The autobiography of Eileen Pollack leads us through one woman’s endeavours to break into the world of physics research and to uncover uncharted territory. However, although her BSc in physics obtained from Yale was hard won, the door to writing swung open instead. This is her story about what her life, and perhaps why all the incremental factors led to a career in writing and teaching literature, rather than the PhD in physics that she so desired. Given the time period when Eileen attended high school (the early 70’s) attitudes towards women in maths and science were rather dismissive. The environment at Yale in the physics sector was mostly male dominated, and it is here at college that we see Eileen excited by all the possibilities and areas of learning. Her anecdotes about her undergraduate years are relatable to many, when almost everyone from the ages of 18 through to 21 will feel a heady mixture of confidence and insecurity at every turn.
The end of the book is the author’s own quest to find out why some women stick it out, despite the discriminatory and sometimes derogatory remarks. Why the women who were the brightest but received the most negative attention and lack of affirmation bowed out of careers in maths and science, while those of ‘mediocre talent’ ploughed their way through, obtaining PhDs and fulfilling careers due to an inner sense of confidence.
The author writes with tremendous creative skill, and opens our eyes to the beauty of mathematics. The combination of the fields of physics, mathematics and creative writing truly does provide a glimpse into a world of wonder, and reveals why many scientists, men and women, have fallen in love with the field and yearned to know more.
The book itself is an appreciation of the women who bravely stepped forward to be the only one, so there could be several now. It provides thought provoking insight on the factors that determine whether someone has inner tenacity to pursue careers in science and academia, and offers several points of reflection. It might remind us sometimes to not listen to the voice telling us to take the easy way out and quit, but rather to keep trying regardless. While Eileen had her share of moments where she felt out of her depth, a particular professor gave her the advice after a difficult test to ‘swim in her own lane’. Not to compare with anyone else, but to stick the class out and concentrate on her own work. The words of affirmation from that particular professor were able to convince Eileen to pursue the course and get better progressively. From this, one learns that it comes down to moments, the ones where you truly tell someone that they are capable, and the ones where you are honest enough to give them a plan of attack if they are not yet capable. For a book that makes you feel understood and yet provides you with a few new ways of looking at the world of education for men and women alike, this is it.
Christine is a graduate neurosciences student exploring the distribution of different and various neurons in the human brain. She has also investigated cellular changes in Huntington’s disease, and hopes to extend this research to Parkinson’s disease. She loves to try her hand at all things cooking and baking (which has led to a signature chocolate brownie recipe) and enjoys a good cup of tea.