Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Moving again: my life as a scientist

Me temporarily parked in a handicapped spot at Cornell
Most positions are temporary, but in science positions come in a particular class of finite. There are so few permanent positions and each selection process is so biased that the probability of getting one is almost non-existent. Yet most young scientists hope that they are special enough to make it. This keeps them going together with the love for what they do and a certain lack of flexibility, which comes from the fear of change.

There are some benefits from traveling, but what comes to mind now as I think about moving again are the questions and the stares I get from people on the street.

I have a lousy German accent, and had a strong accent in English when I was first in the US. So, I have never been considered to belong to any of the places I lived in. The typical questions I still get are: where am I  originally from? how many siblings do I have? how (on Earth) did I succeed with my (inferior) background to work in a university?

In light of our fear of migrants from Syria, it makes sense to answer these questions in writing.

0.1 Is my background really inferior? Mircea Zaganescu guided my brother through his first attempts of understanding relativity when he was in his teens. The physics wing of the university in Timisoara is now named after him. There is also a physics contest that bears his name. The primary school nr. 6 is named after Anisoara Odeanu, a writer who lived across the street. The street I was walking to school on and the national theater are named after the brother of a family friend, Olga Grozavescu. She was the first woman from Romania to receive a PhD abroad, which even then had to be recognized by the university in Bucharest. She had to take an exam with Nicolae Iorga (Romania's greatest historian), who asked Olga: "Tell me about your brother".  Traian Grozavescu had been so talented and handsome that soldiers stopped fighting when they heard him sing. So, he would sing when the injured had to be carried out. When his body was taken home from Vienna there were more people on the streets to mourn his death than there had been for the prince whose murder started the first world war. While these are all fairly minor historical figures, I grew up with their stories and they played some role in shaping my life. Mihai jokes that Lugoj is small enough that they may add a memorial plaque for us some day.

Grandpa and Grandma
0.2  What about my family? When I think of my time in Romania, I think of family and friends.  My grandmother was the best Mathematics teacher I have ever known. She had been my ideal for strength, stability and common sense. My mother is an outstanding doctor. She represented intelligence, strength and beauty. Tusa Tavi (my great-aunt) was gentleness and propriety. She had a degree in Mathematics, too. Grandpa was persistent. He had been a silvic engineer and had the courage to shape and save lives. My father was a doctor like my mother. He has a more tumultuous personality. Tanti Keti (Ecaterina Zaganescu) and Tanti Mia (Maria Sacalus) matched my mother in both kindness and beauty. Mihai and I thrived on their stories and on their cookies.

Back to the original questions:

1. Where am I  originally from?
I am from Romania. It's a country in the middle of Europe - next to the Black Sea. If pressed for details I would add that the story of Dracula was inspired by a Romanian prince, and that we have also had a good football team, outstanding gymnastics and more recently very talented tennis players.

2. How many siblings do I have?
I only have one brother. His name is Mihai and he is a Caltech PhD.

3. How did I succeed with my background?
At first, through tests and exams, and later through more work and more exams. I took the SATs and Mathematics GRE when I was 18, and scored well. I was accepted to a number of universities in the US including the University of Rochester, Reed College, and Washington College, but decided to go to Illinois because of Ed Seidel, who was visiting NCSA for 3 weeks. He and Paul Saylor helped me enroll full time in Parkland College, and part time in the University of Illinois. Ed decided to complicate his vacation with me because my brother had told him "Ed, if you think I am good, my sister is even better". With more help from Galina Wind, Linda Lorenz, Mats Selen, Gary Gladding and others, I obtained a teaching assistantship. It came with a tuition waiver and the stipulation that I graduate in a year.  With help from Mark Williams and Linda Lorenz,  who arranged exams for me and advised on which courses I should take to make the fastest exit, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a major in Physics, and a double minor in Mathematics and Computer Science. While in Champaign-Urbana, Doina Costescu and her family made me feel at home, and Greg Daues and Jayashree Balakrishna were the best collaborators a person could hope for. I then went on to pursue a Cornell PhD. I took my last exam and obtained my doctorate degree at 25. I still work long hours, and hope that the world (and the physics community) finds my work interesting.

Mihai and I were almost always surrounded by outstanding people.  But most of the people we knew when we were children are now dead. So, did they matter? what did I learn from them when I was growing up?

When things get bad and I lose faith, I think of them and of their stories. They believed in me and trusted me, and this gives me strength. I learned to ask questions, and trust my instinct.  They loved me unconditionally, yet taught me to be humble. They tried to always give their best, and ask for nothing or as little as possible in return. They also used to say that it's OK to turn when there is no way forward, and it's OK to fail, and it's OK to quit. When I fail, I think of them. After Tanti Keti's parents parents died when she was 14, she moved in with her aunt.   Then the house where her aunt lived was bombed, and Keti was left alone in a trench in a night-gown. She decided to join the war as a nurse to search for her twin brothers. Whenever I'd get hurt, my aunt would ask her (or Tanti Mia) to come. When she would hear "there is blood", she imagined waves of it reaching the door and my injuries were always minor by comparison. She was not able to help her brothers live through the war, but she moved on and continued to love and help people throughout her life. My troubles always seem so little relative to what they all went through.

 Yet, I often feel alone. All my colleagues and friends are busy. There are no friends to visit with my children. They won't have the kind of guidance I had, and I feel that I have failed in some fundamental way - I don't have a network of people who are close enough for them to meet and learn from.

Moral: Avoid drawing conclusions about people you don't know just because they come from a certain part of the world.

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