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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.

"This was a place where the slogan was, "high school is the best years of your life," she says. "And I went through those four years thinking, 'I hope not'. People used to say, 'look at her, she talks like Shakespeare.'"

Escaping the confines of Cleveland suburbia, Prentiss went on to Wellesley, where she triple majored in physics, mathematics and philosophy, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1980 after three years.

"I picked physics because I thought it was the most intellectually macho subject," she says.

At Wellesley, Prentiss says she cultivated a taste for existentialist philosophy and for Wittgenstein. In the meantime, she started working in the labs at MIT as an undergraduate through an exchange program at Wellesley. She continued at MIT for graduate school. There, she carried out the first project to observe channeling in optical standing waves--channeling the path of atoms along the nodes of laser standing waves. Prentiss received her Ph.D. from MIT in 1986.

After receiving her Ph.D, Prentiss was hired to work at AT&T Bell Laboratories by Steve Chu, who won the Nobel Prize this year. At Bell Laboratories, she directed the first demonstration of how shining laser light from all directions can confine atoms to the center of a magnetic field, the first Magneto Optical Trap.

"I actually worked on some of the experiments for which he [Steve Chu] later won the Nobel Prize," she said. "Then, when he left, I became the leader of the atomic physics lab."

Prentiss arrived at Harvard in 1991. In 1995, she became the second woman in the physics department to ever receive tenure. Professor of Physics Melissa Franklin was the first female tenured by the department.

Prentiss says that females in the science should not be stereotyped.

"I can name some women in science, but it's not clear what they have in common," she says.

Prentiss says it is difficult to be a member of an underrepresented group in science,

"You get invited to speak at one event or another, and get asked to join lots of committees because they want a woman scientist," she says. "However, people do tend to interact differently based on knowledge and experience."

Prentiss has similarly neutral things to say about her sexual orientation.

"Am I out? Does everyone in my lab know? Yes. Do I discuss it with my chairman? No," she says. "I know very few gay women in science...recently, I met one young gay woman at a conference recently, and that was incredible. Her university doesn't have domestic partner benefits, so she actually made the university raise her salary so that her partner could be covered. I thought that was a really gutsy move."

As a teacher, Prentiss has won numerous prizes. She says that undergraduates are very important to her, and that she especially makes the effort to guide undergraduate research.

"I try to teach someone that to be a researcher is like practicing a craft, how to figure out what to do's not just in physics that this is practicable, also includes electronic debugging, for instance. The key is where to look," she says.

Prentiss currently has eight undergraduate students conducting research under her supervision, the largest number for a professor in the entire physics department.

"I try to arrange it so that hopefully each will have one publishable paper by the end of a semester or summer," she says.

Of the students who work for her now, she receives nothing but praise.

Noah C. Helman '98 says that Prentiss encourages her students to take an active role in teaching themselves.

"In a large university where many professors are difficult to reach, I find her outwardly encouraging me to pick her brain about any topic that interests me," he says. "Working for Professor Prentiss has convinced me that I want to be an atomic physicist... I could not speak more highly of a person for her ability as a scientist, as a teacher and as a leader."

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