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Science and Stories

This past January, when MIT professor Janet Conrad ’85 assembled a team to teach communications skills to physics students, she cut straight to the crucial details.

“Michelle is our condensed matter expert,” Conrad’s email said, referring to Michelle Tomasik ’07, now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. “She graduated from Swarthmore.

“Josh is our astrophysics expert and expert on writing,” the email continued, applying a much-appreciated gloss to my two years as a research analyst for the Hubble Space Telescope and my current work as a freelance science journalist. “He graduated from Swarthmore.

“And I graduated from Swarthmore,” Conrad wrote. “I am trying to decide if this is a very unlikely fluke or if this is clearly fate.”

In spring 2016, the three of us came together to teach an unorthodox class in the STEM-centric halls of MIT—with subject matter as broad as physics itself, spanning the 43-odd orders of magnitudes separating the smallest subatomic particles from the chains of galaxies that fill the universe at its largest scales.

But our goal was to get the students, many of them graduating seniors going on to science careers, to step back and consider what it takes to bring physics into the public sphere. We had them focus on a single subfield of physics, as investigated by a single researcher. Then we asked them to convey what they learned through presentations and written narrative. And if I can say so immodestly: As Swarthmore alumni, we were the perfect team for the job.

Other alumni will recognize the little thrill not just of finding other Swatties, but of finding them in the places where our clichés tell us to expect them. That’s how it felt when I met Conrad and Tomasik in the one physics course at MIT I might be qualified to help out with. 

Of course this weird hybrid class is a product of Swarthmorean minds. Of course these are the kinds of people you would find pushing at interdisciplinary boundaries. And of course each of us took a winding path to get there.

When Conrad attended Swarthmore in the 1980s, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. She just wasn’t sure which kind. 

“I was going to be an astronomer to start out,” she says. But a research project studying double stars through the giant Sproul refractor with astronomer Wulff-Dieter Heintz changed her mind. “I discovered, by working at the observatory at Swarthmore, that it is cold and dark at 4 a.m.,” she laughs. “And lonely.”

After astronomy came medical physics. The next summer away from school, she worked with Harvard’s cyclotron, a famous decades-old experiment with the power to trap protons on a circular track and ramp them up to faster and faster speeds. By the time Conrad arrived, the device wasn’t much good for cutting-edge research, but it could still zap a target with a beam of energetic protons on command, making it perfect for cancer radiotherapy. Hired to administer these treatments to patients, Conrad often tinkered with the equipment after hours.

She had found her home: not a cold observatory, not a physics-powered operating room, and not a chalkboard. “I learned very early on that it’s experimental physics that I love,” she says. “I really like to have nature tell me her secrets. I have no need to tell nature what the secrets should be.”

In the years following, Conrad became first a professor at Columbia University, and now MIT. She studies neutrinos, tiny particles that flit through our bodies by the billions every second. But she also teaches, collaborates with other members of the massive teams that conduct modern physics experiments, and runs a lab. In short: She takes on all the little managerial tasks of being a good scientist and still makes time to answer everyone’s emails. 

It was in that role that she met up with Tomasik, then an MIT grad student working on the science behind solar panels. When Conrad spoke at a closed group for women physicists, Tomasik attended. “She mentioned that she had gone to Swarthmore,” Tomasik says. “It stuck out in my mind.”

Tomasik also spent her time on Swarthmore’s campus oscillating among science fields. She ended up writing her own interdisciplinary major in chemical physics, minoring in math. After graduation, she spent a year in Columbia’s chemistry department, torn between pursuing chemistry or physics in grad school. Physics at MIT won out, but at a price—her academic adviser turned out to be difficult to work with. When he was denied tenure, putting her own future at MIT into flux, Tomasik didn’t know where to turn. 

“I emailed Janet out of the blue,” she says. “I was like, ‘I am in this situation! I don’t know what to do! And I don’t know who to talk to!’”

Conrad became her new mentor and helped her find a new avenue when Tomasik discovered she was burned out by research—she made Tomasik a teaching assistant for her own course on electricity and magnetism. 

“I don’t think we had ever had a TA like her, who ended up really writing the exam questions along with me and the other professor,” Conrad says. “She was such a pro that when she got married”—to Andrew Cheng ’08—“she came in and taught my recitation wearing the dress. That’s dedication.”

Today, Tomasik is a postdoctoral researcher at MIT focused on physics education and transforming core classes into online options that anyone in the world can take.

And then there’s me, Josh, who freely admits I’m not half the scientist that Conrad or Tomasik is. But at Swarthmore I vacillated, too, majoring in English literature and astronomy. After working for a few years analyzing astronomical data, it was abundantly clear that I preferred talking about science to actually doing it, so I completed MIT’s master’s program in science writing. 

When I responded to Conrad’s job ad, I had just taken the terrifying step of going freelance as a science journalist. For the first time, I would be working from home and writing only the stories I managed to sell. But the course gave me an anchor—or at least a reason to put on pants two days a week and hop on the train to Cambridge, Mass. And it helped me meet two other Swarthmoreans who do more with their science degrees than just science.

With all this buildup, I wish I could tell you that the course we taught was life-changing, revelatory. 

Sadly, we did not manage to revolutionize science communication two days a week in MIT’s Building 4, in a nondescript classroom without even a view of the nearby Charles River. But we did get technically inclined students to write compelling feature articles about such concepts as gravitational waves and nuclear fusion, and we pushed them to dwell on making those stories clearer and more engaging. They rose to the challenge, and their work is published here

That’s no small feat, I think. In college, I labored to master the language of even a single discipline of science, while at the same time trying to keep my eyes on the rest of the world. This was Swarthmore’s central paradox: Could I specialize and still be fluent in other ways of thinking? Can a non-superhuman do science, with all the exacting rigor that requires, and stay true to the ideals of the liberal arts?

Those questions eventually led me to science writing, a career I love. The hope of Conrad’s class is that it will prompt MIT students, who are even more encouraged to specialize, to start contemplating the same questions. Wherever they end up—as scientists, educators, communicators, or something else—a little practice building bridges between fields might be a big help.

But at deeper level, I wondered, what exactly made Conrad, Tomasik, and me work well together? At Swarthmore, each of us dabbled in more than one discipline. Then we listened with rapt attention in dorm common rooms while our hallmates, classmates, and love interests chattered away about whatever they were dabbling in, too. There, Tomasik thinks, may be the spur that led us to keep searching for interdisciplinary connections.

“That passion to learn something interesting, rather than something that’s going to help you in the future, is really nice to find in other people,” she says. “Maybe that’s the connection that draws us together, out in the real world.”

Out here in the real world, “science” isn’t a sublime, cohesive story of all reality. Cosmos is just a TV show. Instead, our quest to understand the universe is split up into a set of academic disciplines with the power to ask and answer only certain kinds of questions. Even inquiries into the 43 orders of magnitude in physics are cloistered into subfields, each with its own jargon. 

But as is true across the liberal arts, a good translator can zoom between scales, making the transitions look seamless—and making the amazing things we’ve learned about the universe accessible to everyone. Maybe that’s something we all should practice.