New Beginnings

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help/advice from fellow grad students, postdocs, and professors.  Everyone has been through the ups and downs of research and it’s important to remember that you’re not the only one dealing with it. ”
– AnneMarie Exarhos

After completing her PhD in Physics at Penn under Professor Jay Kikkawa, Annemarie Exarhos worked as a post-doctoral student in Electrical and Systems Engineering under Professor Lee Bassett of Penn Engineering. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics at her alma mater, Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin).  We spoke with Annemarie as she was about to embark on her new position.

Can you tell us a little about your background?
I’m originally from Washington state, from a town called Richland in the southeastern corner of the state. It’s a great town for scientists as there’s a national lab there (the town was part of the Manhattan Project and is where all the plutonium for the nuclear bomb used in WWII – also one of the LIGO sites is located there) and that enabled me to get involved in research right out of high school. After high school and over the summers during my first two years of college, I worked in a chemistry group at the national lab and really grew to love research.  I did my undergrad at Lawrence University, in Appleton, WI, where I majored in Physics and minored in Math.  Grad school was here at Penn, in Dr. Jay Kikkawa’s lab, from which I got my Ph.D. in Physics. Since my Ph.D., I’ve been a postdoc with Dr. Lee Bassett in the Quantum Engineering Laboratory across the street in the ESE department.

Congratulations on your teaching position.  What will be your new role and new title?
My new role is as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics at Lawrence University (my old undergrad!). I’ll be teaching Quantum Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism next year, as well as instructing a number of introductory lab sections.

How did you come to decide on academia over industry?
I really love the way research in academic settings works, combining students at all different levels (undergrads, grad students) with postdocs and the PI in order to delve into really interesting problems.  I feel very strongly that mentoring and hands-on experience are important for undergraduates as they decide whether or not science is something they’d like to pursue.  This is one reason why going to a small, undergrad-only institution appeals to me. It’ll give me the chance to be very involved in undergraduate education, both in the classroom as well as in my laboratory.

How does it feel to start this new chapter of your life?
I’m really excited, and I’m terrified.  I’ll miss Philadelphia and Penn a lot, but I’m really looking forward to moving on toward the next stage of my life. I’m part of a dual-career couple (my husband is currently a post-doc in the Materials Science Engineering department at Drexel) and both of us will be taking on the role of Visiting Assistant Professors of Physics this fall at Lawrence.  It’s been tough figuring out how to move forward together (and in the same place) without either of us sacrificing what we love to do, so this step really feels like a great opportunity for us to move forward together as a family and individually as scientists and educators.

Moving to the Midwest also puts me a bit closer to family (mine is in WA, my husband’s family is in MN) and I’m really looking forward to seeing family members a bit more frequently.

What impact did Penn play into your development?
I’ve been at Penn for nearly 10 years at this point (during both graduate school and postdoc) and the opportunities I’ve been afforded here have made me into the scientist I am today. When I finished up my undergrad, I was really excited about working in physics, but not really clear on how that translated to applying my skills as a researcher.  The guidance and training I received while in grad school in Dr. Jay Kikkawa’s group really taught me how to approach scientific problems from the ground up, from designing an experiment, building and automating a setup, programming the data collection, performing the analysis/modeling, and writing everything up.

One of the main reasons I chose Penn for grad school (aside from seeing Dr. Kikkawa’s laser lab and falling in love with the idea of playing with optics all day) was the way in which the university embraces interdisciplinary research.  I really feel that within modern science, particularly nanoscience, the lines are being blurred with regard to traditionally separate disciplines (chemistry, physics, biology, engineering).

Often, we need to draw from a number of different scientific fields to discover new and exciting things.  My postdoc in the Quantum Engineering Laboratory is an excellent example of how many apparently disparate fields can come together to accomplish really exciting research.  The different research projects in our lab cross over into physics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and biology and it’s really exciting to see how different backgrounds combine.  Penn really encourages this idea and I think it’s fantastic for the future of research at the university.  The interdisciplinary nature of science is something I hope to impress to undergrads as I move on to Lawrence University this fall.

What Skills did you gain at Singh?
The Singh Center has proven to be a wonderful example of the importance of interdisciplinary work in modern scientific research, particularly with regards to nanoscience. I was around when the building was initially constructed and learned a LOT about what goes into putting together laboratory spaces and building up a laboratory in a new space.

Dr. Kikkawa runs the Property Measurement Facility and I spent a significant amount of time in graduate school helping move the cryogenic and optical equipment from the lab in David Rittenhouse Laboratory over to the Singh building and getting everything operational.  I also got the chance to collaborate with many different people doing optical and electrical measurements on the equipment in the PMF.  During my postdoc, I got access to the clean room as well as training on the SEM and AFM.  I really feel like the Singh Center gave me the chance to round out my skills and has provided me with access (both personally and through the expertise of the highly trained staff) to additional avenues for my research that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

What was the most valuable skill you’ve learned while in Philadelphia?
This is a bit cheesy, but the most valuable skill I’ve learned is how to live in a city.  I’m from a relatively small town where doors are frequently left unlocked and I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Philly. I was completely overwhelmed at first by all the people, noise, and hustle-and-bustle. Now though, I love it and love being part of it.  I did have a somewhat steep learning curve though. After someone swiped my wallet on the subway, I learned that I should always have a bag that zips shut (common sense, but not something that ever occurred to me beforehand).  I’ve also gotten really good and knowing just how much and how far I can carry groceries on foot.  And I’m quite good at scoping out free furniture on the street.

Did you accomplish all of your goals while at Penn?
Yes and no.

In a broad sense, yes, because I learned the skills I needed and wanted to become a good, well-rounded scientist. As a researcher, I couldn’t have asked for better opportunities or mentors.

However, since I’ve been so focused on research these past 10 years, I’ve really not gotten that much classroom teaching experience.  I taught undergraduate lab sections during my first year of grad school and have worked with countless undergraduates and grad students in a one-on-one mentoring capacity over the years, both of which have been fantastic experiences that I hope to continue in my new position.  However, the actual experience of teaching in a classroom is something I don’t know much about at all and I think that I do need to move on from Penn in order to get that (if I stay here, I’m just going to want to bury myself in the lab all day; it’s difficult for me to step away from the fantastic research opportunities Penn offers).

I do think that my goals are constantly evolving as I get new experiences and opportunities though, and I think that I have gotten out of Penn just about all that I’ve hoped (and a lot of things that I hadn’t even considered!).

What advice do you have for students rising through the ranks?
Stick with it. A big part of getting through grad school is being stubborn.  No matter what you’re doing, there will be times when it feels hopeless and like nothing is going right, but there are also times when things are incredibly exciting and you don’t ever want to stop working. I think it’s important to remember that there is ALWAYS more to do and new avenues to explore. If you feel discouraged, remember what made you excited about your area of research in the first place.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help/advice from fellow grad students, postdocs, and professors.  Everyone has been through the ups and downs of research and it’s important to remember that you’re not the only one dealing with it.  Take every opportunity you can to meet people, ask questions, and give talks/posters.  It gets a lot easier the more you do it and one of the most important aspects of science is asking questions.

Don’t ever be afraid to ask about something you don’t understand.  Chances are that there are other people in the room who don’t get it either.

Any wisdom to young women in the program?
Be yourself.  Don’t try to change who you are as a person to fit a mold that you think others expect. You’ll just make yourself miserable.

For me, that’s embracing the fact that I’m a kind of awkward, quirky person who likes bright colors and high heels, even if they’re not the most practical things in an experimental laboratory. I’ve destroyed a lot of nice clothes by getting pump oil on them or metal shards from the machine shop. (That’s why thrift stores are great.)

It’s also helpful to have a role model, someone else in your lab, a professor or a famous scientist, to look up to. There was a commercial released by GE about Mildred Dresselhaus earlier this year that I think is pretty great for motivating female scientists.

Finally, find other women to talk to.  During my postdoc, I met several other women in various engineering departments and we started going to happy hour a couple of times a month. We didn’t always talk about work, but it’s really nice to have other female colleagues going through the same phase of their careers as I am. Also, as part of a dual career couple, I would advise young women that they shouldn’t feel as though they need to give anything up regarding their career. It’s not easy to make it work, but it can be done. Universities are becoming increasingly accepting and supportive of that idea.

What about your time away from the classroom and studies. Were you able to have a solid balance and enjoy life?
Yes, but it’s been something that I’ve really had to work at and learn to do. I think a work/life balance is very important to be a well-rounded person (and scientist), but it can be very difficult to pull yourself away from research because there is always more to do and it never really leaves your mind, even when you’re not in the lab.

I’ve played on a number of city soccer leagues, often with other grad students, as well as a beer-league hockey team. I love being active, so those activities were really enjoyable for me and were a change of pace from my research. I also love going for walks around Philly; there’s always something new I discover.

It is difficult to balance home and work life with my husband since we’re both involved in research and there have been many times where one of us ends up staying in lab at odd hours due to an experiment running. Yet, we make an effort to meet at home for lunch and dinner which has really helped ground us and helps us to balance research and family life.