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Afaf Gadalla From Egypt

My Road to Professorship

I am proud to be a physics professor at one of the first Egyptian Universities located at the South of Egypt, where people have different culture from the north with respect to women. In spite of all the associated difficulties, I proved myself as a lecturer, researcher, professor and a prominent women’s leader. I engaged in developing my University and the surrounding society by advocating, advising and attracting more girls to continue learning.

I live in a society that gives preference to male children and showers them with privileges’ that are usually denied to girls. In this society, girls are always looked down upon, maltreated and given a lower status within the family and society.

Recent studies proved that girls have excellent educational potentials and mental abilities that have been wasted thoughout the years.

Education is a basic human right, which brings about change. It lays the foundation-stone for freedom and democracy. It is one of the main factors in economic and social development.

However, a realistic view indicates great differences between what international treaties call for, and what is actually happening in the society. In 3rd world countries (like most of the Middle East) almost 130 million children are denied their right to education. Girls make up two thirds of this number (they are illiterate). Regarding the general status of girls, there exists an educational gender gap of about 20% between boys and girls. The girls are forced to stay at home because of economic and social considerations, and the presence of accepted social beliefs that a girl’s final destination is home, marriage and bearing children.

Determining Factors

Egyptian laws declared equal opportunities and affirmative action for both sexes in education. It is important to point out that the numbers of women graduated in the late sixties as Science Majors are twice those who graduated some decades earlier. While girls are more likely to choose disciplines from the humanities or arts rather than Sciences, statistical analysis shows that they are just as successful as their male colleagues in all subjects.

Recently, the number of female students entering university almost equals the number of male students. Never the less, their chance of employment at the university after their first degree is a factor of 2 lower than that of their male colleagues in all disciplines. Even fields with 80% female student have less than 20% female professors.

Why do we not have more women scientists?

Among the major problems professional women – especially natural scientists – face are:

  • Conflict of values between family and professional life, “women have two responsibilities”
  • Isolation: Lack of discussion with supervisors, for exchange of experience, knowledge and advice.
  • Assessment of excellency criteria based on a male system of values
  • Difficulties of “dual career couples”.

In spite of all the above negative conditions encountered by women in my society that would discourage me from continuing my education, I challenged that and shaped my future to become a good person and scientist. Many thanks are due to my mother who played a great role in those successes.

The following are the main steps showing how I became a professor:

  • 1944 born in Upper Egypt.
  • 1950/61 elementary and High school (Girls’ school), Sohag City, Egypt.
  • 1961/73 Assiut University, B. Sc., M. Sc. and Ph.D.( in Solid State Physics)
  • 1973/75 Post-Doctoral Research, Max-Planck- Institute. Stuttgart, Germany
  • 1975/77 Associate Professor, Assiut University
  • 1977/83 Associate Professor, King Abdel Aziz University, Saudi Arabia
  • 1983/85 Awarded Post Doc-Fellowship, Alexander-von-Humboldt, Research Center, Juelich, Germany
  • 1986/90 Professor, Physics Dept, Assiut University
  • 1980/91 Fulbright Scholarship, visiting Professor, Univ. of California, Irvine
  • 1993/todate: Advisor for Assiut University, President for Girl students & women’s activities
  • Chairperson of Assiut Alliance for Women, a non-profit Organization aiming to empower women in all fields of life, and to encourage girls to enter the field of science.
  • Published more than Fifty Publications and got two national and international Awards.

Aquila Islam From Pakistan

Trail Blazer

The year was 1948, and the month was May. Less than a year ago a new country had made its appearance on the map of the world, carved out of a subcontinent well known in the annals of history. The birth-pains of Pakistan had not yet subsided and memories of the blood-drenched partition were still fresh in all minds. Karachi, presently a sprawling city of 20 million was a small town of not more than a 400,000, neat and clean, but dusty, just like a desert. In the hot blazing afternoon two persons were trekking across a shade-less barren stretch of land. One upright distinguished looking elderly man and the other a weak sickly girl child looking much younger and smaller than her 11 years. They were headed towards a Girls’ school. At the gate of the school the man was sort of taken aback. The sign there said, “Men are not permitted inside”. Accustomed to respect rules and regulations as he himself had been a Head Master (Principal) of a well-recognized school in Bombay (now Mumbai), he bent to tell his granddaughter to venture alone to cross the gate. The little girl did manage to find the Principal’s office. There she was asked to do surprise admission tests in Urdu, English and Arithmetic for class VII. She fared well in Urdu and English but Arithmetic was a disaster. She scored ZERO. She was refused admission. With tears rolling down her cheeks she managed to stutter that she had already passed class VI from a prestigious convent of Indore (the capital of a central Indian state) and even got 4th position in a class of 40. She was asked to present the certificate the next day. A conditional admission was granted, so that if she failed in the first monthly test she would be reverted to class III.

Never in my lifetime have I dreaded a test so much, and I was on top of world when I scored 8 out of 25, 33% needed to pass the test. I had made life miserable for my father, insisting on tutoring me for this test. As far as I can recall this was the only time when I sought help in my studies. In the second monthly test I scored 60% and after that the marks osciillated between 95 and 100%. My teachers and principal showered me with praise and were extremely unhappy when I had to leave school, because it was not a high/secondary school. Those were difficult times and in spite of being so young I was sensitive to the trials and travails of growing up in a large family with limited resources. Still, we were a happy family, with my parents being an ideal loving couple and my father and grandfather initiating the eldest two in Urdu and Persian poetry and intellectually empowering my brother and myself. My father was one of the two Chartered Accountants in the country at that time. I was the first female of my family to be educated in a school. Historically, no female among our ancestors was ever allowed to study in school. My mother was tutored at home up to lower secondary level, and my paternal grandmother could not read or write at all. When I graduated from high school my grandmother decreed, “No more Education, High School Certificate is more than enough for a girl.”. She governed the family like a dictator and in the cultural scenario of that time the will of parents had to be respected. My father was an obedient son and my mother remained silent in presence of her mother-in-law. I had clinched first position among girl students in the Board Exams. Still, I was not being allowed to continue my education. I went on a hunger strike but my grandmother had no mercy.

The Principal of my Secondary school (New Town Girls School, Karachi) Ms. Safia Khan was an accomplished teacher and a wonderful human being. She inculcated in us a love for English literature and trained us for debating and declamation contests. My confidence and my logical and analytical capabilities were developed under her guidance. Armed with these and with the connivance of my father and grandfather I was able to enroll in a government College for Women. Our School was not affluent enough to offer Science. So I had NO INKLING about PHYSICS until I joined the college. Luckily in those days there was no such restriction that only those who had studied Science in School could pursue Science Studies. I hated Chemistry, was comfortable with Mathematics but was fascinated with Physics. I cannot forget my sense of wonder on discovering that a tiny constriction in a clinical thermometer could keep a permanent record of a person’s fever. Another mind-boggling bit of learning was Wien’s Displacement Law for Black Body Radiation. I proudly went around trying to impress all and sundry that sitting here on Earth we can determine the temperature of the Sun, by simply measuring the wavelength of its peak radiation. Unraveling innumerable wonders, from the Microscopic to the Macroscopic world, from Nano to Mega, from quarks to galaxies, from subatomic sizes to Parsecs, submerged me in the mysteries of the Cosmos. I was the torch-bearer for female education for my entire clan. My sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law and nieces are all highly educated. One of my nieces is a Rheumatologist in Los Angeles. The brother who was initiated in literature by our father and grandfather is now a nationally acclaimed journalist who has been a state guest of the US, France, Germany and Switzerland. His wife is Managing Director of an internationally recognized NGO, IRC (Indus Resource Centre), working for female education and for empowerment of women and marginalized segments of the society.

As I started my journey for graduation in Physics at the University of Karachi, there was no end in sight nor objectives defined. Three years of BSc(Honours) flew past like a whistle. I was the ONLY female student in the department but had many female friends from other departments who came visiting. We were celebrating the end of exams when I was called to the Chairman’s office. The Vice Principal of my former college was also there. These two eminent teachers had already conspired to define my future. The Physics Department of the women college was in dire need of a Lab instructor and I was the ONLY available choice. Much to my chagrin and against my wishes I was sort of dragged into Physics teaching. My chairman assured me that I could still pursue my studies for a Master’s degree, dividing time between college and University. Immersed suddenly in this role, with no training, nor any conscious aptitude for teaching, I was surrounded by class XI and class XII female students only 2 or 3 years my junior. Strangely there was an instant bonding with them. I loved experimenting with tactics for explaining concepts and learning from interaction with young minds. In spite of my teaching engagement I was able to complete my Master’s degree in Physics from the University of Karachi, obtaining First-Class first position. I was almost selected for a Fulbright Scholarship, but denied due to my involvement in student movements during my university days. Teaching Physics up to graduate(BSc) level was my passion. Dr. I. H. Usmani, Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission was a seminar speaker at our college in the early sixties. He offered me the post of Scientific Officer at PINSTECH(PAEC) and insisted that I should immediately change my profession from teaching to research. He sent me the requisite application forms the next day, but by then I was addicted to teaching and my students loved and respected me. It is on record that every year a different innovative approach was adopted to discuss the same old topic. In those times prescribed text books were not in vogue. Computers were non-existent in our world and libraries were the only resource for knowledge. This environment gave me ample opportunity to experiment and explore. Our students almost always were at the top in the university examinations.

I had been teaching for 9 years when I was encouraged to apply for a British Council scholarship for teacher Education, by the regional head of the British Council in Hyderabad. I did this and was interviewed in Karachi. Apparently, I fared very well but did not receive any feedback. In the meantime I was nominated for the coveted Colombo Plan scholarship, thanks to the concerted efforts of my Principal Mrs. Shams Abbasi, who had great confidence in me. One day I was called to the principal’s office. The regional head of the Hyderabad British Council was there, accompanied by an Englishman, the Head/President of British Council from England. He was touring Pakistan and had come to ask me why I had not accepted the offer of a scholarship. He was astonished to find out that I had not received any letter. There were some “special friends” who made sure that any “good offer” for me was intercepted at the post office. Anyway I was no longer interested in the British Council Scholarship because the Colombo Plan scholarship was for an MSc. Program at the University of Waterloo, Canada. The Englishman did not like it. According to him I was the star candidate in the interview and if I was opting for Colombo Plan because of a Master’s Degree, he had the AUTHORITY to OFFER me a SOUTHFIELD SCHOLARSHIP at the University of London, which was meant for British Citizens only. He said that the University of Waterloo was not comparible with the University of London. He convinced me to opt for the Southfield Scholarship. The British Council officers were most cooperative. They looked after my Passport/Visa procurement. I got mail from London, informing that my name-plate had been fixed on a residence room. The Canadian High Commission was consistently calling for acceptance of the Colombo Plan scholarship. At one stage the Government of Pakistan threatened to withdraw both the scholarships as “Both countries had friendly relations with Pakistan and they could not afford to displease either”. How I ended up in Waterloo still baffles me. Perhaps my fascination with the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), instigated me. I knew the Physics of Aurora but its picturesque description by Marie Corelli , in her novel Vendetta, entrapped me.

At the University of Waterloo I studied Biophysics, a discipline totally new for me. This was the first time I was introduced to Biology. Professor Snyder, our professor for Cell Biology, was a gentle soul, interested in music, especially in trombone, and carpentry. He must have been good because I scored 97% in his paper. According to him I deserved 100% but that would be “too strange”. Dr. Kruv was my advisor as well as Professor for Radiation Biophysics. In general the Physics faculty at Waterloo was competent and friendly. I never felt that I was in a foreign land. I had joined the University of Waterloo in mid-September and in December a CIDA Officer visited the campus, bringing an offer for PhD study. I was given full liberty to choose any University, any program. I was very happy at Waterloo, which enjoyed a good reputation. Dr. Snyder, Dr. Kruv and Dr. Peter, our professor for NMR, offered to be my PhD supervisor, but I was terrified of the PhD qualifying exam, reputed to be extremely challenging. Also the dome of the nuclear reactor building at McMaster beckoned to me. I joined McMaster for my PhD in July 1971. Professor Summers-Gill proudly informed me that I was the only female student among 120 graduate students at McMaster’s Physics Department. He directed me to probe the nuclear levels of the odd-odd nucleus Eu146 . Those were trying times for me. I was a novice in this field and went through a very difficult phase of learning to roll a target, to fill the diffusion pumps every few hours, to manage the numerous dials on the control panel of the Tandem Accelerator and to take the beam down the beam line. For the first 2 years I went through nightmares, with too much noise in all my particle spectra, and Dr. Summers-Gill would not agree to change the problem. I had to manipulate other members of my committee to finally shift the study to Shell Model States in La138 . My struggle in the first 2 years enabled me to finish my PhD in another 2 years, This was a record as probably no-one else had been able to finish in 4 years.

Returning to Pakistan after my PhD in Nuclear Physics in 1975 I was posted as the Principal of Government Girls College, Larkana by the Education Department of Sindh. I finally joined PAEC as a Senior Scientific Officer at NPD(Nuclear Physics Division) of PINSTECH(Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology) in 1976. In 1979 I got an offer for a Post Doctoral Fellowship from McMaster. Dr. Summers-Gill’s obsession with Eu146 persisted. During my Post Doctoral studies I had to befriend Eu 146 again. Because of energy Limitations we sought permission from AECL (Atomic Energy of Canadian Ltd.) to conduct a 5-day experiment at Chalk River. Security Clearance for a Pakistani took many weeks. While at Chalk River I was never allowed to be alone in the Lab. A security person was monitoring all the time, day and night, even when I was developing my plates and counting tracks in the dark room. The senior scientist who was collaborating with us was embarrassed but one can never argue with security personnel. I think Eu146 finally became MY NUCLEUS because I still receive queries about it.

I had to re-join college on my return from post-doctoral studies due to family constraints and the Sindh Government’s unprofessional attitude. There I found a wonderful team (Asima Ali, Nazish Kazimi and Bilquis Tufail) and together we were able to chart new courses. In 1988 we organized an All-Karachi Science Fair in which male participants were also invited for the first time. In 1989 we again organized a thematic science fair which became the talk of town and trail-blazing. Many pilot projects evolved from that fair. There were editorials in its praise. In 1984 some dedicated and concerned teachers from different colleges formed a group which worked for the betterment of Physics education. Later this group was registered as the Centre for Physics Education uner the patronship of Professor Salam. I was honored as its founding president. CPE has organized two International Conferences, many national and local Workshops and hands-on training programs for teachers and students. On April 21 this year CPE organized “A Day With the Women Physicists of Pakistan” at NCP, in collaboration with NCP and HEC. Currently, a challenging project is underway. MSc and PhD students are being guided for quality research in innovative fields by national experts. These research scholars will select their topics and mentors and will present their report/mini-thesis in December.

I finally retired as Principal of a prestigious college in 1996. Since then I have been involved in various academic and administrative capacities in a number of private universities. In April 2010 I was offered a post of Professor of Physics in Karakoram International University. In May 2010 my status was upgraded to Dean of Natural Sciences, and soon to Senior Dean. I was able to initiate research and incorporate innovative approaches in academic and co-curricular matters by virtue of my position. I resigned from KIU in April 2014, due to family pressure and flight problems. But my bond with the faculty and students of KIU is still strong. My current interest is Astronomy. The clear blue sky of Gilgit beckons me. We are in the process of building an Observational observatory at KIU in Gilgit Baltistan, at the foot of towering Karakoram. Though I have left KIU, my association with the observatory project is on solid a footing.

From the treasure box of memories I recall a couplet. The poet’s name, however, is missing from my memory pages. It says,

“Lives of great men all remind us,
We can also make our lives sublime,
And parting leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time,”

I think some great women (e.g. Lise Meitner, Madam Curie, Irene Curie, Maria Goepert Meyer) could also prompt us to make our lives sublime.

Elvire Nzeba Banza From D. R. Congo

Nzeba Banza Elvire was born on 18/10/1988 in Mbuji-Mayi in Eastern Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo, second in a family of seven children. Elvire was more capable in mathematical branches than in literary work. Also, she had experienced difficulty in obtaining 70 percent in material of literarary character. At the age of 14 she chose the scientific direction and there her achievement was 80 percent. Elvire was most comfortable in physics and she ended by getting her state diploma in mathematics and physics in 2007. Elvire wanted to do purely physical science research, when her father spoke to her about a faculty of sciences of the University of Kinshasa. She was very interested in the work of many scientists and especially, her dream was to work as a researcher at a nuclear plant. At 18, Elvire had to leave her parents to go to university in Kinshasa, the capital of her country. Upon her arrival in Kinshasa, her sister Melanie, the eldest of his family (Elvira was second) had already been entered on the computer in competition. Elvire was unhappy and discouraged and refused to go. Her uncle and a great older brother of her mother encouraged and persuaded the family to let Elvire enter the department of physics. It was not at all easy for Elvire to adapt to the Physics Department in the first days of her studies. All the people she had met in her class had at least one level of the university, whether they came from the polytechnic or the mathematical or physical-mathematical preparatory schools. Elvire was successful in this contest and was directly admitted to the first year of physics. Her first study day in the physics department was not good at all, because she was a girl among 56 men and they wanted to know at all costs how she had come to physics and even doubted her skills. The second day was still bad for her, as every teacher would ask the same questions three times during the course. Elvira was discouraged, and had to be further stimulated by reading a lot, and searching the internet as well as the library. After three months of the course she was doing such stunning work, that there was a big change and much respect for her. At last everyone began to understand why she had come to the Department of Physics. Then it was time for Elvira to express her knowledge and realize her dreams. But how, as she was still only in the first year? There was a group in the department called the “physics club”. In May 2008, the same year there when she decided to join the club as a member, she campaigned for one of the candidates for physics club president.. There were two candidates and the candidate supported by Elvire carried the elections and then named Elvire treasurer of the physics club This is was the first feat by Elvire at the Physics Department. She took care of the finances but also the club records, which were history. This gave her plenty of opportunity to be able to organize conferences, seminars and scientific debate. Elvire even organized a conference to sensitize and motivate women to study physics. She was not the only girl in the audience but this time with two others who came from the Polytechnic.

When it came time for the publication of the examination results of the first round (session) of the Department of Physics, Elvire was the only candidate to pass to the second year without failure. Elvire passed the third year and also finished her degree, graduating successfully, and was chosen for her excellence to represent the Democratic Republic of Congo at a scientific conference in Nairobi. In 2010, Elvire began her second degree in physics and ended the first year license with a good mention. Again she was selected in the framework of the Physics club to go to a conference in the field of geophysics in a center for forest research named “ERAIFT”. In 2012, Elvire completed her second cycle license with Distinction. The faculty examining her record and her travels saw fit appoint her as an assistant professor at the University of Kinshasa. In this context, she can still continue her studies in physics to advance her academic career. Always dynamic, Elvire has not limited her work to the university, but also in high schools, to high school students, to help them understand the physical concepts in a simple and palpable manner. In 2013, Elvire began her masters or postgraduate work. She finished third in this third cycle and expects the financial support to continue from the project sponsors (Belgian). Her Masters was completed in April 2014 but Elvira continues her research in hopes of finding a scholarship to finish her studies.

Silvia Espinoza From Peru

I am a mother and Peruvian physicist, working as a physics teacher and doing research.

My research has been conducted at a slower pace due to my double duty. In 2012, I exhibited my work at NANO 2012 in Greece. My research is about nano particles for cancer treatment and I got a medal as a result of this work. Later, my country recognized me as a researcher and conducted interviews of me that were published in an important newspaper.

It fills me with a lot of pride because for me it is very hard, and costs me twice as much, as research in my country is a hobby.

Ibiyinka Fuwape From Nigeria

My name is Ibiyinka Fuwape. I am from Nigeria. My interest in Physics started from my high school days and I decided to pursue a career in Physics. Even now, I still continue to get excited with teaching Physics and conducting research in Physics.

My research interest is in nonlinear dynamics and at the moment I am interested in information processing in sensory systems, which my collaborator, Professor Alexander Nieman of Ohio University Athens, Ohio, US exposed me to a few years ago. I am grateful for the Schlumberger Faculty for the Future grant that made this possible for me. It is amazing that fishes with electro-receptors, especially the paddlefish, contains two distinct oscillators. The functional role of the oscillations in conveying information has been a subject of investigation. Prof Nieman collaborates with a biologist, Prof David Russell, to study the way Paddlefishes process information via their electro-sensory organ. They have a large laboratory (an artificial pond) where the fish are raised. I was amazed when they took me around their laboratory and I became fascinated with the great work they were doing. I joined their team and we have already published some work together.

Maria L. Cerón From Peru

Experiences in my Profession as Physicist

I often remember that I did not know what to study, whether chemistry or physics! From college preparation, I knew that I would like experimental procedures I think that was it along with the advice of my high-school teachers. When I entered into university, I felt lucky and I said to myself with a bit of fear: “Now I must stay here!” I perceived university as being a place that is very competitive, especially concerning grades. Guys usually would obtain the highest grades. But by studying a lot, sooner, my women classmates and I would be equal to the guys; so soon, all members of our classroom were on the same level.

After finishing undergraduate studies, I had to face the labor situation. In those years people usually asked: Where are you going to work? Physical sciences, what is it? Is it useful? In spite of pessimism, I searched for ways to create my opportunities. I attempted to be smart; ‘ser pilas’ is a Latin American idiom that synthesizes my attitude in those years. One day a professor advised me to apply for the Peruvian Geophysical Institute (IGP is its Spanish acronym). At the same time, I began to participate in a project in which another professor had included me. Those were my first steps in deep scientific research. I participated actively in the creation of the Solis Analysis laboratory (LAS is its Spanish acronym) of San Marcos University, UNMSM. However, the work environment for a woman is not easy. Professional jealousy would come not only from men but from women too. Harassment, machismo and lack of acceptancce were common.. Nonetheless, I faced, understood and learned from those obstacles. In these circumstances, I obtained my licentiate thesis in the faculty of physical sciences in UNMSM.

Next, I got married, and after several months I had my first child. My life, as far as personal relationships and family affairs are concerned, was stable. However, in parallel to this, I realized that the professional relationship aspects showed an exponential decay. Many times people who should have supported me decided instead that they considered that being a first-time mother was an obstacle to good performance at work because, allegedly, I would not count on much time. Those attitudes hurt me, and I felt a bit of loneliness; fortunately, I overcame these adverse situations since I had decided that I was able to choose my own destiny. Soon, I looked for information useful to me: in social networks, scholarships (sandwiches) announcements, and websites of organizations supporting women; luckily, I found what I was searching for. At that time, coincidentally, the second ICWIP was being held in Brazil.. I contacted the organizers, and then I submitted a statistical work. They accepted me, and I attended the meeting. This fact encouraged me, and it also was very interesting, as I perceived that many women were in the same situation as mine.

In 2013, I attempted to organize a similar event; I asked for support from both the Peruvian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Peruvian Ministry of Education, but unhappily both entities replied that they are short of funds. This year, 2014, I formed a committee to work for this again and I requested financial support from Concytec (National Council of Science and Technology) and businesses whose work involves some physics. They responded positively, but the matter ended up with the same ministries, which did not respond. . The SOPERFI (Peruvian Society of Physics) and our Faculty of Physical Sciences, through our Dean, Dr. Angel D. Bustamante also supported the organization, and managed to make this major event “First Physical Meeting Women of Peru” possible.

Finally, I want to say that I love scientific research, although the salary is meager, and that I will continue on this way which is not finished yet.

Cherrill Spencer From the USA

A true recollection written by Dr Cherrill Spencer, Particle Physicist and Accelerator Magnet Engineer, for the 5th International Conference on Women in Physics:

Adventures with Alligators, Sharks and Dirac

Here is my story of my day out with Dirac. Yes, that Dirac who formulated the Dirac equation in 1928 and won the Nobel Prize with Schr�dinger in 1933 for “the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”. Who would have thought he was alive and well and living in Tallahassee, Florida in 1977? But there he was, sitting in the front row of the audience for my colloquium on the particle physics experiment I had worked on during my previous post-doctoral research associateship. And when Professor Dirac, the founder of quantum electrodynamics, told me in question time that he didn’t believe in the Feynman diagram I had used to explain how we had collided an electron and a positron and made a muon and anti-muon, I was completely flustered and had to appeal to the other theoretical physicists in the auditorium for help. Nevertheless, Dirac sought me out at the reception that followed and praised me for my youthful enthusiasm for physics. Then he told me that he’d be joining me the next day in a tour by car of northern Florida with the head of the Physics Department at Florida State University, Professor Joe Lannutti, and Assistant Professor of Physics, Ron Diamond.

So that’s how I came to be sitting in the back of a car for a day out with arguably the most famous physicist of the twentieth century. But no-one had told me that Dirac was also famous for being very precise, quite shy, and bordering on autistic in his social interactions. As we drove to some Florida swamps to take a boat ride to see some alligators I was ready to pepper him with questions about his life at Cambridge University, how he came up with his equation that describes the behaviour of electrons and predicted the existence of anti-matter, and why he’d come to work at Florida State University when he’d had the choice of any university in the world for where to go after his mandated retirement from Cambridge. When he didn’t answer my first question right away I asked him a different one and after three un-answered questions I took a break to wonder what was wrong with them. Then, after what felt like an age, Dirac answered my first question in a carefully thought-out way; to start with I was a bit confused because I supposed he was answering my most recent question, but then I realised what he had answered was my first question, asked over 5 minutes before! Having learnt how to converse with Professor Dirac I spread out my questions and waited patiently for his short but precise answers as we sped in the car towards the Gulf of Mexico to go for a swim after our boat ride.

The tide was out at the deserted beach and one had to wade from shore over 50 metres to reach water deep enough to swim in. But first, Professor Dirac had to check the water temperature, which he did by throwing a thermometer on a string into the water and dragging it back after a minute or two to read it. After Dirac declared that the water was warm enough to swim in we four took off our outer clothes, having put on our swimming costumes before we set out, and waded into the calm Gulf water with no-one else in sight. Dirac was further out than I was and swimming slowly parallel to the shore when I saw what I thought was a shark’s fin gliding above the water a few metres beyond him. Oh dear, I thought, I’m going to have to save the most famous physicist in the world, who established the general theory of quantum mechanics about 45 years earlier, from a shark attack, so I shouted out “Professor Dirac, there’s a shark over there!”. He stood up (the water was not deep) and looked at where I was pointing, “Oh no”, he said, “that’s not a shark’s fin, that’s a dolphin’s fin.” and proceeded to explain the difference in their fin shapes, a subject he had apparently studied in preparation for swimming in Florida. You can imagine my great relief.

After a sea-food dinner at a restaurant, Professor Lannutti drove us back to Professor Dirac’s house in Tallahassee where his wife Margit invited us in for a cup of coffee and to find out about our sight-seeing trip. While we chatted with her, Professor Dirac disappeared into the back of their house and eventually returned with a pile of presentation boxes which he opened up one by one to show me what was inside. They each contained one of the many prizes and honours that Professor Dirac had received over his lifetime, for example, the Royal Medal, the Copley Medal, the Max Planck Medal, his Order of Merit and his Nobel Prize medal. What a treat it was to see all those medals and to read their accompanying citations. As we left, Mrs Dirac pulled me aside and told me that Dirac had NEVER BEFORE brought out his prizes to show anyone and I must have been a good influence on him. That was a marvelous remark to hear at the end of my amazing day out with Dirac.

Malti Goel From India


I, Malti Goel, was born in the little town Pilani in the house of Mittals. Pilani in India is known for being the birth place of famous industrial Shri G. D. Birla, and the home of the premier Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS). I studied up to higher secondary school in Birla Balika Vidya Peeth in the science stream. I was privileged to have studied science, as my elder sisters had taken arts subjects, which were considered more suited for girls. There was, however, a shortage of women science teachers. In my 3rd year of higher secondary in school we were lucky to have a physics teacher who managed to teach a course of three years in just one year.

I passed higher secondary at the age of fourteen years. That is when I read a news item about the eminent scientist Dr. Jayant Narlikar. Dr Narlikar was working on the Theory of the Steady State Universe along with Prof. Fred Hoyle in Cambridge, U.K. and there were speculations that they were potential Noble Prize candidates for their innovative theory. I dreamt of becoming a Physicist. In 1965 on completing graduation, my first choice was physics for post-graduate study. Prof Shiv Yogi Tiwari, then Head, of Physics asked in the interview; “Why physics? Your mathematics is also good and why not follow in the footsteps of your father” My father Prof. S. R. Mittal was Professor of Mathematics at the Institute and Vice-Principal.

Making it Happen

With the determination to do my doctorate in physics, I did really well in my M.Sc., beyond anybody’s expectations. Credit is due to our physics teachers (including Prof. Ashok Parthasarthy, who was doing research on Quark theory in the UK) who were highly motivating and encouraged us to do our best in the Institute. I secured the first position in M.Sc. physics and was a Merit Scholarship holder. However, a different story was being interwoven for me in the universe and soon after the examinations were over, I was to get married in an arranged ceremony. Prof Tiwari announced the result of my being first in the class to my future husband at the marriage venue.

After marriage I moved to Delhi, the capital city of India. One could easily get lost in this mega-capital city with great crowds, roads full of vehicles, and air that was polluted. Life was no longer the same, and I had no knowledge of social customs and people’s expectations. During my M.Sc there were no girls in the class with whom I could share my thoughts and feelings. Now my name was changed from Mittal to Goel. Everything including the dream to do a Ph.D was left behind. In those days my education was my only asset.

Then What?

I had started teaching in a school at the initiative of my father-in-law, who was a very forward-looking person. One year passed and during one of my short visits to Pilani to meet my parents, my father suggested that I contact Prof S, C. Mathur at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to seek his guidance. Prof Mathur advised me to appear for the entrance examination, similar to GATE these days. I was selected for a one year post graduate diploma at IIT Delhi in Solid State Physics. In those days, girls’ higher education was not encouraged, especially after marriage. As expected, there was some resistance but also acceptance on the home front, but I was fortunate to join IIT Delhi.. Physics was not very common with girls, so I was the only girl in the class of twelve. I got first position again and that strengthened my case to persuade my family that I should be doing a doctorate. At registering for the Ph.D, I found that choice was limited because of my married status. I was interested in theoretical physics, but did research on Electrets in organic solids as an experimentalist. I was awarded my Ph.D degree in 1973 under the guidance of Prof. P. K. C. Pillai, an extraordinary person with high intelligence, yet very gentle.

Being passionate about research, I devoted my time to post doctoral research. My two children were born during this time. As Research Associate in the Center for Materials Science at IIT Delhi, I studied electrical and mechanical properties of polymers and composites, a new field of research worldwide at that time. But destiny was somewhere else. After almost ten years of na—na (no, no) I joined the Government of India, Ministry of Science & Technology as Senior Scientific Officer. I then realized that despite doing very frontline research, which was finding quick application in industry, and also having a good number of publications in journals of high international repute, the time had come to say goodbye to research, which meant no more prizes.

Job Hassles

It was indeed the most significant phase of my life, but not hassle free. Besides being a Scientific Officer, I was a mother, a wife, who was also a strength to her husband in his business pursuits, and a daughter-in-law. I was multi-tasking, wearing different masks at different hours of the day. In this challenging phase of my career I had to prove myself in the work related to promotion of physical & atmospheric sciences research & education in various institutions across the country. I was feeling important in meeting with most eminent scientists and technocrats of India and learning at the same time. My knowledge of physics helped me to quickly identify critical research issues in atmospheric science and also in dealing with inter-disciplinary subjects and inter-sectoral issues in energy and its complex relation with climate change among others.

In hindsight, the change in my career from research to management with its ups and downs, was a commitment to the Nation. Accomplishment of goals in projects related to advancements in science & technology especially in fields of materials and minerals, atmospheric science and carbon sequestration, have been gratifying.

Florence Mutonyi D’ujanga From Uganda

I was born on 29th July 1954 to Mr. & Mrs. Damasco Kiondo to a family of nine children, in one of the remote villages of Uganda. My father was a secondary school teacher, a graduate in English literature, whose English vocabulary had an accent of the “Queen’s English”, and it is this that motivated me so much at that young age to have a passion for studies.

In the early sixties, when I was in primary school, it was brought to our attention that the Americans had had their first mission to the moon — the Apollo mission. My dream was that one day I would also reach the moon. I remember telling my parents about it and wondering what one can do to go to the moon. I vividly remember my father’s answer: he said that if I worked hard at my arithmetic numbers (mathematics) then it would make it possible for me to do science, which was required for those going to the moon. Having realized that to go to the moon required science, which in turn depended on mathematics, I never looked back, I devoted myself to working at those numbers and I actually excelled in all my studies.

The hope that someday I would go to the moon, was my driving force even when I reached secondary school where sciences, particularly physics and mathematics, were considered a discipline that was for boys. There were discouragements from teachers too, who felt that I might be wasting my time pursuing sciences and failing it in the end, because there were subjects for ladies that were not so taxing, which I should have taken. As for my classmates, particularly the boys, they made such discouraging remarks like “you are masculine” or “you will never get married” and the like, which could have made me give up. Indeed, a number of girls gave up. As for me, the motivation of reaching the moon kept me focused.

This is what has kept me afloat in this discipline which many perceive as only for males. I have been a physics lecturer for 30 years and was Head of the Physics Department at Makerere University for over eight years. Currently, I have attained the rank of Associate Professor of Physics and my current research is in Space Physics. One can say that attaining my childhood dream of reaching the moon is not so far-fetched after all.

Marina Milner-Bolotin From Canada

I grew up in the Soviet Union where women were as engaged in science, engineering and mathematics fields as men were. My maternal grandfather was a physicist and my grandmother was an engineer, so it was not surprising that my mother became a physics educator. My father was an engineer, so during my childhood I was surrounded by scientists and engineers. Since I was young, my parents and grandparents shared stories about physics and mathematics, asked questions, and discussed ideas. They also guided me in my readings and always encouraged me to pursue science and mathematics. All my life, I have been surrounded by men and women who were scientists, so for me going into physics was a natural choice. I always appreciated physics to be a challenging field, but if you want to pursue something exciting it will always be a challenge! I always wanted to be intellectually challenged and to be surrounded by people who loved asking questions and figuring things out. When I was young my parents gave me a few books by Richard Feynman (translated into Russian) and I read them with great interest. When I graduated with the M.Sc. degree in theoretical physics I realized that I wanted to teach physics and to make sure that other students have as many wonderful opportunities to appreciate the world around them as I had. I have been teaching physics in secondary school and at university for more than 20 years now and I love every moment of it. Currently I work with physics teachers — helping to raise the next generation of inspiring physics educators. I love my work and I love the opportunities physics education provided me with!