A quantum leap

Times Staff Writer

In high school, Adam Steltzner got what he describes as a "great education. I learned how to meet girls, what drugs to take, where the best shows were." He failed most of sophomore and junior years and earned a 460 combined score on his SATs. For many years, he played bass in various bands, supporting his various habits by working in a health food store.

Jamie Dyk tried out for the Laker Girls and "made it pretty far" before realizing that what with practice and appearances, she was going to have to choose between dancing and her day job. A cheerleader throughout high school, Dyk was raised in "a Christian home" in rural Montana and believes strongly that people were "brought here to give back to society."

On weekends, Kobie Boykins rides his motorcycle through the canyons with friends. "I like speed," said Boykins, who plays competitive ice hockey twice a week. It's a big change from his boyhood in Nebraska, where he grew up around lumbering farm equipment. Boykins sometimes "lightens the tension" at work by telling racial jokes. "I can get away with it," he said, "because I have a lot of African American in me."

A self-confessed tomboy, Shonte Wright wears her hair in long minibraids and plays basketball seven to nine hours a week. She describes her current work environment as "hilarious. You should see what people wear! We always look like we're going out to play."

Her colleague Wayne Lee considers himself lucky to have a wife who bought him "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for Valentine's Day. "On airplanes, I'm sitting there with my Game Boy, and these businessmen in their stuffy suits and their laptops, and they'll look at me like, 'So, are you going back to school?' And I say, 'No, I work for NASA.' "

If you watched the landings of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity on television, you will remember Lee as the man in charge -- the one in the American flag shirt who brought out the broom after his team made a two-for-two "clean sweep." Steltzner -- who now has a doctorate degree and a baby at home -- headed the team that designed the entry, descent and landing systems. Boykins led the team that designed the mechanism to operate the solar panels and Wright helped design the thermal systems that keep the rovers warm. Dyk was in charge of testing the landing systems during development.

"At heart, I'm a space geek who wants to put hardware on the surface of Mars," the would-be Laker Girl said.

If the images coming back from Mars looked an awful lot like Arizona, there was nothing familiar about the exuberant young engineers whooping it up in the control room of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena -- talking on cellphones, cracking jokes, wearing funny T-shirts. (Lee even took a call from his baby-sitting father, who wanted to know how to tune in to NASA TV.)

Gone are the days when space geeks were (only) poker-faced pocket-protector guys with narrow ties and crew cuts. The rocket scientists at the JPL are surfer dudes, sky divers, rock climbers -- even "Survivor" survivors. Far from the seemingly bloodless clones of the Apollo era, the young faces on the screen were as sunny, as animated, as varied, as So Cal itself.

The free-to-be-me atmosphere that's creating such a sense of excitement at JPL these days does not, obviously, extend to all scientific institutions -- or even to JPL at all times in its history.

Yet it is hardly isolated. Parts of the physics community, for example, also seem to be amid an extreme geek makeover.

BUCKING TRADITION

Both physics and engineering are still largely "pale and male," populated by straight-A, straight-arrow students who take the standard, well-trod road. But exceptions are also increasingly visible -- and with the U.S. facing a critical shortage of scientific talent, they may be what saves the scientific community from itself.

Harvard professor Lisa Randall, who's played a major role in the study of extra dimensions, gives talks wearing low-slung trousers, makeup, jewelry. At some point, she said, she realized that no matter how hard she worked to fit the reigning mold of "physicist," she was always going to be different. "It's not like they're going to be fooled," she said. So she decided not to try. (She is also an accomplished rock climber.)

Stanford post-doctoral student Stephon Alexander, who applies higher-dimensional physics to cosmology, had been advised to cut his hair, but he liked his long dreads just the way they were. "There are lots of women and blacks and Latinos who want to be invisible, and I ain't one of those," he said, laughing. "I'm sorry. I'm hip. People look at the music industry, or basketball, and say: 'That's cool.' Well, what I do is cool too."

Lourdes Maurice, an engineer with the FAA, said she spent most of her career trying to blend in, then realized that "as a rare minority -- a Latina engineer -- I have an important role to play" as a role model. JoAnne Hewitt, a theoretical physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), said she used to pull her long, strawberry-blond hair back in a tight braid. "Now, I don't bother," she said. Hewitt's colleague Pat Burchat -- a lead experimentalist -- went ahead and had two children very young in her career, even though people advised her not to.

Of course, science was neither as nerdy nor as monolithic as the media made it seem. Einstein and his ilk were an adventurous lot; physics has always had its share of jocks; minorities and women have long made important contributions.

But the image has persisted even in the face of contrary evidence. Helen Quinn, a SLAC physicist and current president of the American Physical Society, nursed two babies in the backs of lecture halls. "I wore short skirts and had long, blond hair," she said. "People would say: 'You don't look like a physicist.' Well, what did they want me to do, grow a beard?"

What may seem like essentially a cosmetic change turns out to be central to the scientific future of our country. Images shape how people see themselves and therefore how they choose careers. "Students are turned off because they think we're all these weird geeky 'Star Trek' types," said Wright, who spends time with kids trying to change these stereotypes.

And with the U.S. facing an unprecedented shortage of physical scientists, it's no longer possible to ignore what physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), calls the "underrepresented majority": women, African Americans and Latinos as well as nontraditional white males. "Who will be the next generation of scientists and engineers?" she asked. "How can we even discuss preparing for human exploration to the moon and Mars without discussing who will do the science to get us there?"

For now, it's a "silent crisis," she said, but conditions are brewing that will seriously compromise everything from homeland security to the country's ability to compete in global markets. Preventing those possibilities will involve a lot of things, including outreach, mentoring and more financial support for students. But "overall image is critical."

MORE DIVERSE IMAGE

On the surface, physics and engineering do seem to be showing a new face to the world. Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first African American woman physicist to graduate from MIT, in addition to heading the AAAS -- the country's largest general organization of scientists. The entire leadership of the American Physical Society is women. "Given that in 100 years, the APS has had only two women presidents, this is quite a remarkable situation," said Quinn, who was recently elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences as part of the largest cohort of women ever.

For the first time, the heads of most top engineering organizations are women. For the first time, the director of the world's largest single dish radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is a Puerto Rican. For the first time, 60% of young astronomers are women, and the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena has its first female director, Wendy Freedman.

In some ways, however, appearances are deceiving. The percentage of female PhDs in physical science still hovers around 10%; the percentage of blacks and Latinos ranges between 1% and 2%. "There's still probably only 30 black women with physics PhDs in the whole country," said Arlene Maclin, an African American professor of engineering at Norfolk State University in Virginia. "But it's not just minorities. Whether they're black, brown, yellow, green, Americans just aren't going into physics."

In fact, many scientists say these nontraditional groups are only the canaries warning of generally perilous conditions. "The things that keep women and minorities out keep white males out," said Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources at AAAS. "White American males aren't exactly beating a path to science's door either."

Those "things" include a host of real and perceived "yuck" factors that put physical science in the "not-for-me category" for the vast majority of people: There's the nerdy stereotype, the pressure to conform; the belief that science is too hard (or you're too dumb); that your colleagues won't be fun, or friendly; that you can't make decent money.

Miners brought canaries into the mines because their small bodies and fast metabolisms meant they reacted fast to unhealthy conditions -- allowing miners to escape. Because women and minorities are also small in number, they tend to do the same.

A recent study to determine why large numbers of women were leaving the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages the Hubble, found that "an extremely competitive, aggressive environment" was undermining morale not only among women, but among men. The women were merely more vulnerable, the report concluded, because their small numbers meant they lacked support.

"The nerd image is, you just put up with hostile environments," Quinn said.

Image plays a major role in making science seem like hostile territory. "I have many friends from my neighborhood who are either in prison or dead," Alexander said. "I had the good fortune that physics was something I was really good at." But while his family was encouraging, social expectations for black men were not. "The message was: It's not your place to be academic; go be a basketball player."

Lee almost didn't go into engineering because of the images he saw of NASA's mission control in the 1960s. "It was a lot of nerdy-looking white guys with crew cuts. I grew up thinking the average person doesn't get to do that."

In fact, when Lee first went to work at the Kennedy Space Center in the early '90s, one of his managers told him he'd never make it at NASA if he didn't wear a coat and tie. On Dyk's first day at JPL, a female colleague told her she should learn to be one of the guys and never wear a dress.

Good scientists tend to have a healthy disrespect for authority: Dyk wore a dress the next day. As for Lee, he still doesn't own a suit or know how to tie a tie.

One reason JPL's young engineers love their jobs, they said, was that they can look and be as they wish so long as they do their jobs. "What the cameras didn't show," said Lee, grinning, "is in the control room, when I'm not doing anything, I'm sitting there with my little Game Boy. Click, click, click, click."

After the second rover landed safely, Lee's team was so excited they poured out of the control room onto JPL's streets, pounded on the windows of buses carrying dignitaries and crashed the press conference to whoops and cheers. "Two security guards were no match," Lee said, citing his experience storming football fields after games at Cal. "We just pushed them aside."

The freedom to stay in your own skin produces more than warm feelings. A sense of comfort leaves people free to let creative juices flow. "We had one of the highest-functioning teams in the history of the lab," Steltzner said, "and one of the strengths of the team was an environment where it was safe to bring our passions. There was no guarding, there was no card playing. You might be able to do what we do in a stodgy, stifling, environment, but I don't think so."

Randall decided to stop trying to fit the mold of theoretical physicist in large part because it detracted from her work. "The fact is, it's easier to be who you are," she said. Or as Alexander put it, "You can't be a creative thinker if you can't be yourself." A jazz sax player, he sees strong connections between Einstein's curving of space and time and Coltrane's "bending those sheets of sound."

Cosmologist Ruth Gregory of the University of Durham, England, studies the early universe by imaging ways flat sheets of empty space-time might be stitched together like fabric to form seams, or "branes" (from membrane). "That's how I think of it, because I'm female," she said. "It's like sewing a shoulder. You make something which is curved out of cloth which is flat."

As science becomes increasingly collaborative, other traditionally female skills are suddenly getting respect -- for example, the ability to nurture young people, foster cooperation, work in teams. Aggressive, domineering personalities are no longer revered as they once were, Burchat said. "You don't have to imitate that stereotype. The ability to work with people is much more valued."

Boykins goes them one better, combining his farm experience with his interest in jazz to solve engineering problems.

"I say, 'OK, what would the jazz musician do? What if instead of running it in 4/4, for example, I run it in 5/6 or 3/2?' Then I say, 'Well, what would the farmer do? I strip everything down to the bare bones because I have to save every penny I can.' And then all that comes together to make a better product than any one approach could have."

FIGHTING INERTIA

Given all these benefits to science, one has to wonder why the field isn't doing everything it can to bring new kinds of people into the fold. The obvious reason is that many senior scientists don't want to mess with a system that's worked.

Those who do want to broaden the tent face formidable challenges -- many of them closely related to the conventional image of science. For example, women and minorities have a lot less confidence than men at the same ability level. Physics departments see this lack of confidence and advise against pursuing careers.

"Departments that are more open-minded about who might be a physics major," Quinn said, "will probably finish up with more female and minority physics majors."

The problem is compounded by the dearth of well-known role models. "Physics isn't perceived as a black thing," said Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind. "So you start thinking: 'Maybe I am inferior, who knows?' It's the worst possible thing for a physicist. We all feel that way, but I can go back and see that the best physicists in the world are Jewish."

The result, he said, is that physics loses minorities not because they don't have the necessary ability but because they may not think they do. "In the U.S., there's a self-fulfilling fear of failure." (Female and minority physicists have long been a part of the normal landscape in Europe, and so have an easier time there.)

The pressure to be aggressively self-assured hurts white males as much as anyone. "A lot of sensitive, insecure men who could really benefit physics also drop out," said Kathryn Moler, a Stanford University physicist.

Being one of a small minority makes matters worse because there's no social support. African Americans and Latinos usually find they are alone in a sea of white and Asian faces -- whether they are in class, or on a college faculty.

"In the United States, I can count on one hand the number of black theoreticians and universities," Alexander said. "How can we have more students if the professors aren't there?"

Most of the black friends who took physics with him in college have since turned to business or law. "For the most part," Maclin said, "African Americans are going into programs and dropping out not because of academics but because of isolation."

PROBLEMS REMAIN

There is, of course, still a great deal of outright discrimination against those who don't look or play the expected part. Women do not get professorships, for example, in relation to their numbers in the pipeline. This is largely because of informal "old-boy networks" so central to academic hiring but also the natural unconscious tendency of people to feel most comfortable with those who mirror them.

"It's very subtle," Quinn said. "But if you don't fit the pattern they are expecting, they don't have as good an opinion."

It's not always so subtle, especially for minorities. Speaking of one top-ranking black physicist, Susskind said the best job offer he could get was at a midlevel Southern school.

"He had to go to England," Susskind said. "It's unconscionable that we let him escape. And we say we're not racist!"

As in all walks of life, image and reality in science play on each other in complex ways. Perhaps the most harmful image of all is the one that paints physics and engineering as stodgy, boring, conspicuously lacking in fun. Which seems strange, because most of the people who go into these fields say they feel enormously lucky and can't conceive doing anything else.

"When I came here, I thought, 'This is eating candy,' " said Boykins, typically. "This is ambrosia. I love everything I do here."

In fact, many scientists say that having fun is not just appealing, it's essential. "If you're not having fun," as Boykins put it, "you can't make good stuff."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Meet the rocket scientists

A former druggie, a Laker Girl wannabe and a Game Boy addict -- some of the folks running the Mars rovers are not your grandma's NASA.

WAYNE LEE

Lead entry, descent and landing engineer.

Lee, 35, was one year into a doctorate program at the University of Texas, Austin, when JPL offered him a job. "It was the equivalent of the guy who leaves college for the NBA draft." An avid sports fan, Lee says he would rather play video games than read books -- even though he wrote "To Rise from Earth," a guide to space flight. Lee's wife also works at JPL; they have two children. When he told a faculty advisor that he might like to work on Mars missions someday, the message was clear: "Dream on, kid. People don't get to do that kind of work."

KOBIE

BOYKINS

Led the team that designed the mechanism to operate the solar panels.

Boykins, 29 and single, grew up in Nebraska and received his bachelor of science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. As a child, he liked to take apart household appliances, including his mother's TV. "So she told me, 'Kobie, if you really want to do this, you're going to have to get better at it.' She bought me a remote-control car. It had a hundred pieces, and she figured it would take me a month. But I did it in two days. And she's like: 'Grrrrrrrrrr.... You don't know how much that stretched my pocket book!' "

ADAM STELTZNER

Headed the team that designed the entry, descent and landing systems.

Steltzner, 40, and a brand-new father, discovered science when he started noticing that a different set of stars graced the sky when he went to play a gig with his band than when he came home. He received a master of science degree from Caltech and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Wisconsin. "I was so turned on by the concept that I could understand my world; it just totally turned me around."

SHONTE WRIGHT

Helped design the thermal systems that keep the rovers warm.

Raised in Southern California, 29-year-old Wright was strongly influenced by her mother, who worked at Lockheed Martin. She went on school field trips to JPL, and by fifth grade knew she wanted to be an engineer; she started interning at the lab while in high school. Wright got her bachelor of science degree from North Carolina A&T; while continuing to work at JPL. "I think it's the coolest of the coolest.... Everybody thought Orville and Wilbur were crazy, and a hundred years later, we're moving around on Mars."

JAMIE DYK

In charge of testing the landing systems.

A self-confessed "nerd," Dyk, 27, says she can't wait to go to work each day. "It's long hours, but I don't notice because it's so much fun." She grew up in a Dutch farming community near Bozeman, Mont. Dyk, whose boyfriend is working on his doctorate at Caltech, enjoys all forms of dance, plays piano and sax, and creates choreography for high schools; she considered a career in performing arts. "We're explorers by nature. We like to learn. And I can't imagine a better environment for doing that [than JPL]. They're really good at letting you show what you can do at a young age."

-- K.C. Cole

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