GSE researcher Maria Ong: ‘If [women and minorities] come in loving science, they have a passion for learning physics, and they have an aptitude for it, why can’t they [succeed]? What prevents them?’ (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)
Ask most people to pull up a mental image of a physicist, and they’ll likely present a wild-haired amalgam of Albert Einstein and Bill Gates wearing Buddy Holly glasses, a lab coat, and yesterday’s lunch on his shirt. After all, it hardly matters what you look like if you’re doing great science, right?

Wrong, says Graduate School of Education (GSE) researcher Maria “Mia” Ong, and wrong again. If you’re a longhaired Latina in heels or a well-groomed young black man in dreads – if you’re anything other than a middle-aged white guy – it matters profoundly.

Ong, who is a lecturer and holds a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the GSE, is conducting a longitudinal study of the experiences of women and underrepresented minorities pursuing the hardest of the hard sciences, physics. Trained in sociology and anthropology, she’s turned an ethnographic lens on 40 young physicists who studied at the same undergraduate university. For women and minorities in particular, success in physics takes far more than brainpower and solid science.

“You take your body with you when you do science,” says Ong. “You can’t check it at the door. I’m sure some students would if they could.”

Ong presented some of her early findings in her doctoral dissertation, and she’s now fine-tuning them into a manuscript for a book that looks closely at the experiences of women of color in physics. What barriers do they face? How do those who are successful overcome them? Ong believes that a better understanding of how women and minorities make their way through careers in science will ultimately help the United States maintain its scientific and technical dominance in the world, and will open opportunities for thousands of young physicists who don’t look like Albert or Bill.

It’s not the science, but the skin tone

Ong’s research emerged from a much larger study of physics undergraduates and graduates at a large research university. While conducting interviews with these students, she was struck by common themes.

“Women would say, ‘I’m not sure, I think it’s just me, but …’,” she recalls. “And then they’d all give the same stories.” Their comments during class weren’t taken seriously, they told her. They weren’t asked to join study groups. If they expressed any doubt whatsoever, they felt as if their ideas were dismissed as being dumb. Minorities who are traditionally underrepresented in physics told her of similar experiences.

In 1996, Ong began tracking nearly 40 subjects from the larger group when they were freshmen or sophomores in college, and she has continued to follow them ever since. Most are now in graduate school in physics or other science-related programs such as medicine or engineering.

Over the eight years of the study, Ong has identified three themes that distinguish the academic and career experiences of women and minorities in physics from those of their white male scientist-peers. The themes have far less to do with scientific excellence than they do with the more relational aspects of the field: looking the part of an accomplished physicist, gathering a supportive community, and managing their oddly simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility.

She found that the myth that scientific brilliance outshines one’s appearance doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. For students who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a physicist, looks – what Ong calls “organizing an appearance of competence” – do matter. “[Women and minorities] don’t look like a ‘real scientist’,” she says. “People do double takes.” She describes a black male in her study who, when he tells people he studies physics at a prestigious graduate school, must often correct their assumption that he means “physical education.”

“Appearance” goes beyond skin tone or gender to more subtle aspects, such as ways of speaking and presenting ideas, Ong found. One Latina woman told Ong that in her all-female study group, women feel comfortable voicing their uncertainties and hunches with language like “I’m not really sure about this, what do you think?” However, they have found that those same phrases, in a mixed-gender group, more likely would be coded as “I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m really dumb,” and so women who persisted in physics have learned to speak with more assertion when working with male peers.

The woman told Ong she found an irony in this approach: Good scientists never claim to know something absolutely, but instead deal in degrees of uncertainty. Says Ong, “She taught me that, in fact, her own inclination to speak with this degree of doubt is more scientific, but she gets punished for it” by the physics community.

Female and minority physicists also contend with what Ong calls “in/visibility”: being both singled out and overlooked because of their uniqueness. Many students tell her about not being called on in class or included in activities; one Chicana woman recounts her male colleagues ignoring her completely in a desperate search for a fourth poker player. She may not have cared about the poker game, says Ong, but she knew that she was missing important social opportunities. “Physics gets spoken, connections get made, bonds are strengthened, ideas are passed around,” Ong says.

Hurdling the obstacles

Ong is also interested in how women and minorities negotiate these barriers to achieve career success. She describes how one black woman in the study manipulated her visibility to her advantage. When Ong met her as a sophomore, she was very concerned with “fitting in.” During her studies, however, the student adopted a stereotyped persona Ong identifies as “the loud black girl.” With this pose she began to attract the attention of her classmates and professors, who pointed her toward fellowships and other opportunities.

Whether embracing such a caricature is positive or negative is debatable, says Ong, “but for her, in the moment she was a student, to get through physics, it … really helped her confidence, it really helped her progress through school.”

Similarly, many women and minorities overcome the obstacle of community – the important but elusive cultural capital that’s amassed by assembling with one’s scientific peers – by creating their own communities at the margins of the field. Groups targeted specifically to women in physics or minority physicists become powerful resources for mentoring, coaching, and normalizing experiences that might otherwise seem isolated and discouraging. From understanding how to make the right contacts to learning what to wear at conferences, such communities provide “an alternative education that ends up being quite crucial,” Ong says.

Politics and equity

Despite these coping techniques, physics remains a field largely devoid of women and minorities. In 2000, the National Science Foundation reported that the community of working Ph.D.-level physicists was 93 percent male and 84 percent white, rooting that Bill Gates/Albert Einstein stereotype in truth.

Over the past few years, Ong has made a political case for removing the barriers these nontraditional physicists face. Smoothing the career paths of any would-be physicist would fully utilize our domestic pool of potential scientists, something Ong says is needed as increased security concerns and scrutiny of immigration put the squeeze on foreign scientists working in the Unied States.

For Ong, however, equity and opportunity are more powerful motivators than national security. “If [women and minorities] come in loving science, they have a passion for learning physics, and they have an aptitude for it, why can’t they? What prevents them?” she asks.

She acknowledges that it’s a tricky issue, one that is easier to study than to solve. Many have tried to solve it: Academia, private workplaces, and the federal government have taken strides to recognize and eradicate gender inequalities in science, bringing salaries, office sizes, and lab allocations for women into line with their male peers.

“What they couldn’t figure out how to do, and still can’t, is how to make behaviors change,” Ong says. Female physicists at some institutions might now earn the same junior-level salaries as men, but they are often excluded from joint grant applications or invitations to present at prestigious conferences, meaning that they still miss out on important career advancements.

“How do you change the peer structure? How do you change the culture?” says Ong. “I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s very hard.” Ong is up for the challenge. Her work seeks to bring to light the importance of race and gender in the pursuit of scientific truth. “If I can make some administrators and some instructors acknowledge that, that profoundly affects the experience,” she says.