Physics Professor Sets the Tone In Male-Dominated Profession

* Mara Prentiss makes strides in expanding the field of atom lithography

As the daughter of a blue-collar family in Cleve-land, Professor of Physics Mara Prentiss has come a long way.

As a lesbian and professor in a profession traditionally dominated by males, Prentiss says she takes it all in stride.

"I don't know what it's like to be a straight white male," she says, "I just have my own idiosyncracies."

As one of two female tenured Faculty members in the Department of Physics, Prentiss has made many significant discoveries in physics. In particular, she is known for creating and expanding the field of atom lithography--where light is used to focus matter instead of having lenses focus light, according to Joseph H. Thywissen, a fourth-year graduate student who works for Prentiss.

The many benefits of applying atom lithography include the creation of high-precision length-standards, or micro-rulers, Thywissen says. Atom lithography also shows a way in which the circuitry that stores information in silicon chips can be etched with much finer detail than is possible under current methods of circuit definition.


At her laboratory at Harvard, in conjunction with the Whitesides group of the Department of Chemistry, Prentiss has continued to conduct experiments using atom lithography.

She is now involved in atom lithography through standing wave quenching, working with metastable argon. This process involves selectively removing the internal energy of the atoms necessary to pattern the resist layer on top of the silicon prior to etching. It requires much less laser power and allows more flexibility than former experiments.

However, standing wave experiments are not the only experiments that are being conducted in Prentiss' laboratory. Also in conjuction with the White-sides group, her laboratory conducts experiments with optical tweezers--using light to trap biological, cell-sized particles to look at, for instance, the interactions between viruses and cells, according to Thywissen.

Other experiments include research into wave-guides--a way to guide light and use it for sensor applications. In collaboration with the Westervelt group, also of the Department of Physics, Prentiss' laboratory is creating magnetic mirrors for atoms out of microfabricated wires. These mirrors can be used in atom interferometers, which can act as very sensitive gyroscopes.

Her roomy office in Lyman, complete with a picture of her partner, Alyson, is worlds away from her childhood in the blue-collar suburbs of Cleveland. It is an era of her life for which she seems to have mixed feelings.

"It's a place were most people worked with cars," she says. "Ford Motor Plant No. 3 was there...these were the days before total quality management."

During her childhood Prentiss says she enjoyed picking up the finer points of carpentry from her carpenter father. She has since gone onto contructing bookcases, chairs, bureaus and rooms of houses. Her last project was a coat rack she donated to a Unitarian church.

"To be a physicist is like being a craftsman," she says. "It's a hard question, how I became a physicist. My answer depends on how I feel that day."

Prentiss says that social acceptance was not an issue as she became increasingly immersed in science in high school.

"I was such an alien where I was growing up, so it didn't make a difference," she says, noting the possibility that it was not socially acceptable for young woman to study physics in high school.