Lisa Randall is a theoretical physics professor at Harvard, her work is often cited in the science community and her name was once included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people.
And yet there have been times when Randall, who discusses the interconnectedness of the universe in her new book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” has felt disrespected or disregarded simply because of her gender.
“I’ve been in the field long enough, and I like to think that, at least within the scientific community, I’m taken seriously,” she said. “With the book and the reactions people have, it’s like, ‘Have you even read my book?’ People make up how they think you’re thinking about it in ways I’m not sure they would do if I was a guy.
“At first, people might have a different reaction. But I like to think the longer people are aware of what you’re doing, not just me but other women, that will go away. That’s my optimistic view.”
Randall’s experience as a woman in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career was among the topics she discussed during her appearance Wednesday afternoon at New Roads School, where she answered student questions during a 45-minute session.
The talk was part of the Santa Monica private school’s Change Makers speaker series, which has previously hosted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.
Randall “is a change maker on a global level,” series coordinator Mark Vickers-Willis, a New Roads dean, said in a press release announcing the event. “She exemplifies the applied effort, intellect and problem solving that the world needs and that we seek to foster in our students.”
Randall touched on a wide variety of subjects during the discussion, including her career path, her study methods, the role of science in society, the expansion of the universe, the difference between dark energy and dark matter, the physics of dimensions and the possibility of life on other planets.
She also spoke about working through problems and being open to others’ ideas.
“You have to recognize you are one person and the way you’re thinking isn’t the way everyone thinks,” she said. “We’re bred to see things through our own perspective. But I think a scientist, to understand the world, has to get outside of that. You have to get beyond the immediate human perspective. Your perspective … is just one of many.”
Vickers-Willis told Randall that humanities faculty have questioned why their disciplines are often left out of the discussion as educators and public officials across the country push for more STEM education. New Roads now has a club called Girls Learning Achieving and Succeeding in Science (GLASS), which was launched last year to encourage female students to consider STEM careers.
“Learning to think logically, whether it’s a science or humanities, is really important,” Randall said. “They’re both ways of getting outside our immediate perspective.”
Randall discussed times when she hit snags in her research and offered advice to students for when they feel stuck.
“You try to reframe your question or look at things from a different angle,” she said. “But you have to believe there’s an answer. … It’s really important that you believe there is an answer and that answer is something you can access.”
Randall said she didn’t set out to inspire girls, but she said her books have helped people to see that women are succeeding in science.
As for what she does when she feels colleagues and others are judging her based solely on her gender?
“I’m just going to present my theory anyway,” she said.