APS News

2013 Blewett Fellows Integrate Family and Physics Careers

By Michael Lucibella

Amy Daradich

Amy Daradich

Leslie Kirby

Leslie Kerby

S. Sampath

Sujatha Sampath

Established by APS in 2004 by a bequest from the estate of M. Hildred Blewett, the Blewett Fellowship enables women to return to physics research careers after having had to interrupt those careers. This year APS awarded two new fellowships, and renewed the award to one of last year's fellows. The fellowship consists of a one-year award of up to $45,000.

It was her high school teacher's passion for physics that first drew Amy Daradich to the subject.

"It was genuinely exciting," she said. "When people have enthusiasm for what they do, it's really infectious."The experience sparked a deep interest in her to understand how things work, and to get to the root of problems. She decided physics was the path for her. 

Daradich hails from Toronto and enrolled at the University of Toronto after graduating from high school. For her undergraduate degree she dabbled in several fields, but ended up focusing on biophysics. However, once she started taking the required fundamental courses for her master's, she found herself drawn more towards geophysics and studying the long-term evolution of terrestrial planets.

"There are so many interesting things to work on," she said.

She met her husband while at the University and they were married while attending school together. However, in early 2007 he landed a job in Edmonton, Alberta, about 2,000 miles away.

Also in early 2007 Daradich discovered she was pregnant, and would be due shortly after defending her PhD thesis. She graduated in September of 2007, then immediately moved to Edmonton to be with her husband. Her son was born in November, but there was a complication. He had a congenital heart defect and needed several surgeries early in life. Daradich planned to take some time away from research to care for him while he was undergoing these procedures.

She had originally thought she would be able to take only a year off from work to care for him, and had placed his name on numerous wait lists for childcare facilities. However when that year was up, no slots had opened up for her son, so she continued to stay home with him. In the fall of 2009, while she was still waiting for childcare, her husband's startup relocated to Québec City.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, her father's Parkinson's disease took a turn for the worse and she spent much of 2010 traveling between Québec City and Toronto to care for him. Her father passed away in October of 2010.

"After not working for four years and having that gap on my résumé, I was like 'I've got to work,'" Daradich said.

In early 2011, she finally located a childcare service that would watch her son four days a week. She was able to find work at a bio-photonics lab, through a friend she knew from graduate school. Although glad to be back doing research, she really wanted to return to studying the evolution of planets.

"I really missed it, but I didn't realize how much until I got back to work," she said. "Research is really something you think about all the time, even when you're not right there."

Transitioning back to doing research has not been easy. "I think it's a big problem in academia right now," Daradich said. "All fellowship opportunities really dry up within about three years of finishing your PhD."She added that the Blewett fellowship was a welcome exception. She plans to use the award to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a year and collaborate with researchers at MIT and Harvard.

"I think having this award will do a lot for getting me back in the game," she said. "I wouldn't have had this opportunity if not for the fellowship."

Leslie Kerby has returned to academia after nearly fifteen years away from research.

Kerby received her bachelor's degree in physics when she was 22 years old. She was first drawn to physics because of the mathematics that underlies so much of the field. 

"I love mathematics but I'm not a pure mathematician. I wanted to apply it to something," Kerby said. "I kind of sit on the fence in my work between physics and engineering."

However, after she received her bachelor's degree, she put her career on hold in order to raise her children. She had married her husband at a fairly young age and had children young as well. In keeping with her religious family background, it was up to her to raise the children.

While she was raising her kids, she occasionally tutored and taught physics as an adjunct at the local physics department. She also is an accomplished classical collaborative pianist and briefly considered pursuing it as a career.

"I love music but I also love science," she said, adding that she didn't think that she would be able to support her five children as a musician.

After her divorce three years ago, Kerby decided to return to research. She enrolled at the University of Idaho and started working towards her master's and PhD. As an undergraduate, she had always been drawn to quantum mechanics, so she started looking around for ways that she could mix quantum mechanics with applied research.

"That was my favorite field," Kerby said. "[It] probably stems from my love of mathematics as well."

Her advisor, Akira Tokuhiro, recommended that she study nuclear engineering, in particular the computational quantum mechanics of it.

"This is a field that I would both enjoy and be pretty good at," Kerby said.

While in graduate school, she got an offer to work on nuclear physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. There, she's been working to upgrade the code that's commonly used by physicists calculating nuclear reactions.

"I've been working on upgrading it so it includes the emission of light, high-energy fragments in nuclear collisions," Kerby said.

She finished her master's degree last spring and is on track to earn her PhD in about two years. Working as a full-time student has not been easy for Kerby. She has full custody of her five children, ranging in age from 15 down to two. In addition, because of budget cuts and a divisional reorganization, the amount of funding she is set to receive from Los Alamos in the coming months is less than she had budgeted for.

She said the Blewett scholarship will go a long way to pay tuition costs at the University of Idaho, while still leaving money left over to care for her children. 

"It's a great honor," Kerby said. "The future is bright and promising."

This is the second year of Blewett fellowship funding for Sujatha Sampath.

Her career stalled somewhat after finishing her postdoc research in 2003. She followed her husband, who was working as an engineer in Milwaukee, but she had trouble finding a permanent research position there. Since then, she's worked a series of short-term and part time research positions in order to maintain her visa status.

In 2010 she got a temporary appointment at the University of Milwaukee, where she has been continuing work she started years earlier. In 2005, she joined a team of researchers from Arizona State University. They were studying the molecular structure of spider silk using synchrotron X-rays at Argonne National Laboratory. She also currently holds another temporary appointment at the University of Wisconsin.

"The fellowship has really helped me diversify the areas in which I'm doing research, within the scope of the project," Sampath said.

Over the last year she started using infrared tomography and electron microscopy to investigate the structure of silk.

"These are sort of independent techniques but they will give very complementary information," she said. She added that the infrared tomography will help her understand more about the chemistry of silk, while the electron microscope offers a better physical picture of the strands.

"The idea is to understand the structure from different angles."

She also started working with another team of polymer researchers who have been working to develop a synthetic spider silk. Spider silk is a remarkable material, stronger than steel, yet more flexible than Kevlar or nylon. Researchers have been trying to reproduce the natural substance for years, and Sampath is seeing how close researchers are getting.

"What we are trying to look at is the structure of the synthetic silks," she said. "That will allow us to compare them to the natural silks."

In addition, over the last year she's published two research papers based on data taken years before, and is currently working on submitting a third. She said that over the next year she hopes to work with other kinds of biopolymers and to find a permanent position.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella