Persis Drell put her mind to math in seventh grade and found she loved it. In college she had a great female physics professor, and physics became “a passion.” Now dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford University, Drell, 59, previously headed the National Accelerator Laboratory there and oversaw cutting-edge research with the world’s most powerful x-ray free-electron laser.
Talk about going into science when few women did.
After four years at an all-women’s college, the first year I went to Berkeley for physics grad school, I was the only woman in my class. What I remember most vividly was being in classrooms with 45 to 50 others and being the only woman. I didn’t raise my hand to ask questions, because if one of the guys asked a stupid question, no one would remember five minutes later, but if I asked a stupid question, everyone would. I got over that, but it left a memory of what that felt like.
How is the United States doing in educating STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) leaders?
In general, at the graduate level the U.S. is doing rather well. The students in the great research universities today are incredible: No one has ever told them that a problem can’t be solved, so off they go and solve it. But I spent a lot of time in Germany during a recent sabbatical, and I see countries in Europe that are moving very fast to catch up and in some areas potentially surpass the U.S. That worries me.
What advice would you give would-be scientists today?
It’s been a long time since anybody’s tried to marginalize me around a gender issue, but I am sensitive to the fact that for young women it’s not always easy still. And so I take a great deal of pleasure in trying to be supportive and encouraging, particularly when I think young women—and young men too, frankly—have a hard time seeing that they can become successful scientists and have a family life as well.