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An Unconventional Physicist

Melissa Franklin, the only tenured female professor in her department, brings high energy to physics

By Zoe Argento

After creaking in on crutches to her office in the High Energy Physics Lab, the only female tenured Harvard professor in the physics department plops herself at her desk in front of pictures of Wonder Woman, modern art and all the undergraduate women in physics sporting warpaint on their faces.

In preparation for a photo, she stands on one foot, waves her other leg in the air and exclaims, "I'm just going to go with the flow here."

Indeed, Franklin has been going with her own flow all her life.

A popular professor known for her free-spirit and energy, Franklin says she was largely independent as a kid in the '70s. "I did pretty much what I wanted to do," she says. "That was the time when all possible things could happen."

Unlike her older sister and brother, Franklin never attended a regular high school because she says she thought the long classes were stultifying and not conductive to learning.

"I didn't understand how I could learn everything in 40 minute intervals, instead of studying something as long as I wanted, for maybe two hours," Franklin said.

Rather than join the public school system at age 13, Franklin largely taught herself for two years by reading books with friends off the streets in her hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

"I can remember exactly how I met them. They were really interesting," Franklin recalls. "They were reading something by [James] Joyce."

This alternative "school," made up of about 100 teens, was eventually accredited by the city school board. Franklin says she was able to learn high school math in a few months in this alternative learning environment and still keeps in touch with her "classmates" from those years.

Franklin, whose parents both worked in the media industry, says she first became interested in physics when she picked up a physics book at a friend's house. "It was something by Heisenberg, I think, about different atomic models," she recalls.

The book prompted her decision to attend college to study physics, though she didn't find success initially. Franklin's physics grade after her first year at the University of Toronto was a C. But intelligence didn't seem to be the problem. Franklin just wasn't used to studying.

"I had the idea down that I was supposed to go to lecture, but I didn't understand you were supposed to study by yourself or take notes," she says.

Franklin says she was fortunate enough to find a physics professor who was on the same wavelength as her and shared her embrace of the unconventional. She spent hours in his office solving physics problems. He later went on to become a Sufi dancer, while she went on to become a particle physicist.

Franklin says she first got interested in particle physics as an undergraduate during the summer working at the Forelimb in Chicago, site of one of the largest particle colluders in the country. She has helped put together detectors and measure the results of collisions ever since.

Franklin came to Harvard as a junior fellow in 1987 and was tenured in 1992.

Her last project, which lasted 13 years, led to the recent discovery of the top quark, the last of 12 fundamental building blocks of matter yet to be discovered.

Quarks, which make up neutrons and protons, can be studied by colliding particles together at high energy and analyzing the resultant matter.

Franklin and a group of about a hundred other physicists working at Harvard and the Fermilab worked to prove the existence of the last undiscovered quark, the "top" quark, by collecting two years' worth of data from collisions between protons and antiprotons.

One of her contributions to the quark project was to build 70 tons worth of detector to measure the behavior of particles resulting from quark disintegrations.

Franklin, who calls herself a completely "experimental physicist, says she enjoys building things and "making them work."

But she has also has a reputation for being an engaging teacher. "She's very humorous in class and tries to make us feel comfortable," says Forrest N. Anderson '98. For example, to demonstrate Newton's third law, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Franklin rode a cart fitted with a fire extinguisher to propel herself across the room.

In terms of innovative teaching techniques, Franklin is best known for the "zap labs" that she created for students of Physics 15b and 15c. Students are given large red tool-boxes filled with wires, batteries, clippers and soldering irons and are asked to construct various electronic circuits and devices. The labs are meant to teach students basic electronics through a series of hands-on experiments.

Franklin says she devised the labs in part because women "don't usually get any tinkering growing up." But she says she's discovered that most men at Harvard haven't grown up tinkering either.

Franklin maintains that physics is still a field that is difficult for women to enter.

"Some of the texts of physics are so flaming in gender bias it's as if the author was writing for an exclusively male audience," Franklin says. She cites problems in which a physicist must save a beautiful woman drowning in a river. The book with that particular problem in it was written in 1965, but Franklin says she believes the male bias continues.

"People teach physics the way they learned it, and it's passed down father to son," she says.

Nevertheless, Franklin admits that she didn't feel much discrimination as a physics graduate student at Stanford or as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

"I was the only woman in the class, but there were a lot of men who saw that women in physics were under-represented and were incredibly supportive," she says.

Nor did Franklin recall being very concerned about feminism in the '70s. "The male bias was so extreme there was no point spending time on it," she says.

On second thought, however, she says she recalls spraying huge "feminist anarchist" signs in red paint over the corridors and basements in Fermilab as an undergraduate.

So in some respects, Franklin has left her mark on high-energy physics in many ways. "Those signs are probably still up in the basements of Fermilab," she jokes.

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