Sharon’s a tall, blonde, thin astrophysicist. And she has a secret.
The different subfields of physics have different ratios of women to men. Astronomy tends to attract women more than other sub-branches of physics. Not to say that there are a lot. In our research group, there’re probably a dozen people, maybe three of us are women. I think nationally, in all of physics, it’s around 10 or 15%. We’re present but it’s definitely still a man’s field. When I was an undergrad, people were a little less sensitive, but I think it’s getting better. Every female physicist has some personal story where someone’s been very rude or said something that was obviously not kosher, and you look back at it now and you think, people are morons. But it happens. My story is—I went to Ohio University and I went to the honors tutorial program. Basically, instead of going through your regular course curriculum, your main physics class for each quarter was taught in this one-on-one tutorial. It was based on the Oxford Cambridge model. There were six of us that were in this program, so they would sort of round us up from time to time, and we’d do things in the lab. And there was this one kid in our class. I can’t remember his name. He was a real jerk. No one really liked him. [Laughs.] He would just say boorish things, because he either didn’t care or didn’t know any better. Physics tends to draw people with poor social skills. I can’t remember what he said, but he insinuated that, being a woman, I would sleep with teachers to get my good grades.
He was a jerk to say it, but everyone in the room just sort of like, What the hell? I can’t believe this guy just said that. The professor handed me some heavy instrument we were using and said, Feel free to pummel him with this. There are other stories, but that was the best one. Hopefully, I won’t have more to top that.
It’s the little things, too. I remember when I was an undergrad we would have these departmental picnics, and one time we were carrying chairs back and forth. Some graduate student, I think he was European, was handing everyone else five or six chairs at a time, and I could handle it! And every time I would come up he would give me, like, one. I’m like, I’m not a weakling, I can handle this.
As a woman, you’re sometimes like, Ach, I can take it! Then at the same time, there’s a thin line between courtesy and chivalry, and being demeaning. I’m willing to cut people slack. I deal with people from a lot of different countries, because I don’t know what things are like: is it a cultural thing or is it a personal thing? You don’t know.
It’s funny because I haven’t told my boss that I also skate roller derby. In physics, they’re not the most supportive of hobbies that aren’t physics. So I tell him that I volunteer, and that I have a leadership position. Which is true. So he backs off and he gives me time for it.
I was bout manager, and I was running the bouting events. So even though I no longer do that, that’s what I told him when I first started, and I haven’t told him that I’m actually skating in the bouts now. A few of the grad students know, but I sort of keep it on the down low because I don’t know how they would react to it.
My derby name is Jane Reaction—trying to get the science in there. It was hard picking a name. It took me months and months because, even if you’re not in it, but you’re involved in it to some extent like I was, you always think about it: What would my derby name be?
My league is the Chi-Town Sirens and my team is The Wheelers. Have you ever “Return to Oz”? … Well, you should see it. The wheelers chase Dorothy all through the land of Oz, and they had wheels for hands and they’re really really scary. I remember the first time our captain was like, this is what we want our team to be, I was like, These people scare me. [Laughs.]
Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Actually, after this season I think I’m going to be retiring. Derby takes a lot of time. I skate three nights a week, and then there are different promotional events and fundraising and then we got a meeting about something. . . I enjoy it just because I like the exercise and doing something physical is a good emotional release. I sort of like how I have this alter ego that not a lot of people know about.
The people in derby are just so completely different from the physics world. They’re from all different socio-economic strata, there are people who have actual careers and then there are people who tend bar or cut hair. Then you have the more conservative people, and the total punk-rock ethic, and then you have a lot of girls who are very artistic and creative. I feel sometimes that my career requires creativity to some extent, like technical design and stuff, but not the total creative spirit that you see in like these artistic people. It’s inspiring to me. I haven’t sewn in years and I’m awful at it, but suddenly we gotta make our uniforms. And I’m like, Shit. I don’t know how to sew.
And they’re like, it doesn’t matter. Just do the best you can.