Helen Rhoda Quinn
Professor Emerita, Particle Physics & Astrophysics, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University
And - Awarded Benjamin Franklin Medal in 2018 for pioneering contributions to the long-term quest for theory of the strong, weak & electromagnetic interactions of fundamental particles.
Trying something that does not work out can teach you much more than just doing the things that you do with ease.
What do you do?
I retired in early 2010. Prior to that my job was to do research in particle physics theory, which means thinking about what we do and do not yet understand about the smallest things we know of, the quarks, and how they interact with one another to make everything we see and determine its properties. The job of a theorist is to continually seek new ideas that can add to our understanding and diminish our ignorance. I always worked in collaboration with others, collaborating with many different physicists from around the world. In the later years of my career I was involved with the planning of a major experimental facility known as a B-Factory and the particle detector for it, and in interpreting its results over the many years that it operated at SLAC. Experimental physicists from 10 different countries were a part of this collaborative effort, and the theoretical effort to help define its goals and then interpret its results involved people from all those countries and more. Part of the joy of doing particle physics is that you live in a very international community and have friends all over the world! Find out more about my work on Wikipedia.
Throughout my career as a researcher I was also involved in a variety of outreach projects. For many years I ran a program that brings undergraduate students from all over the US to SLAC for summer research internships with our scientists. Our focus was to offer that opportunity to students from groups under-represented in the physics research community, which (unfortunately, still) includes both women and people of color. (This opportunity to spend a summer at SLAC still exists.) I also ran summer programs for physics teachers to learn about forefront physics.
Since my retirement the focus of my time and efforts is the improvement of science education. I led the National Academy study that laid out a vision for new Science Standards in “A Framework for K-12 Science Education”. Standards based on this document have now been adopted by over 40 states. Framework is also influencing science teaching and learning in many other countries. I work in multiple ways to support those implementing new standards to understand the vision and make take on the long term work that is needed to implement it – in teacher education, in the development of curriculum materials, in statewide testing programs, and in local schools and districts across the country.
I no longer have a job, but I do have plenty to do to keep me lively in my old age! My experiences as a scientist, and as a science educator are critical for this work. The main message of this work is that science is not just the understanding that have been developed, but also the practices by which those ideas were developed and the ways of thinking that help one engage effectively in those practices (which we called cross cutting concepts in the Framework). Science learning should likewise involve all three of these dimensions, rather than, as it all too often has been, the learning of many, many disconnected facts, with no understanding of where they came from, or how to apply this knowledge to solve problems in the world.
Why did you choose this field?
I immigrated to the US with my parents at the age of 18. I had already studied two years of general science at Melbourne University, with plans to become a meteorologist because that was the government agency that offered me a cadetship (scholarship and stipend for undergrad study plus a job upon graduation) when I graduated from high school. I knew little about the US education system so I looked up (in a book, there was no internet) what universities were close to where my father would be working and found only two to apply to -- Stanford and UC Berkeley. Stanford was more generous in giving me credit for what I had done in Melbourne so I enrolled there. I arrived with three years of credits but no obvious major. I went around talking to various science and math departments to find a major that I could complete in a year, or close to it. I found that physics would be the easiest, chiefly because the professor, Jerry Pines, was very helpful and had a flexible attitude about requirements. I completed my undergraduate degree in a year plus a quarter, graduating in 1963. I stayed there for graduate study and got my PhD in August 1967.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
You never know what is possible until you try it. Just believe in yourself and aim high. Of course then you have to be persistent and work hard, and find good colleagues and mentors to work with.
I just kept doing what I wanted to do, taking the next step, and, eventually, I made it work out. I married a fellow physics student before either of us completed our PhD’s and we had two children while we were both Assistant Professors. We are together still, now enjoying our retirement years. He moved on to other fields of work, but I stuck with particle physics because it continued to interest me.
I did have a year with no job after our postdoctoral period in Germany. In the first semester of that year I took education courses and thought about becoming a high school teacher. But I went to Harvard to talk to people I knew there and asked them for office space to get back to doing physics research because the field was bubbling with new ideas and I wanted to be part of that. A professor going on sabbatical leave gave me the key to his office and I dug back in to research work. My first child was born that winter and spent her first six months in my borrowed office at Harvard. The next year Harvard offered me a job, and my son, born three years later, also spent his first months in my office at Harvard as I took leave of absence from teaching that semester but continued to work at my research.
Why do you love working in STEM?
Now that I am retired I wake up looking forward to a long walk in the hills before breakfast. When I was working it was a quick run around the shortest trail and then, after breakfast, a bike ride (most days) to work. I treasure these times not just for the exercise and the beauty around me, but also because they give me a quiet thinking time when I can ponder whatever I choose and plan my day.
At work I enjoyed the arguments, the back and forth of ideas and critique and counter suggestions that goes into having and refining a good idea. I loved coming home with a puzzle in my mind, thinking about it, possibly for days, going back to talk it through with my colleagues and eventually finding a resolution, or at least a better understanding of the problem.
Best advice for next generation?
Believe in yourself – if you do not no-one else will either! However belief alone is not enough, you have to be willing to dig in and do the work that justifies that belief.
You do not have to be perfect. We all make mistakes or have ideas that do not work out, the trick is to take every failure as an opportunity to learn so you do not make the same mistake twice. Trying something that does not work can teach you much more than just doing the things that you do with ease. When something is not working, don’t just keep beating your head against the wall, recognize when it is time to back up, and try again a different way.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
My role model, Miss Barrowman, believe it or not, was the teacher who taught me “domestic science” in seventh grade. She made me redo work that was sloppy and taught me you can become good a something that you did not start out doing well (or even caring about) if you only make enough effort. She had the same high standard whether it was sewing, or baking, or cleaning the baking sheet. To this day she is there in my head whenever I sew or bake, both of which I now enjoy doing because I am good at them, thanks to her insistence that I could be. Her influence on my life goes well beyond the subject that she taught!