cared quite a lot about my education.

Venkat  12:42  

And the students were from all over the place right at RPI. I mean..

Prof Ojalvo  12:48  

yes, yeah. All over. Yes. All over the place. We had one, we had a, had students yeah, literally, certainly from all over the world.

Venkat  13:06  

So, so you finish RPI. And then, is that when you took on this engineering job?

Prof Ojalvo  13:16  


Venkat  13:18  

Yeah. So. So I think I think you briefly mentioned that. So how did that come about? I mean, you didn't want to go to grad school at that point, or did you make that decision only after you worked for a couple years?

Prof Ojalvo  13:30  [Boeing Job inspires Research Career]

So at that time, I actually had a bit so the other point is that actually, RPI is a bit costly. We have some issues with student debt. So I had some debt from, from being part of from going to the school. It wasn't so much but yeah, um, so I wanted to get a job for a little bit of time to pay that off.

But then, but then the nice thing, then about RPI is that they have a lot of contacts at major industries or major companies and so they have job fairs and career fairs and And there's a very strong recruiting for, for various...

So I know Boeing will recruit on a regular basis. Northrop Grumman you know, many different... yeah, places will go come up on a regular basis. So I actually, I attended a career fair and I went through I think about one interview on campus and then one interview at Boeing and they hired me. Yeah, nearly directly.

So it is a once you if you do a degree like, yeah, if you do, I did a degree in physics and mathematics. And even with that, it was quite easy to pursue an engineering position, especially with, with a school like RPI where they have a lot of contacts with, with industry.

Venkat  14:50  

So at that point, did you already have an interest in High Energy Physics or is that something that came up later?

Prof Ojalvo  14:58  

Yeah. Well, I was more interested in Astronomy and Cosmology as an undergraduate and so I did take some astronomy, astronomy and cosmology classes when I was [undergraduate]  a number of research experience for undergraduates so one at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, there’s the Arecibo Observatory, and then another actually at the University of Wisconsin Madison, with with the astronomy group there.

And so I was, I was interested in that, but I think around that time, so, you know, this was two thousand... this was around 2007. And then around that time was when the LHC was, was just coming online and I actually got quite interested in particle physics and the large collaborations and the possibility of working together to do something a little bit more interesting.

Venkat  15:51  

Okay, so tell them a little bit about your transition or your decision to go pursue PhD. How'd that come about? I mean, you could have, you'd work for a couple of years. I mean, you said you either had enough of industry or you felt you wanted to study more or you wanted to pursue a career in academia. How did that come about?

Prof Ojalvo  16:15  

So it was actually quite there's a specific thing that I was working on. So there are a lot of some of the work I was doing was radiation, so radiation effects on so for instance, capacitors or you know, electronics in general.

And so there was there's this interesting phenomena where, okay, so let's explain. So, if you want to see how much radiation a given part can handle, it will be designed Of course, in a certain way, but what we will also do is actually get a radioactive source and take it apart and then go sit with some amount of radiation.

And so the question In space who wants to survive wanted up there and to survive a high dose of high, higher radiation than we see on earth due to the atmosphere. So, of course, the space part will be up in space, you know, for the electronic part, we haven't space for 15 years. But we don't want to spend that much time testing. So what we do is we dose it with a high amount of radiation, and then trying to recreate the amount of dose that you would actually see in space.

But what we found was that, in fact, the amount of radiation, that it doesn't matter really the overall amount of radiation because a lower dose rate over a slow amount of time was, was not behaving the same way as the higher dose, dose rates over look Yeah, over the same period of time. So this is called Enhance Low Dose Rate radiation effects.

And so I was, I thought that was a really interesting and strange thing that radiation could behave differently and it has to do with how ionization of, of atoms and how this will then slowly migrate and cause some defect in the parts.

But, you know, the once we discovered this issue, basically the The point is that it was somewhere like Boeing or somewhere where you're doing something for industry, they say, Okay, we'll find the part that's gonna work and replace it with that one, and then we go about our day.

But I was, you know, I was deeply fascinated by trying to understand why that would actually happen, but, but it was it wasn't part of my my job description, to to even try to figure that out. So I decided at that point that you know, I probably, I wouldn't be happy in industry if I can't try to understand these these, these bigger issues.

So I would, in fact, I would even go in on the weekend to try to understand you know, read more documents and and spend more time together. Because I thought this, this problem was was so fascinating. But, you know, this isn't something that they're paying you or industry, you're just trying to meet, them, the specifications. So at that point, I decided that I should probably not stick in engineering and I should probably go and do something that's a little bit more fundamental research base.

So that's when I decided that to, to reapply to, to apply for graduate school and to go, yeah, and to go back to academia.

Venkat  19:35  [Back to School - PhD at U of Wisconsin Madison]

So how did you end up at Wisconsin Madison?

Prof Ojalvo  19:42  

So, so yeah, I applied to a few different places. Um, so I wanted to place, actually this was around the time when the LHC was coming online. And I did want to go to a place that had a strong LHC program. And so Madison has a very good Trigger program, and also I will say that part of it was because of my parents because they want to be in Minnesota and they wanted to be in Madison.

Venkat  20:12  

That's a fair enough. Yeah, that's good enough reason.

Prof Ojalvo  20:17  

Certainly, I certainly, my top priority was to find a place with a strong LHC program. But, but I had one or two other places I was considering and then I got, yeah, I got a little bit stronger, and by my mother to stay over and just come back to the Midwest for a bit.

But okay. In the end, the University of Wisconsin Madison actually has an excellent program. And I'm extremely happy. I can say, you know, maybe my mother had some premonitions, I'm extremely happy with my, my career there. I had some excellent mentors and an excellent Yeah, an excellent time with this group, at University of Wisconsin Madison. Yeah.

Venkat  21:03  

So, yeah how are those years? I mean, how is the whole Ph. D. program? And obviously, were you able to do, dive into what, you know, you were, what you got fascinated at Boeing with, I mean, the radiation effects. And were, did you broaden your horizon? I mean, how did that whole program go?

Prof Ojalvo  21:28  

Well, so well, so, so I will say that it wasn't without struggle, because I did have to get back into the after taking two years to work in industry, I had to take two years to get back to taking classes again, which is actually quite a lot of work.

So, if you, if you do decide to take this non traditional path, it's it isn't yeah, it's, it's not necessarily quite that easy to do. But I, I've had said already that I was interested in working with the LHC and one of the groups. They're the CMS group who's currently led by Sridhara Dasu. And was previously led by Wesley Smith. And I decided to work with them and they were happy to have more people that were going into the program. So, it actually worked out quite easily to join their group. But, and then eventually, after two years of doing work, and I went back to, then I went to move to CERN, actually, and spent seven years in Geneva.

Venkat  22:33  

Wow! I, I have to ask you this. Now, when it sounds like you're actually going to the industry, gave you a good reason to go pursue a deeper, you know, graduate study, for example, right. I mean, if you had gone straight out of an, after undergrad program, maybe that drive or motivation may or may not have been there. I mean, I don't know. But this problem, probably you were, you know, you became aware of this opportunity or issue, because you were able to work there. So I think in some ways you should thank that break, like I mean, I think, yeah, it's sort of interesting.

Prof Ojalvo  23:16  

Exactly. I just so I mean, it, I also felt a lot of pain, maybe too much pressure, I felt a lot of pressure as well, because I, I had been making, you know, a reasonable amount of money, and I decided to give up and go back to graduate school. Yeah.

Venkat  23:33  

So, so anything more on the army, did you teach while you were a PhD student of... Oh, you said you spend most of your time and I mean, you spent seven years in Geneva, so you were not in Madison. All the time, then while you're doing your graduate program.

Prof Ojalvo  23:50  

Right. So for the first two years, we actually, we have a bit of a heavy teaching load for graduate students. So you teach Three recitations for, for class. Typically, this was what I did there, other classes that you can do.

So we taught, I taught the physics for, for juniors for the, for the biology of the premed students. And essentially, we had to teach three classes two days per week and then two 2-hour labs. And so it was, it was a, it was a good opportunity to, to, you know, meet students and try out education and see whether or not you would want to stay in academia for the long term as well.

Venkat  24:41  

So give you a good playground for that.

Prof Ojalvo  24:46


Venkat  24:50  

So then you finish your PhD, by then, I guess you were, well, anything interesting in Geneva. I mean, there's They're spent quite a bit of time there. And so anything interesting or any different, I mean, obviously, conditions might have been different experience in experience there that might be worth sharing?

Prof Ojalvo  25:17   [7 Years in Geneva - with Colliders]

Well, so I felt like I actually, I felt like, I did not have the easiest time with classes. I didn't have the easiest time. You know, I was, was okay, I did find that I wasn't, I wasn't, maybe always the top student. But finally, when I got into research, that's when I felt like, Oh, this is I know what I want to do. And I'm happy that I'm doing it and I'm interested to work. You know, very, very long hours just because I really enjoyed everything I was doing so.

 So in Geneva, I worked on a variety of things. So, as you start doing some sort of analysis work, so analyzing data sets, I also got to do some detector on call operations. So essentially, we the, the CMS experiment costs essentially, if you do, if you do the math, it costs about $100 per second to collect data. Yeah.

And so when you're in the middle of an LHC run, if any, anytime one of the detector, the CMS detector itself, it's about, you know, 10, five or six stories high. And there's a very large number of components. I worked on the data acquisition, so the data collection and deciding which data we collect, this is called the Trigger system. And anytime that a detector was offline and caused us to not be collecting data would cost approximately $100 per second. So, so, really doing detector on call operations, was, was very highly stressful. You get called up at three in the morning to go fix some problem, and, and if you didn't, then you would be in very big trouble the next, you know, a lot of people would be talking about so yeah, it was definitely a high stress position. But, um, but it was also quite fun and exciting. You know, you're, you're really in the thick of things and an important part of the experiment.

So I had quite a lot of fun with that. And I was really interested in doing data analysis, and also doing it quickly. And also, there was some competition there, which I really enjoyed trying to get things done, you know, the best and faster than the rest of the groups, there's a, there's a large there's a lot of collaboration when you're part of a community. Yeah, like CERN, but there's also a lot of competition. It was quite fun. I really enjoyed it.

Venkat  27:50  

Okay, so you finish your PhD and then I guess you had pretty much decided it was academia and not industry right, with your experience. So, when you chose to go into academia Was it the research that attracted you more, or the prospect of teaching or sort of both?

Prof Ojalvo  28:12  [“Super Fascinating Particle” Physics Research]

I'm a bit of both. I mean, I really, the research is, is fantastic. And especially if you're in academia, let's say that we solve some issue, we, you know, we discover something, you can always pivot and you can pick a new problem to solve. And I think that's, that really makes me quite excited. So we have so many problems left in physics that I don't think they'll be solved in my lifetime. So there's always another problem to, you know, talk better has been around for over 100 years at this point. So it's, you know, things like this, that we'll always have another bigger problem to work on. But you know, that's one of the exciting things about being in academia is that you can always work on the next cool, new interesting problem and try to solve it.

But also, you know, I, I really enjoy mentoring my students. And finding students who have the same amount of drive and interest as I did, or finding students with unique perspectives, you know, people who are, yeah, just really want to get super passionate about the field I, I find that quite motivating for me as they, as you know, a research advisor, but also reminds me know, why am I doing this, I'm doing this to, you know, to educate students and to further fundamental research and to help everybody understand a little bit more about how the world and how the universe works.

So I really do, it's in being able to mentor and work with students is one of the very special things about being an academic and researcher.

Venkat  29:47  

That sounds really awesome. Before I ask you about Princeton, I, you know, as a researcher, and someone who's been in this area now for almost a decade, right, how, What are the things that excite you most?

You know, obviously what, uh, I guess my the way I want to ask the question is, what are the big problems you're trying to solve or that you're trying to sort of figure out that's, you know, keeps you motivated.

I mean, I can see that from your voice and from your passion that you're really into research. So I just, just from a “What drives you” kind of point of view, What what are the types of problems you're chasing right now?

Prof Ojalvo  30:32  

Well so, a lot of my research has been based on Higgs physics. So you guys remember the Higgs-Boson discovery? Yeah. Um, so my work is, is primarily on detecting a particular decay of the Higgs-Boson called Higgs tau leptons.

But the Higgs-Boson itself is a super fascinating particle because there's, it's, it is fairly unique in its and how it's composed. It's not like any of the other particles. This is new mechanisms for it interacts with other matter. And, you know, in a way that's not completely different from the rest of the standard model but also quite different. It's, it's a scalar. It's a very, very different from the other particles. And there's a, there are a lot of theories about the Higgs boson explaining things like dark matter or the the asymmetry between between particles and anti particles in the universe.

So, so, the things that I'm excited about is, doing is, understanding more about the Higgs doing precision measurements and seeing if we can look for new particles that are that will either interact with the Higgs or decay, or the Higgs akin to the K 2 etc. And so there we have an interesting process going on right now called Snowmass. Where the particle physics gets community gets at least I think it's interesting. The particle physics community gets together and tries to decide what they'll be doing for the next 10, 20,30 plus years. So there's a number of new colliders that are being proposed right now. One One is called FCC. It's basically taking the regular LHC tunnel and then adding on one more tunnel. So the lights you will be used as the as a first ring of acceleration. And then you have a, they're going to build an even longer one of that will go basically under Lake Geneva. It's good, I believe it's 100 kilometers in circumference, versus, the current one is only about 27 kilometers. So, so that could be interesting.

We have other colliders proposed. For instance, the IOC, international, the much which is going to be in a linear Collider, linear Collider in Japan. That would be very interesting because it can go super high tener mass energies. And then also they have this thing called a muon Collider, which is completely beyond it very interesting. But it's even far out there for physicists, but you know, it could be something we think about someday.

So I'm really excited actually, by the, by the, prospect of doing Higgs precision measurements and by the future colliders that, that are currently being proposed and should be built within my lifetime.

Venkat  33:28  

Good luck with that, I mean, I think, no, really, it sounds...

Just sort of curiosity. How big is this, how big is the particle physics community you mentioned? How big, how many people are there this worldwide?

Prof Ojalvo  33:41  

Worldwide, I would say um, there is something like, probably, on the order of 10 to 15,000. So it is a few Yeah, there are a few different levels of particle physics, am I so I actually worked I did a exchange program with the group at  TIFR in Mumbai. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And they're actually quite, I quite like them. I work with some of the students from there as well, from time to time. I quite like this group quite a lot. But I would say something, you know, around maybe 15,000. But okay, there's, there's different levels of particle physics.

Venkat  34:18  

Sure, that's a pretty big size. I mean, I, I would have imagined a few thousand!

Venkat  34:25

Let's come to Princeton then. Now, you've been teaching for a couple of years now. Be assistant professor. So how's that? How's the, you've been now at a couple of different places, obviously, you know, most of the time studying but now, you're actually teaching. So how's the Princeton experience? What is, what are the students like, be great to get some perspective from you on that?

Prof Ojalvo  34:55  [Teaching at Princeton]

So the students, I've really enjoyed my interactions with students.

So I'm teaching I'm a freshman level course at this point that people are just coming in to Princeton. So they actually, I think they're, so the students overall are extremely polite. But they're, you know, it's important not to under undervalue that, because you know, somebody who values your time is always appreciated, because it's, you know, faculty are busy. So when you meet a student who values your time, it gives you a little more incentive to, to want to, you know, to value their time and to make that to help them to succeed. So that's one thing that I've definitely found that the students are extremely, they're polite, and they're, they're interested in engaging.

But also, I think, oftentimes they have quite a unique perspective on, on things. So they are, they're trying to think about the world. They are, of course, strong academically, but also trying to think about the world and we use a unique way and thinking about what sort of vision they have for themselves. This is something I see quite a lot. They're always thinking about what they want to do next and how, what they want to accomplish in their careers. Okay, you know, things will, things can always evolve as you're doing academic studies, but they do definitely have a mind towards what their long term trajectory would look like.

They do, they work very hard, but also, in general have a diverse level of skills. So we have, you know, students who are doing acting, they're in my classes, students who are on the volleyball team, are doing crew, some are interested in, interested in robotics, others are doing computer science. It's a very broad range of students.

And I think actually Princeton values that quite a lot is to have some unique perspective and some unique angle or think something that drives you and this is something that I see quite a lot and all the students as they have some drive, there's something that they're very passionate about.

Venkat  37:07  

How does that sort of compare with students you may have taught at Wisconsin or something. I mean, do you find differences? I mean, if there were, you know, just had a very broad level.

Unknown Speaker  37:19  

So the thing is that I can say is that at University of Wisconsin, you can have some very, very good students as well. So the in and you can get a very high quality education at a place like University of Wisconsin, and I know there's some, some difference between Ivy League and non Ivy League. But I would say that I've had very bright - I've taught at Wisconsin, I've had some extremely bright, capable students who are extremely driven. And I see this also at Princeton.

The one thing I'll say is that perhaps we had a larger fraction of the classes in Princeton probably quite driven, but you know, in the right - University of Wisconsin can be, can be right for many people, and it was definitely the right choice for me, I think that I really had a wonderful opportunity there.

So I, the class sizes, for instance, for instance, at Princeton will always, nearly always be quite small. There are so many classes. So you might have a 200 person lecture, but then you are often taught in recitation by 25, you know, a 20 person course. So that's something that's, that's quite useful. But I've, yeah, I think that the students that Wisconsin, you will have some that are just fantastic as well.

Venkat  38:42  

Sure, Now, how about international students? Would they, are they a larger fraction in either of these places, or they're about the same, and how did you find how do you find those students from other countries?

Prof Ojalvo  38:57  

So I would say that the, the fraction of international students are, is approximately the same. My personal experience is that they work extremely, that the international students work extremely hard as a, as a general rule. So it's something that's always impressed me about the, you know, students, I think if they're making this whole commitment to go to school in another country than they are, they're going to work extremely hard. Because it's, they really committed themselves to something big and a probably something to what I felt when I was going from, from industry to back to academia. So I found them to be extremely hard working.

Venkat  39:41  [HS Girls in STEM: #1 Stick with it]

Okay, so, I want to come back to something that we started out with, you know, how you got into physics and I'd like you to, you know, share some talks or advice for girls who are in high school, who you know, should pursue science and motivate them to stick with science not just pursue, and you know, things are getting better.

Oh, yeah, maybe I should ask you this one question before we...  in your classes now, what is the proportion of  girls versus boys kind of thing? Or, you know, men, women, I guess at that age, I don't know what to call them. But so, so is, are you finding any of physics classes, for example, at Princeton, what is the distribution Like?

Prof Ojalvo  40:26  

Yes, it's different at different levels. So I suppose freshman

Venkat  40:29  

Freshman year, for example…?

Prof Ojalvo  40:32  

For the, for the majors, it's something on the order of 20 to 30% Female for the physics, okay to male for the, for the majors. For the, for the undergraduates who are non majors, it's probably closer to 50:50. As it's a general, general course, many different programs are supposed to take. But yeah, it's probably closer to, it's about closer to 30% and will vary year by year, but this is yeah, okay, quite average.

Venkat  41:03  

Yeah. So coming back to the thing. So your thoughts have us on any advice or advice for girls in high school now, regarding science, I mean, if they're interested in science, so what would you tell them?

Prof Ojalvo  41:19  

So, so one thing I'll say is that this is so, the one thing I'll say is that the my experiences is certainly going to be different from the experience that girls are having currently, because things are, are rapidly changing. So, so the point is to always, it's good to take advice, but it's also good to, to think about it with comparison to your own situation.

That there's this situations that I see now is not necessarily actual bias and not you know, out front bias and out, you know, out in front having racism, it's more systemic bias or systemic racism. That It pervades, it's quite pervasive in that you don't realize, for instance, that you're treating a female researcher different from a male researcher, you don't realize you're treating an international student different from a, from a local student, you it's something that people don't realize.

And so I think that the point is that, you know, this can be seen as something that can defeat you or it can be seen as something that motivates you. And this is, this is at least my own philosophy. I, you know, I tried to think about it if I'm, if I'm, for instance, I'm having some systemic bias in my life towards women or towards, towards, you know, racism or whatever. I think it's something that we should all think about when we are when we're interacting with, you know, our colleagues or our students and etc.

But also, if you're seeing it in your own life, you should try to take it as something that will that makes you more determined. Because if you are able to stay in the field, if you, if you find ways to overcome these situations, then you can have the opportunity to make life better for the people who come after you. 

So this is something I've had some really great mentors in my life. And actually, I'll say, Sridhara Dasu has been one of them, and Lisa Everett at the University of Wisconsin Madison, people who've, you know, they realize that there is systemic issues. And they've helped me figure out how to overcome them.

And so from having excellent mentors and finding people that I relate to, I've been able to also provide this provide this perspective to or I hope I provide the system's perspective to my own students, and trying to get them to use this as an opportunity to think okay, you know, I shouldn't take so seriously the criticism someone is giving me because it's, it could be biased or I should, I should use this as an opportunity to, to make myself stronger and do my work better. And also, if you, if you stick around and you stay in the field, you have the opportunity to make it better for other people. And so I sometimes I think that's part of the mission that we should have as, as researchers, is to think of ways to do better.

My advice for girls, though, is just, you know, don't give up even if you're, even if you take a non traditional path, even if you don't get into even if you don't go to graduate school right away, or if for instance, if you have trouble in examinations, there's there you have opportunities to overcome it.

Reach out to people who, who you think you get along with. If you don't get along with your advisor, find a new advisor. A lot of this is about personal relationships. Find people who support you and listen to them is my strong advice and then learn when not to listen as well.

Venkat  45:04  [HS Girls in STEM: #2 Find a Mentor]

You know, while you were in school and you, you mentioned a couple of instances where you might have a very you heard people basically telling you that you were in the wrong place, but you somehow soldiered on, right? I mean, you didn't let it bother you. So there's something that you were able to do. And I was just sort of tapping into that thing. Is that anything that you did that, you know, might be worth…?

Prof Ojalvo  45:28  

What, in particular? No, I actually had when I went back to graduate school, and maybe I could have mentioned this earlier, when I went back to graduate school. I actually had a very difficult time we have this six hour exam called the qualifying examination, and I had a very difficult time getting prepared for that and coming back to it after being away from school for so long, and so I was very lucky that one of the one of the faculty at University Wisconsin Madison basically reached out to me and as she, she mentored me a bit, but essentially all she, she told me was that I could do it and help me create a study schedule.

So I was in the study boot camp for myself and after, you know, going, going over all the questions, being honest with myself about what I understood and what I didn't understand, and she met with me on a, you know, almost weekly basis for some times and usually not even teaching me anything, just giving me some moral support. And in the end with all the, with the work I actually did, I got the highest score on this, this examination.

So, yeah, so after after, you know, not doing well, and then getting the top score, it gave me the confidence actually to, to feel like you know, I do deserve to be here and I am, I'm capable and and just because you know, it takes somebody just because you didn't have all the tools to begin with to to succeed, it doesn't mean that you can't learn the tools if you if you have the right mentor, if you have the right opportunities or trying to... Yeah, if you have the right mentor, reach out to people and try to overcome any difficulties you have. So, it's not giving up is I think super important as well.

Venkat  47:27  

That's, that's excellent. I mean, I congratulate you for what you've accomplished so far and wish you all the very best, I'm sure the more good things to come.

Venkat 47:44  

So, before we wrap up here, anything else you want to add that you might not have, we might not have talked about. And you know, that that you think from your past, from your experience or something else, it's up to you.

Prof Ojalvo  48:02  [Today’s Students: Lots of Ways to help you Learn]

So when, so one thing that I think is quite neat for, for college bound students at this at this time is that they have so many online resources. So if you are having trouble understanding a given concept, you know, at the undergraduate level or even at the graduate level, they have so many there's so many online lectures available and so many resources out there.

So, don't feel like you need to read the book, necessarily to understand if you don't understand from reading the book or from going through some problems in the book, go online, look for lectures, find, you know, find someone who can communicate the information to you effectively and just because you don't learn the same way as everyone else doesn't mean that you can't be good at it.

You just need to figure out what is going to work for you. It's, it's a different learning environment than I was used to when I was an undergraduate and even a graduate student. But I definitely try to be resourceful, I've and and look to see what, what resources are available to you.

Venkat  49:09  

That's great.

Isobel, thank you so much for taking the time this was. I learned a lot personally. And thank you so much. I think this will be extremely beneficial. And I hope to stay in touch and we'll talk soon.

Prof Ojalvo  49:27  

Yes, thank you very much. Thank you.

Venkat  49:29  

Yeah, take care. Bye.

Prof Ojalvo  49:31  


Venkat 40:07

Hi again!

I hope you found Prof Isobel Ojalvo’s story as inspiring as I did. It is hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm and drive that Prof Ojalvo brings to research and her profession.

For the college-bound, I am sure you will find her experiences at RPI, University of Wisconsin Madison and Princeton University very useful.

For questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] .

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

Women in STEM, Physics, US Colleges, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, RPI, University of Wisconsin Madison, Undergraduate, Academia, Boeing, Princeton University, Ivy League, Geneva, Large Hadron Collider, LHC, High Energy Particle Physics, Higgs boson

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