[Female] Physicist, an Interview with Renée Sher

I confess that this interview was borne purely of personal curiosity. I have approximately no exposure to STEM at Wesleyan and I don’t anticipate much going forward. To compensate for this, I thought I would go ahead and get myself a STEM education under the guise of journalistic ambition. I asked around for names and repeatedly heard Renée Sher, a professor about whom people only have good things to say. When I asked her for an interview, she graciously agreed.

Professor Sher graduated from Wesleyan in 2007 with a degree in physics and the assumption that she would return only as a visiting alumna. Now, she’s a professor here.


Born and raised in Taiwan

Attended Wesleyan 2003-2007

Originally planned to become an engineer

Learned about Wes through the Freeman Asian Scholars Program

Attended Harvard University for graduate school and completed a postdoc at Stanford

Do you think the student body has changed significantly from when you were a student?

Prof. Sher mused that because she now “wears a different hat,” students are less inclined to share their thoughts and concerns. However, she added: “I would say that superficially, not getting to know the students how I would if I were a student, I think the students are pretty much the same. Very eclectic.”

Do you have any arts-related hobbies? Who are some of your favorite artists?

At these questions Prof. Sher laughed and admitted that she’s not the most artistic person. After thinking a bit, she said, “I like sewing, it takes a lot of time so I don’t do it often but I like to do it.” She also fondly recalled a recent exhibition of her classmate Lêna Bùi ‘07, whose work was shown on campus last spring.

What is your focus in physics?

Prof. Sher studies electron motions in solids. For example, her current research involves observing the energy conversion process (light becoming electricity) that occurs at the moment when sunlight strikes solar cell material. She fell into the field of physics via a plan to study engineering, a plan complicated by Wesleyan’s lack of an engineering major. Her plan in undergrad was to double major in physics and computer science and do engineering in graduate school. However, this plan soon dissipated as she delved deeper into physics, which became her passion.

Do you think that physics involves artistry in any way?

As a scientific discipline closely associated with math, physics isn’t commonly considered a creative field. However, as boundaries between disciplines blur and change, the public is increasingly recognizing that the association between creativity and the arts is not law, and that STEM fields also foster--and even require--creative, artistic thinking. Prof. Sher attested to this, noting that the distinctions between traditional fields are no longer serving research communities; hence the emergence of new, fusion fields such as biophysics and chemical physics (also called physical chemistry, depending on whether you ask a physicist or a chemist). She also believes that the most outstanding physicists, the ones whose work transforms multiple scientific fields, are the innovative, outside-the-box thinkers. She explained, “Research is not like a cookbook you follow… you will never find anything new just from developed recipes.”

Do you see more female students interested in physics, or is it about the same as when you were a student?

In her own words: “Oh, I wish I had this number better in my mind. I think the national average when I was a student was about twenty percent, and I think we’re probably closer to thirty than twenty now, which is really far away from what i think the right balance, fifty-fifty, is. But at least the physics department here has [put] a large effort towards trying to build a more diverse student body, not just women but also students of color. So I hope that me being a faculty [member] here has positive influence on that direction.”

I ended the interview with questions about advice she has for womxn pursuing careers in STEM, and her thoughts on what the humanities can learn from the sciences. She urged students to participate more and to not put gender in front of their title: for example, to think of themselves as simply physicists, rather than female physicists. “Be as brave as everybody else,” she said. As for what the humanities can learn from STEM, a question I’ll admit may have had an ulterior motive, Prof. Sher flipped the question on its head. She recalled her experience taking an English class as an undergraduate, and how everyone reads beforehand and discusses in class to clarify challenging elements. In STEM courses, readings about a topic generally succeed the lecture.

She once again recalled her friend Lêna, whom she paraphrased as saying “No wonder I question authority!” after sitting in on classes last spring. Prof. Sher compared this humanities habit, challenging established canons and theories, to scientists’ attitudes: “We never take anything [for] granted… we always design experiments to prove it or not.”

I can’t attest to her teaching, but from my encounter with Prof. Sher I can say with confidence that she is enthusiastic about physics, teaching, and opening STEM to more people both at Wesleyan and beyond. On a more personal level, this interview has left me with the sense that maybe physics and my own classes aren’t as disparate as I thought.

*In 2006 José Stoler, a statistical physicist, conceived a measurement called the “creativity index” to determine the impact of a given scientific article. This score is calculated on the basis of references to other articles versus total citations. Thus, the less dependent an author is on pre-existing research, the higher the “creativity.” This is probably not exactly what Prof. Sher meant, but it shows the scientific community’s growing interest in original (or “creative”) thought.

*According to the American Physical Society, the percentage of female (vs male) physics majors was 21% in both 2007 and 2017. The peak percentage of women majoring in physics was 23% in 2004.

* Selfishly, I want the humanities here to have a similar focus on research opportunities and collaborative work that isn’t simply group projects with strangers. Undergrad research supplements the academic experiences of STEM students on campus but the same hands-on, long-term experience is not afforded to humanities students. (Of course, this can be partially attributed to the solitary nature of humanities research which relies often on individual thought and analysis.)

Kiyo Saso, Fall 2018

artwork by Maya Hayda

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