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August/September 2006 (Volume 15, Number 8)
Elizabeth Freeland has been selected by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics to receive the M. Hildred Blewett Scholarship for 2006.
The purpose of the scholarship is to enable early-career women to return to physics research after having had to interrupt their careers for family reasons. The scholarship was endowed by a bequest from M. Hildred Blewett, a particle accelerator physicist who died in 2004.
Freeland is the second recipient of the scholarship. She is not only returning to physics research after a career break, but has switched fields, from condensed matter theory to particle physics.
The scholarship consists of a one-year award of up to $45,000, which can be used for dependent care, salary, travel, equipment, and tuition and fees.
Freeland received her PhD in condensed matter physics in 1996 from Johns Hopkins University. Her husband, also a physicist, received his PhD around the same time. The couple then moved to Brookhaven, where he had a postdoc position. Geographically limited in her job search, Freeland was unable to find a suitable job. She also wanted to take time off for family. Her first child was born in 1999.
The family then moved to the Chicago area, where Freeland’s husband had a job at Argonne National Lab. She took a part-time position teaching physics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After having her second child in 2002, Freeland wanted to get involved with research. She sent letters to a number of researchers at Fermilab, looking for a project she could work on, and Andreas Kronfeld invited her to work with his lattice quantum chromodynamics (QCD) research group. Though her previous work had been in condensed matter, Freeland was willing to switch fields in order to continue working in physics. “Since there’s not a lot of information about what to do, I went with the opportunities at hand,” she said.
But in order to do research, she needed a grant, and she found that almost all grants required a full-time affiliation–a problem Freeland says she had not anticipated when she took a career break. It didn’t matter what science she wanted to do, or whom she wanted to work with; without a full-time affiliation, she could not get a grant.
One of the few programs she was eligible for was an American Association of University Women Fellowship, which Freeland received in 2005. The AAUW fellowship enabled her to do research while still teaching part time. This year, the Blewett scholarship will allow her to devote herself full time to research.
Though it has required her to learn a new field, Freeland is excited about her research in lattice QCD, which attempts to simplify strong force calculations by restricting quarks to a grid, or lattice, instead of a continuous space. In the past few years there has been considerable progress in using lattice QCD to predict particle properties, and Freeland says she’s excited to be part of that. Her current research involves calculating quantities related to B meson decays.
After this year, Freeland’s youngest child will be in school, and she plans to look for a full-time position. But she says that even if she doesn’t find an ideal job right away, she will be able to continue her research, which she believes will be on a solid footing, thanks to the Blewett scholarship.
Having gone through a career break, Freeland has given considerable thought to the issues involved. There are not a lot of resources for people in career break situations, she says, though the situation is better in some other countries. For instance, in the UK, there are more programs specifically targeted towards people in career breaks, and the Institute of Physics has published a pamphlet that discusses how to plan and manage a career break. Here in the US, Freeland couldn’t even find a pamphlet for people in her situation. More publicity about the problems could help, she says.
Freeland has written an article about career breaks for the Gazette, the newsletter of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. She advises others taking a career break to stay in touch with the field as much as possible. Also if possible, before taking a career break, Freeland suggests women consider doing a postdoc if they haven’t already. “Basically, the more established you can be before you take a break, the better off you can be,” she advises.
Freeland was happy to find out in 2004 that Hildred Blewett had endowed this scholarship. “I’m really glad she did it,” said Freeland. “To me it was significant that a person, so dedicated as a physics researcher, would leave her money specifically to this issue.”
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