Michigan Engineering News

portrait of Kivelson and her daughter

Lessons from a female pioneer

The privilege of hearing first-hand the journey of a true Michigan “Hidden Figure” – a female pioneer in physics and space sciences.

Heidi Sherick is a Faculty Development and Leadership Specialist and a member of the College of Engineering’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Implementation Committee.

Portrait of Heidi Sherick.
Portrait of Heidi Sherick.

Last week, I attended a talk about magnetic structures in the solar system. Admittedly, this subject is a little out of my wheelhouse, as my work focuses on relationships, the promotion of women and minorities in science and engineering and higher education. However, this particular talk was being delivered by a pioneering female physicist, who was then going to be interviewed by her daughter, a history professor on campus. So, it would end up being right up my alley.

I’ll admit I was not previously familiar with the name Margaret Kivelson. Her talk was interesting enough to keep my attention – although I know it resonated much more clearly for the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department graduate students surrounding me in the Nelson W. Spencer Lecture. The talk itself was like any other science discipline based talk, with some added zest (for me) because I was listening to a woman who earned her PhD in physics in the 1950’s. My mind kept trailing off wondering about that part of her journey. What was it like being a female scientist back then?

Portrait of Kivelson and her daughter
Directly following the lecture, Kivelson and her daughter, LSA History Professor Valerie Kivelson, discussed personal stories of Prof Margaret Kivelson’s career as a female working in space sciences. Photo: Somya Bhagwagar

When the mother-daughter interview began, I got my answers. Professor Valerie Kivelson, who specializes in Russian history, started by painting the picture of growing up with a “high-powered space physicist mother” who would always dress nicely and come home from work to prepare fancy meals. They would often host people in their home, including international guests, where Valerie believes her interest in Russian history was sparked.

As Margaret describes her education at Radcliffe College, she says it was known as “the society for the collegiate instruction of women”.  It was across the street from Harvard, and the professors who would teach the courses to 200 or 400 men at Harvard would walk across to instruct the dozen or so women separately. This scenario would change for her during her sophomore year, though, as it was Margaret’s cohort that integrated academically at Harvard. The emphasis on academically is important, because full integration didn’t happen for the female students – they still had different rules and different dormitories. As Margaret described it, this made it very difficult as compared to her boyfriend. The men struggling with a problem would have “study groups,” and gather together to solve it. The women, however, were isolated, according to Margaret.

She also conveyed the struggle to become a teaching assistant, when she was informed that the one spot reserved for a woman had been filled by a more senior student. She pushed, and was allowed to be a grader in a quantum mechanics class. But, it was made clear she could not stand up in front of the class. As a result, she had no teaching experience prior to her first course as a faculty member.

Kivelson is speaker in Chesbrough auditorium
IMAGE: Margaret Kivelson, CLASP Research Professor, speaks at the 2017 Nelson W Spencer Lecture in the Chesebrough Auditorium in the Chrysler Center. Photo: Somya Bhagwagar

When Valerie asked her mom if she felt the disadvantage of being a woman in those days, Margaret replied that she just thought that was how the world was structured – she didn’t know any differently. Truth be told, she felt lucky just to be getting what she was getting. She was at Harvard, after all, and she didn’t want to complain. But then, Margaret admitted she is a little embarrassed today to feel that way.

When asked if she believes she has had a positive effect on women students, Margaret paused and looked out into the audience.  A female graduate student adamantly nodded and gave her the thumbs up sign. “I hope so…I’d like to think so…”  She mentioned that the University of Michigan has given her many opportunities to do such things, but she knows there is always more to do. She believes in putting your energy on the big battles, and not focusing on the small stuff.

I was honored to be in the presence of both a science pioneer and a historian who had the opportunity to capture stories from her own mom. One of the reasons I love working at a university and living in a college town is the exposure and opportunities to culture, arts and lectures. Just this year alone I have had the pleasure of hearing Margot Lee Shetterly (author of Hidden Figures), Sonia Sotomayor, and Colin Powell speak. I believe in the power of listening, being present, and learning from others, and am fortunate to be able to do just that here at Michigan.

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