Interview With Dr. Susan Lea

This interview with Dr. Susan Lea, a research astrophysicist, teacher, and textbook author, was conducted by Lynda Williams, a Ph.D. candidate representing the Research in Physics Education group, funded by NSF, at the Women in Science conference. Lynda held this interview to acquaint her colleagues with Dr. Lea's work as an educator who sets a high standard in science education.

Was your family supportive of your interest in science?

Absolutely! My father worked in electronics, and was an amateur astronomer. My mother was an accountant, and so she was pretty good at maths! Both of them encouraged me from an early age. I remember that when I was about 10 my father taught me algebra to keep me occupied when I could not go to school because I was ill. We also spent a lot of time peering through telescopes and microsopes, and we built things. We had a fishponnd in our backyard -- well, two actually-- and we built a concrete bridge over the stream joining them that was strong enough for an adult man to stand on. The bridge was still there when my mother finally sold the house.

What kind of encouragement, if any, did you receive as an undergraduate?

I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. My degree was in Mathematics, but I concentrated on theoretical physics. I was a student of Newnham College, which is a women's college. Of course, lectures, exams, and so on are all-university events, so we twenty women were mixed up with about 200 men! Generally, I found both faculty and my colleagues to be very supportive. It was a very stimulating and exciting environment. Treading on the same ground as Newton and Maxwell certainly was awe-inspiring!

What was your experience as a woman involved in sceince during the 60s in Britain?

I never experienced any sense that I was out of place or trying to do something that some people thought a woman shouldn't until I came to the USA! At that time, the standard British education included single-sex high schools. The main advantages to that system are that there is no competition between men and women, and social issues don't get mixed up with academic issues. Even so, the science classes remained smaller than the "arts" classes. Actually, I found the small class size an advantage, as I received a lot of special attention. One of my physics teachers (a woman) even remarked that women are better than men at electronics because their small hands can adjust the circuits more easily! During World War II, many women took over men's jobs while the men went to fight. I think women's success in these endeavors had a big effect on the acceptance of women doing what was previously believed to be "men's work". My acceptance in the British world of science was a direct outgrowth of that phenomenon.

How does your experience differ in the USA?

As a graduate student in the USA, I felt I had to prove myself constantly. I was dismayed at the number of exams - midterm and final - that are the norm in an American university. It seemed like such a waste of time. But once I showed that I could handle the work, I became accepted and even respected. To this day, I feel that there are one or two American professors who truly believed that a woman should not be doing science; fortunately, they were in the minority.

I had my baby while I was on the research staff at Berkeley. Jenny went everywhere with me for the first 6 months: seminars, meetings, lunches. Most of my colleagues that was great, but a couple of old fuddy-duddys disapproved. Of course, I always left if she showed any sign of being disruptive. Mostly, she sat and listened!

Job hunting was interesting. I was the "token female" on the short list several times. In one instance, the worst one, I was picked up at the airport, and then dumped in an office while my supposed host went swimming! Later the chairman of the department asked me what I would "do with my husband" if I got the job. I don't think that kind of attitude would be tolerated any more -- I hope not. When I started working here at San Francisco State, several people told me that I must have got the job "because you are a woman". I found that really insulting, especially since I knew it wasn't true. That is the downside of affirmative action, of course.

Has your department been supportive of you as a mother?

Yes, passively. Fortunately, Jenny has been healthy and I have never had to take time off to care for her. On one occasion when I had a child care problem, and suggest that maybe the office staff could help me out for one hour so I could teach my class, I got a very resounding NO. That's not too unreasonable, I suppose. So, I took Jenny to class with me instead, and that worked out OK.

What are your other interests outside of physics?

Well, I have an instructor's license, and I teach flying. I haven't had much time for this lately, but I hope to get back to it now that the book is almost finished. My husband has a small software company, and I help him with that. I also own and ride horses, which is something that I share with my daughter. Of course she is much more skillful than I! I also enjoy music, good food, and reading almost anything. I relax with science fiction novels.

Does your experience as a woman affect your work?

I don't think it affects my own research very much at all, although I have been told that I have a "holistic perspective" that some people regard as a feminine trait. As a teacher, I think it helps me be more sympathetic while still being demanding.

Please discuss your unique approach to teaching physics.

In the equestrian world, a distinction is drawn between instructors and trainers. In the physics world, I consider myself a trainer. I try to train students to do physics, not just teach them physics. As a trainer, I try to share the insights I have gained into the process of doing physics. It is this process, not the facts, that proves so daunting to many beginners. I do believe that it is possible to help people master the process. Once that has been accomplished, the facts fall into place more easily.

What projects are you currently involved in?

I have been involved in writing a textbook for the introductory university physics course for physicists and engineers.

How is your experience as a woman reflected in the text?

The book has many of the features of a traditional book for this market, but we have also tried to include many examples and exercises that will be of interest to women (and men!). (One of our problem solvers found a question about a bouncing baby in a baby carriage quite challenging. But then, he probably had little experience with baby carriages!) We have also attempted to include women in roles that may be a little untraditional (but which, fortunately, are becoming less so). We have women as champion athletes, pilots, and, most importantly, great physicsts. We have also tried to keep violence in any form out of this book. Science has often been associated with evil technological advances, sometimes to the exclusion of the good. We try to focus on the positive.

What makes this text stand out from others?

We are really atempting to teach students the process of doing physics. We stress understanding basic concepts with a highly visual approach. And, we introduce a problem solving method that we use consistently throughout the book, in all of the examples. We offer solution plans, in the form of flow diagrams, for many problem types, and we show the students how to identify each type. I have used these methods in my own classes at SFSU, and they are remarkably effective.

How is your approach to teaching manifested in the text?

I firmly believe that if you cannot explain your answer, then you don't understand it and you havne't grasped the process. I insist that my students explain each step of their solutions. We attempt to do this in the book by carefully explaining each of the steps in the examples, and by explaining the concepts behind a new idea before getting to the equations. In so doing, the text trains the students in the process of doing physics.

How will this book be more accessible to intro physics students?

Most students approaching their first physics course expect that it will be hard, and they are often frustrated by their inability to go beyond the simplest problems. They complain that the problems "aren't like the exmaples". By teaching method as well as facts, we help the students over those first hurdles. By explicitly using the problem solving method in every example, we show them how to use the method in intermediate and even advanced problems. We have also tried to make the book fun. After all, I enjoy physics. I'd like the students to enjoy it, too.

How will your colleagues benefit from using this text?

The book draws heavily on recent research on the teaching of physics and the ways that students learn. We have tried to be aware of common student problems, and to write the text in a way that will help students avoid those problems. Tus, we hope that instructors will find that their students have fewer problems from the start. We have arranged the book in eight parts to help the students organize their knowledge. We have also included optional sections throughout the book, for instructors to tailor the course to the particular students at their institution. We start with the basics, and attempt to treat them very clearly. Yet there is enough advanced material to challenge the best! We have also color-coded definitions and results: anything in a gold box is fundamental and should be memorized; olive boxes contain important material that is not as fundamental. If it's not in a box, it is an intermidiate or preliminary result, or a special case, and is probably not worth memorizing. Thus, the instructors can easily answer the students' questions about what they should learn for the next test! And there are LOTS of problems.

The instructor's annotated edition contains notes that refer to reference works, additional results, pedagogy and opinion, as well as notes about the organization of the material. We hope instructors will find these usefual as they plan their courses. Solutions to all the problems are available on request. Because the problems have been worked by students, we know that they are understandable to students, not just professors.

Do you have any advice for women in the science fields today?

Believe in yourself! Have a strong sense for where you're going and work hard -- you can achieve your goals.

Physics: The Nature of Things (calculus-based) by Susan Lea and John Burke and Mathematics for Physicists by Susan Lea is available from Brooks/Cole