You probably know that a diamond is a crystal, but did you know that a grain of salt and a snowflake are also crystals? Atoms and molecules, the tiny particles that make up all substances on earth, are connected in a particular way for each substance. In crystals, these particles repeat in a pattern that gives the crystal its special shape.
Would you believe that your digital watch, clock, and calculator, as well as computer screens and some television sets also contain crystals? These are called “LCDs” or liquid crystal displays. Like the name “liquid crystal,” they have two primary functions because they contain certain properties characteristic of crystals, and others typical of liquids. Even the cells in our body are considered a form of liquid crystal! Keeping in mind that the human body is 98% water, liquid crystals help form the “wall” or cell membrane of the individual cells that contain the body’s water.
In my work as a physicist, I study the interaction between the liquid crystal and the solid cells that contain them. Liquid crystal technology has had a major effect in many areas of science including physics, engineering, and biology.
Similar to the dual nature of liquid crystals, my life has had a distinct duality. Although I was born in Bethesda, Maryland, I moved to Puerto Rico when I was five and then returned to the United States to go to graduate school in my early 20s. I’ve essentially lived in two different worlds! In Puerto Rico there are many women in the fields of chemistry, biology, and even engineering. Yet coming to graduate school on the United States mainland in the early 80s, I soon discovered how few women were in these same academic areas. I really had to prove to my professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) that I had a solid grasp of physics. Because there were so few women, professors didn’t initially have the confidence that we could understand and accomplish the necessary work like the male students. It was a very old-fashioned stereotype they were adhering to: boys can do science and girls cannot.
I gained strength from my parents who were great sources of inspiration since they were both chemists. They knew it was possible for me to have a career in physics. In fact, when I was little my twin brother and I would play “make believe laboratory” at home. We’d set up the flasks and beakers as if we were going to conduct our own chemistry experiments. So, although my father really campaigned for me to become a chemist, I opted for physics.
I received a Bachelor’s and Master’s in physics from the University of Puerto Rico and then decided to pursue a Ph.D. at M.I.T. because I liked the thought of being my own boss. Having a Ph.D. provides a scientist with a certain amount of independence and freedom. With a Ph.D. you can decide the direction of your research. Now, as an associate professor in the Department of Materials, Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. I teach undergraduate classes while continuing my research in liquid crystals and supervising students who are undergoing research training.
The work I do is in an exciting and growing field. The use of liquid crystals is expanding in many directions including their use in Global Positioning System (GPS) maps. These GPS systems come equipped in many newer, high-end cars. Furthermore, the Air Force is developing liquid crystal visors for their pilots in order to make flying more efficient.
I’m aware that in middle school, it’s easy for girls to be discouraged from taking science classes by their advisors. Also, it’s common for girls to become more self-conscious, to feel strong peer and family pressure about their academic choices and their future. Female physicists and scientists have successful careers as well as successful relationships, families and other pursuits!