‘Crying in the Bathtub’ to Physics Professorship

Franklin, Physical Sciences 2 prof, honored for inspiring women scientists

Joseph T. Mcgrath

‘Let’s spark a revolution,” Melissa E. B. Franklin—the first woman to be tenured in Physics at Harvard—said last night while accepting the Spark Award for Women In Science at Harvard-Radcliffe.

Harvard’s first tenured woman physics professor, Melissa E.B. Franklin, startled her audience last night when relating some career experiences that became physical in ways she had not quite expected.

“Used to be a professor would push you against a car and stick his tongue in your mouth,” she said.

Franklin, who now teaches Physical Sciences 2 and is one of the few women to lead an introductory science course at Harvard, came to Kirkland House to accept the Spark Award. The award was created this year by student group Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe (WISHR) to recognize women who have inspired the next generation of women in science.

The professor, who helped discover the “top quark”—the last quark to be uncovered—was modest about her accomplishments.

“I’d love to be able to say I invented the doo-hickey to do...whatever,” said Franklin, the Mallinckrodt professor of physics.

Franklin, who received a doctorate from Stanford but never went to high school, recounted unpleasant memories of her student career.

“Graduate school was an incredibly painful experience,” Franklin said. “Often graduate students, especially women, end up crying in bathtubs because they haven’t started their problem sets.”

Franklin said women in science today are probably no longer experiencing many of the challenges she had faced.

“The fact that you can sit here and look at me like I’m insane is fantastic,” Franklin said.

But she said society is still pervaded by the notion that women are naturally unsuited to science.

“What hasn’t changed is the fact that many men think that women aren’t the smartest,” Franklin said. “It’s just a belief they hold without having thought about it much.”

Franklin cited the example of former University President Lawrence H. Summers, who drew criticism for his Jan. 2005 remarks on the underrepresentation of women on elite science faculties.

“Larry Summers was a really smart guy, and even he fell back into it,” Franklin said.

But Franklin sees the future in an optimistic light. Believing at first that the flame-shaped award was meant to resemble a tear, Franklin was inspired when she discovered that it was intended to be a spark.

“Now that I know it’s a spark, let’s spark a revolution!” Franklin said.

Victoria E. Clark ’08, head of WISHR, said that Franklin was chosen by the group’s members out of 10 nominees.

“It’s difficult for Harvard students to look for models at the professional level,” Clark said.

Helen Tsim ’10 said she found Franklin’s speech shocking but revealing.

“I thought she was brutally honest,” said Tsim, “but in that eye-opening way. She wasn’t politically correct.”