Lois Keller Sarno-Smith

Physics, dead language and other useful classes

My first exposure to physics was in high school. Although it was the first class that I was interested in, for me, it was so easy that I concluded no one would ever pay me to do physics as a job. I thought that it was like philosophy, Latin or pure math - cool theoretically, but no practical applicability. I enrolled in college as a pre-med student majoring in chemistry (which I hated). After my first semester, I decided to ‘doom’ myself to a major where I could not get a job - Physics. I also double majored in Latin, thinking that two “useless” majors are better than one. All of Newton’s work is in Latin, you know? After a year or two though, I realized that you can actually have a good job with physics… I’m very lucky!

“This is why people do homework!”

Initially I went to a small school in South Carolina, and I transferred my junior year and finished at CU Boulder. I moved because during my sophomore year I was lucky enough to get into NSF funded undergraduate research program at the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Colorado.

My research project focused on solar physics, and it was like I found my purpose in life! This is why people do homework! Research is what people live for! Seeing new results of this cutting edge science first on my screen -- it was like a drug for me. I was like a happy little kid that entire summer because I just loved the research I was doing. My subsequent summers in undergrad I explored other research topics: renewable energy research, synthesizing gold nanorods, atmospheric science, and examining cataclysmic variables and binary star systems. For graduate school, I came back to space physics. For me, it is the right hybrid of electromagnetism, data analysis, thermodynamics and enough funding that it’s competitive but collaborative.

I never questioned going to graduate school. When I was at Boulder all of my friends were grad students and I always felt like I was one too. Choosing a graduate school though… that was tough. I loved Boulder but I was told that I should go somewhere else. Michigan has a solid program, so I ultimately chose Michigan. The environment at Michigan is intellectual and motivated - everyone excels in his or her own way. When I was put in that environment I had to push myself even harder to feel like I was doing the best job I could.

Tricky ions

I study low energy ions about 2 Earth radii away in the equatorial plane. Here, “boring” cold plasma co-rotates with the Earth. Before my research, it was expected that the population of ions here would be continuous (uniform). Excitingly, we have found that this is not true and there is enormous variability. For example, we do not see those ions after local midnight - they are just gone, and they appear again in the morning sector. These ions are important too – they affect wave activity and how the electrons are moving. In Earth’s magnetosphere, everything is connected. I use instrument that called the Helium Oxygen Proton Electron (HOPE), which is an ion spectrometer onboard the Van Allen Probes satellites. They are a pair of satellites that are orbiting the Earth, precessing every 20-months going from 2 to 7 Earth radii away.

How many girls were in your physics classes?

You probably know the answer to that question...I had very few. There were very few in my first college. When I transferred to Boulder in my quantum mechanics class there were only 3 girls out of 50 students. All 3 of us sat in the first row right next to each other. I only had one female physics professor too during my coursework.

I wanted and needed to have a female role model. My goal in grad school was to find a female adviser. It broke my heart that I could not find one to work with, but my current advisor has been very supportive, which is better than having a female advisor who is unsupportive. During my undergraduate degree, I had a very strong female Latin professor who championed my cause. She was amazing! From day one she supported me, telling me that I can do anything -- that I was a brilliant and  hardworking person. She was not a physicist, but she made me believe that I could make it in physics. This kind of support and encouragement is the reason I have a PhD in Space Science; without people like Dr. Leen, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

The odds are in your favor

When you are looking for a job (as a female in physics), you will automatically stand out. They will think about you first and will likely hire that girl that they remember rather than a guy who looks like 100 other guys in the field. It is a huge advantage. I always think important people won’t remember me, but they do. Is it because I am tall, I am loud or I am a girl? Or a combination of all three? It is a double edge sword, though – you need to be prepared to have everyone watching you and learn how to play the advantages.

I am not going to lie...it is an advantage on the dating side, too. I took a programming class with 200 people in the lecture hall, with 6 female in the class, and 3 of them were lesbians. You do the math. The odds are in your favor when 194 men surround you. Those guys tried everything to get a date with me, going as far as faking being bad at programming so I could tutor them (laughs)!

The sexiest ever

The other day I was on the bus from Denver to Albuquerque and one guy starts talking to me. He asked what I was doing, and I said that I am a grad student, and I study space physics, specifically plasmas. His jaw just dropped and he says: “That is the sexiest thing I have ever heard in my life! “(laughs). Surprisingly, responses like this are very common; many guys (on first meeting) have told me that I’m their dream girl – a funny, outdoorsy, space physicist. Who would have ever thought Barbie should have been wearing hiking boots and with an Electromagnetism textbook in hand? J

Outreach active

I went to all female high school. I go back every year and I talk to girls about going into physics. I try to be very optimistic and tell them the best parts only. The reality is that you will need to push very hard because you will not see a lot of people you could identify yourself with and the work is hard.  People always notice you, because you are wearing a dress or you wear heels. If you say something stupid at a conference, people will remember, and in some ways it is just because you are a girl. My advice: push forward and don’t let the self-doubts cloud your dreams… if you want something, make it work.  

I do a lot of outreach work. I used to run a robotics classes for girls and I use every chance I have to be a mentor. Last year at the conference I ran a fellowship program where I met a lot of young women who are thinking about going to graduate school. I am constantly emailing one or another answering their general questions about grad school and offering advice. They are young, motivated, and brilliant (more than me!) and they want to be in this field. All I want is to give them hope, just to tell them: you can do this, I am 4 years ahead of you, I did it, so you can do it too.  You would think you are terrible your first year, you are going to cry and think that life is so hard, but, I swear, there is happiness to be found on that path, just stick with it!

Soap and bows

You have to find a balance between your passion for your work but never forgetting to have fun. If you just work the whole time you are going to be miserable and you will not be as productive. You have to cherish your hobbies and make time for them. I make soap as a hobby and backpack, going as far as Patagonia. The girlier you are in science the more criticism you get for it, but I refuse to follow that trend. I always wear bows, especially to the conferences. It makes me happy and people remember me as ‘that girl with a bow’. I have more than 50 bows, all different colors and patterns! Some people even call me Dr. Bow now ;)


Victoriya Forsythe