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2019 Winter edition of the Emmy Noether Distinction - Interview with Cristiane Morais Smith

Posted By admin, Monday 27 January 2020
Updated: Monday 27 January 2020

author: Luc Bergé

In late 2019, Cristiane Morais Smith from the Institute for Theoretical Physics, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, was awarded the Winter 2019 EPS Emmy Noether Distinction.

Luc Bergé [LB], chair of the EPS Equal Opportunities Committee, interviewed her [CMS].

LB: At what point in your education did you consider a career in physics?

CMS: I did my studies in Paraguacu Paulista, a little village in Brazil, where I was born. When I was 13 years old, the Science teacher gave us a problem to solve: Calculate the acceleration of a particle sliding down an inclined plane without friction. This is the celebrated problem of Galileo, the fact that the acceleration does not depend on the mass. The teacher did not expect that any of us would be able to do it, he considered it as a game. I solved the problem, and when he realized that I had done it, he started shouting for joy. He was a very serious and shy person, and we were all astonished by his expression of genuine enthusiasm. I then asked him: if I would like to play this kind of games when I am older, which profession should I have? He answered: Physicist! That was it! I was decided to become a physicist, although I had never seen one before.




FIG. 1: Prof. C. Morais Smith, Utrecht University, Netherlands (copyright: Ivar Pel)

LB: Did you find a resistance to girls succeeding in science?

CMS: The first resistance came from my own family. In Brazil, there is no exam to finish the school, like the Baccalaureate degree, but there is an exam to enter the university. It is extremely difficult: 4 hours of exam per day during 5 days, and usually there are 100 candidates for each available place. The best universities are the public ones, which are free, but you can usually access one of those only if you study in good private schools, which are very expensive. There were no private schools in my little village. I knew that I should go to a neighbouring town named Marilia to study, otherwise I would have no chance to access a really good university, but this was expensive. One year before my entrance exam to the University, my parents decided to send my youngest brother to a private school in this town. He had still 3 years to go before his exam, but I had only one. If they had money for one kid, I should logically get priority because my exam was closer. But my father argued: your brother will be a family head, so he should have priority to enter the university. I contested and finally my parents sent me too. I studied 16 hours a day to catch up all what I should have learned during the previous years and succeeded to go to UNICAMP, one of the best universities in Brazil. Despite this incident, I must say that I come from a family of very strong women: one of my grand-Moms (102 years old by now) was the first woman to work as a public employee in my village, my mom worked and studied all her life, despite her 4 kids… but boys had a preference in case of scarce funds.

LB: Do you believe that physics should positively discriminate in favour of women?

CMS: I did not think so when I was young and naïve. I wanted to get everything on my own, and I would have been offended to get anything based on quotas… but now that I have enough experience, I am very much in favour of positive discrimination. We are all constantly discriminating against women, even if we do not wish or even if we are not aware of it. One has to compensate for that somehow, at least until we reach a higher percentage of female physicists. Very often I am the only female speaker in a conference, and this is not normal. 

LB: Do you have advices to girls that wish to start a career in physics?

CMS: Yes. It is fascinating to do physics and to understand how the world around us works. I cannot imagine a better career and a more interesting job. You will be in contact with young students and will discuss with colleagues from all nationalities. You will travel the world and discover that people think and do things differently in other countries. This is an international profession, you can easily be a physicist in any country in the world. And if you decide to change your life and quit the academic career, you can always find a job in industry because physicists learn how to solve problems in general, and people love to have them in their companies!

FIG. 2: Prof. C. Morais Smith at a PhD ceremony of one of her students in front of a wall of the Academy building
covered with the portrait of female professors at Utrecht University, for a campaign launched during the 100 year Jubilee
of the first woman professor.

Tags:  Emmy Noether Distinction  Equal Opportunities Committee  Theoretical Physics 

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