Model Physicist

Yangyang Cheng
Aug 14, 2016 · 16 min read

It was early summer of 2015. I was in my final months of graduate school, working towards a PhD in physics. I went to an administrator’s office for some paperwork. It was a Friday afternoon, the sun warm. We talked for a bit. He asked me what I wanted to do after graduation.

I told him that I was not sure yet. I love physics: as a particle physicist at the cusp of the higher energy second run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment I’ve been working on since the start of my PhD days, I recognized it was the opportunity of a lifetime and would love to continue with it. On the other hand I was also deeply passionate about politics and public policy, and if I were to pursue it professionally at some point in my career, the end of a PhD seemed like a natural time to make the transition. I was also a foreign student studying in the US, another limiting factor in the already stressful situation.

Then I asked if he had any advice. He has a PhD in the physical sciences. He works with students. He is a kind, generous person of integrity whose opinion I value.

“So, have you considered, modeling?” he said, “as in, fashion modeling?” Since modeling alone could be interpreted differently in a science setting. He was serious. He was earnest.

It was a warm summer day, but I suddenly felt cold. It was a slow Friday afternoon, but at that moment time seemed to stand still. The moment he said “modeling”, I felt hollow, as if someone ripped something out from within me, reducing me to an empty shell, a size, a dress, a pair of high heels.

The following week, at the end of a discussion about my thesis research, I told my PhD advisor of this exchange.

“I think the first question I have is,” I asked, trying very hard to control my voice and my emotions, “after almost six years in this department, have I not worked hard enough, done well enough to prove myself as a serious physicist, that I’m still being judged primarily by the way I look and how I dress?”

“That is a fair question to ask.” My advisor answered, “and the answer is yes. You are a serious physicist. (Name of said administrator) does not know your work; I do. The only way he would have known is if he asked me; he has not.”

“There are plenty of boys in the department who happen to fit a certain look by conventional standards,” I listed a few names we both knew, “do you think they’d be given the same career advice?”

“Probably not. Most likely not.”

“If only you could look like your mother!” my childhood neighbors said.

It was ironic, as growing up I was never considered beautiful, and in fact quite the opposite. I was born and raised in China. Big round eyes, a tall narrow nose, dimpled cheeks, pointy chin, petite frame,…these were considered the hallmarks of beauty and I have none of them. I was not beautiful and would never be beautiful: that was the message about my appearance I’d ever received as a child, mostly from my own, very beautiful mother.

My mother is a child of 1960’s China, to a nation in turmoil and a society in rapid transition. She is a product of both opportunities that women before her never had, and the confines that walled in her ambitions and shaped her traditional views. I am her only child, a daughter.

My family does not have money or power, so the only way for me to advance from a second-tier city in developing China was by excelling in school. This was when I was told, that the fact I was born so ugly was a blessing in disguise: since I was so devoid of physical beauty, I would not be distracted by it, and could hence focus on my studies. Just in case I might be tempted otherwise, my mother made sure my hair was kept at the shortest length all year round, usually shaved completely bald in summertimes. Other than a couple gifts and outfits for school plays, I had no dresses or skirts in my wardrobe.

As a girl, I was told beauty and intelligence were mutually exclusive. Lucky me, the choice was already made for me by what my mother called “a genetic mishap”, and of course her parenting methods.

I did very well in school, in fact I barely ever got second place in an exam since third grade. I did equally well in language classes and math classes, but there was always this warning from the adults in my life, my mother in particular, that as a girl, at some point sooner or later, math and the ensuing science subjects would become too difficult for me, that the boys in my class would surpass me in grades, that my only shot at not being left too far behind in the near future, was when boys were still “being boys”, to work as hard as possible to build up enough of a lead when I still seemed capable of comprehending math and abstract concepts.

Essentially, as a girl I needed to race against my own biological clock in order to keep with the boys in school. I was told that when my age was still in the single digit.

I started school a little bit early. Through my elementary and secondary school years, I was a year or two younger than most of my classmates.

As I entered middle school, I started noticing girls around me who did very well in elementary school slip in the grades. I was alarmed as a child: it was a feeling of the adults were right and it was HAPPENING; I was a little younger, but was it just a matter of time?

It was not long before I learned of some monster on the horizon called “puberty”. Apparently, as I was told, by my mother, by my friends’ mothers, by my teachers, a girl would become so much dumber the moment she got her first period, that it would be the watershed moment when the boys finally take over in academic performance.

For most girls, it also happens to be the time in middle school, between 6th and 8th grade, when math goes from simple arithmetic to algebra and geometry, and subjects like physics and chemistry are introduced into the curriculum.

I got my first period when I was about 12. I was so nervous. I reached for the most advanced of my math exercise manuals and tried to work on some of the problems marked “most difficult”. I could still figure them out. My mind seemed as clear as it was the day before. I was a bit confused but mostly relieved, as if I was somehow spared of an intellectual purge.

I was selected into a highly competitive science experimental program for senior high (Grade10 to Grade12), about 40 kids out of a province with well over 10 million people. Less than a quarter of the class were girls.

At the program, in addition to the regular high school curriculum taught at a faster pace, each of us were required to choose one or two science subjects to focus on in training for the national science olympiads. I chose physics and math.

In the meantime, I took part in a number of public speaking competitions, most of them in English, and won some of them. I got a bit of attention from local media, and some unsolicited career advice started coming in, usually given with the best of intentions: “You should become an English language interpreter! You can be an interpreter for diplomats! You could one day stand behind the President of China and be his interpreter at state visits!”

I told them that I was in this selective science program, that I was training for the physics olympiads, that I was planning to study physics in college. I was also not bad at physics, you know? And it brought me joy and clarity like no other.

“Physics! Physics is SO HARD.”

Physics is hard. But so are languages. I worked hard at English in high school. I worked hard at physics in high school. Neither of them came naturally to me, but as I worked on them they started making sense gradually. I won some English competitions. I won some physics competitions. I was being told repeatedly that I should make full use of my “talent” in English to make a career out of it. When I responded repeatedly that I was serious about pursuing physics, people shook their heads and said:

“What a waste”.

The summer after my first year of senior high, we had professors from local universities to guest lecture, as part of our intense training for the science olympiads. During one of the physics lectures, the professor told me, that “your mind does not appear to be suited for the physical sciences”.

I do not remember what led to that remark. I think I do not remember what preceded it because it was completely unremarkable. I was 14 years old.

A year later, I skipped the final year of high school to go to college, at the so-called “Caltech of China”. The dorm buildings on campus that housed the boys were indexed with double-digit numbers, spawning row after row. The dorm building that housed the girls was known as “the girls’ building”: there was no ambiguity, because for the longest time there was only one.

I majored in physics.

My mother, my beautiful, strong, ambitious mother, who had drilled into my young mind the importance of academic excellence as the only viable pathway to success in life, suddenly started talking about something very different.

My mother told me my primary focus in college should be to find myself a good boy, so I could get married and start a family.

I was 15 years old when I started college, 19 when I graduated: the legal minimum age of marriage for women in China at the time, was 20.

“But it will be too late if you do not start looking (for a husband) now. In a few years you will be too old to be desired. There will be younger girls. And you will be one of the left-overs.”

I wasn’t interested in romantic pursuits in college. I wanted to go to the United States after graduation for my PhD.

“But marriage is more important than your degrees. Marriage is the most important thing for a girl. Ask anyone around you and they will tell you the same.”

Apparently, after all the efforts through my primary and secondary education, once I finally squeezed through the brutal college admission process onto the campus of an elite university, the main resource I should tap into was my vicinity to supposedly elite men, my main goal being making one of them my partner for life.

And, in my expected courtship of such elite men, I should never forget to preserve my virginity.

“Virginity is the most valuable asset in a girl. If you lose that before marriage, you are worthless: you could win the Nobel prize in physics, you would still be worthless.”

I did not have any serious romantic relationships during my four years in college. I accepted an offer from the University of Chicago to pursue my PhD in physics. At the farewell dinner with my extended family, my uncle, a scientist by training with a PhD in biology, clicked his chopsticks against the plate, and sighed:

“What a waste.”

Shortly after I arrived in the US, I was introduced to Women in Physics (or STEM in general) initiatives, mailing lists, conferences, workshops, or simple group chats.

I was quite reluctant to join at first.

For all the prejudices and discouragements I received growing up in China as a girl in pursuit of the sciences, I was constantly reminded of my fortunes and my privileges.

I am the great granddaughter of women with bound feet. I was born and raised in a country at a time when girls were still in alarmingly large numbers, aborted before birth, dropping out of school, sold as property, married off young, dying at childbirth, abused at home; suffering in silence, neglected by society. Who was I to complain, the daughter and granddaughter of university professors, who never had to worry about having a roof over her head or food on the table, who was able to go to school and stay in school for as long as she wanted to and could? No one held my hand; I might have received some nudges in the opposite direction; but no one actively stood in my way.

And now I am in America, the land of the the free. The land where battles of gender equality were already fought by the ones who came before me, from Seneca Falls to the Supreme Court to the ballot boxes, the Susan B.Anthony’s the Betty Friedan’s the Gloria Steinem’s, the women who split the atom and explored the heavens, the women who wrote laws and defended them. It was the year 2009. A woman was Speaker of the House. Another woman just put 18 million cracks into the highest hardest glass ceiling. A Korean-American woman, and my first mentor at the University of Chicago, was deputy director of Fermi National Accelerator Lab.

The pursuit of physics gave me the wings to fly across the oceans. I left a lot of painful elements in my personal life on the other side of the Pacific. In the land of blue sky, open roads, and new beginnings, I was building a new life for myself, forging my own identity.

“I do not want to be labeled as a ‘woman physicist’, just ‘physicist’.” I stated at a Women in Science conference I attended during my second year of graduate school.

“You may not see yourself as a ‘woman physicist’, but society sees you that way. Your male colleagues see you that way. As long as they still see you that way, you have to be aware of it yourself because self-denial is self-deception.” I was told by a fellow conference attendee, a female scientist a few decades my senior.

I learned the meaning of it soon enough.

Living in Chicago, all of a sudden I started getting compliments for my looks. I think it has much less to do with how I actually look, but rather the misogyny and racism that underlie much of our beauty standards, both back in China and here in the US. Over the years, it took effort but I’ve grown comfortable in my own skin: I do not consider myself particularly homely or attractive. I do like fashion. Getting dressed to me is a form of self-expression. I’m also six feet tall and fairly thin.

I got asked a lot if I model. I’d tell them no, I do not model; I’m a physicist. Then I’d get:

“What a waste!”

It happened on city streets, inside stores, on campus, within the department. It happened more than once inside the department. The incidence quoted at the beginning stung in particular, because it happened midst a serious career discussion, when I was so close to getting my PhD.

Back in China, I was considered poor in the looks department, but I was fluent in English, so I was told I should use that to make a living as an interpreter or related profession.

Now here in the US, everyone speaks English, but now my looks might fit a certain skewed standard, so I was told I should use that to make a living as a model.

There is nothing wrong with being an interpreter or a model: both are respectable, skilled professions. Neither are my choice for my profession. I chose to be a physicist. Physics gives me joy and clarity like no other. I’ve trained my entire life to be a physicist and actually have some skills in this field. I have never trained as an interpreter or a model and have no acquired skills in either field.

But I do not hear “You should be a physicist!”

I keep hearing “what a waste!”

It was very confusing to me when I first started being told that in high school: how could my pursuit of physics be considered a waste?

It might have made remote sense, if I had some unique talent perishable with time, like athleticism or in some types of performance arts. But I was clumsy as hell (which would also make me very bad at modeling, by the way), and could not sing, dance, or play any musical instruments.

It took a while but I finally realized the comment had much less to do with my existent-or-not abilities in other departments: it was not considered a particular waste that I WAS NOT trying become the next supermodel or superstar interpreter;

It was considered a waste that I WAS trying to become a physicist.

Because as a girl I was not expected to make it in physics. It’s only a matter of time before I come to my senses and quit.

My looks are not compatible with physics. My hormones are not compatible with physics. My OBLIGATION to have a family and make babies is not compatible with physics. My gender is not compatible with physics.

So if you could do something else for a living other than physics, don’t you want to pursue that instead?

You are a girl! And physics is so hard.

Of course.

Girls do not become dumber when they go through puberty; in fact, medical research tells us significant parts of the human brain do not stop development well into one’s 20s, for both boys and girls.

Coursework does get more difficult and require more effort as one advances in school, for both boys and girls. Original research is very difficult, and always involves many trials and errors, more failures than successes, for both boys and girls.

But if you’ve been told the entire time that at some point sooner or later, your female brain will become too dumb for physics, what’s the point of continuing to try when the hurdle hits? How are you supposed to tell, especially at a younger age, whether it is only a hurdle, or some insurmountable barrier of nature?

When you are being rooted for failure by the ones closest to you who are supposed to cheer you on, and finally give you an implicit or explicit “I told you so” when you finally exit the race, do we really have to wonder why so many girls leave STEM, why so many girls do not enter STEM in the first place?

There are girls not born because they are girls.

There are girls not going to school because they are girls.

There are girls not becoming physicists because they are girls.

These are dots on different ends but of the same spectrum, woven of the same fabric that span the globe from north to south, east to west, that date back centuries upon millennia, that block the light from half the sky;

And then men point to that dimmer hemisphere and say “Of course women are lesser than! They are just not as bright, not as worthy!”

And some women nod in agreement because that is the world they see, the world they know. The self-fulfilling dark prophecy.

There have been amazing men and women in my life who have shown me the light.

My high school math teacher who told me not to let my mother destroy me because I’m better than that.

My college research supervisor who took me to his office right before my graduation, and told me that he saw an outstanding physicist in my future; who wrote in my college yearbook “The pursuit of science will bring you eternal peace and joy. May you one day grow into a pillar of the earth and reach for the stars.”

My PhD advisor who welcomed me into his group, who believed in me, who protected me, who understood me, who opened doors for me; who gave me time when I needed it, unwavering support, and the best advice in physics and in life; his darling wife, who held my hand at a group party, and told me “Yangyang, you cannot be President of the United States, but you can be anything else you set your mind to be”.

The list goes on. I owe a great deal of who I am today to them: what they said to me, what they did for me, what they said to and did for people who look like me.

PhD Graduation. December 11, 2015.

I graduated with my PhD in physics. I accepted a position as a postdoctoral research associate at an Ivy League institution in upstate New York to continue working on the Large Hadron Collider. Physics still gives me joy and clarity like no other.

Not long after I arrived, on another sunny Friday afternoon a few of us were chatting outside the Physical Science Building. A male colleague whom I had just met for the first time said to me, “You are beautiful. Now women can be beautiful and still be in physics. Unlike some older ones…”

We all still have so much work to do.

Every woman in America has a story to tell about sexism in society.

Every woman in physics in America has a story to tell about sexism in the profession, subjected to directly, witnessed in person, or confided in by a close friend or colleague.

What our field really needs, what our society really needs, towards diversity, inclusion, and equality, is not just a few token examples of the ones who “beat the odds”.

What is really needed is a long, hard reflection of why the odds are stacked against certain groups in the first place, and immediate action to address the issues.

This applies to, but is not limited to the case of women in physics.

That battles were fought does not mean the war is won.

That battles were fought does not mean fruits of victory could be taken for granted.

As women, we know there are bigger battles still fought in relative distance, on the ballot and in the courts, in State Houses and on Capitol Hill; bigger, structural forces that are still trying to keep us less healthy, less safe, less paid, less in general.

Help us fight these bigger battles. A parent, a teacher, a colleague, a mentor: there is a great deal of trust placed in you, do not betray it; there is a great deal of power in your hands, use it well; there is a great deal of responsibility on your shoulders, that is the collective weight we all have to carry.

I am a woman. I am a physicist.

I am not just the way I look or my ability to reproduce.

You may compliment my appearance, but do not objectify it.

You may criticize my work, but do not doubt my professionalism.

You may recognize my femininity, but do not define me with it.

You do not know who I am, where I came from, what I’ve been through, or what I’m capable of.

You may think you know what is the easier path for me, but who said you know better?

And who said I prefer it easy?

Let me live. My way.

Yangyang Cheng

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Postdoc. Particle detector builder & dark matter hunter. Political junkie. Chicagoan at heart.