“The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on. My freshman year at Yale, I earned a 32 on my first physics midterm. My parents urged me to switch majors. All they wanted was that I be able to earn a living until I married a man who could support me, and physics seemed unlikely to accomplish either goal. I trudged up Science Hill to ask my professor, Michael Zeller, to sign my withdrawal slip. I took the elevator to Professor Zeller’s floor, then navigated corridors lined with photos of the all-male faculty and notices for lectures whose titles struck me as incomprehensible. I knocked at my professor’s door and managed to stammer that I had gotten a 32 on the midterm and needed him to sign my drop slip. “Why?” he asked. He received D’s in two of his physics courses. Not on the midterms — in the courses. The story sounded like something a nice professor would invent to make his least talented student feel less dumb. In his case, the D’s clearly were aberrations. In my case, the 32 signified that I wasn’t any good at physics. “Just swim in your own lane,” he said. Seeing my confusion, he told me that he had been on the swimming team at Stanford. His stroke was as good as anyone’s. But he kept coming in second. “Zeller,” the coach said, “your problem is you keep looking around to see how the other guys are doing. Keep your eyes on your own lane, swim your fastest and you’ll win.” I gathered this meant he wouldn’t be signing my drop slip. “You can do it,” he said. “Stick it out.” I stayed in the course. Week after week, I struggled to do my problem sets, until they no longer seemed impenetrable. The deeper I now tunnel into my four-inch-thick freshman physics textbook, the more equations I find festooned with comet-like exclamation points and theorems whose beauty I noted with exploding novas of hot-pink asterisks. The markings in the book return me to a time when, sitting in my cramped dorm room, I suddenly grasped some principle that governs the way objects interact, whether here on earth or light years distant, and I marveled that such vastness and complexity could be reducible to the equation I had highlighted in my book. Could anything have been more thrilling than comprehending an entirely new way of seeing, a reality more real than the real itself? I earned a B in the course; the next semester I got an A. By the start of my senior year, I was at the top of my class, with the most experience conducting research. But not a single professor asked me if I was going on to graduate school. When I mentioned shyly to Professor Zeller that my dream was to apply to Princeton and become a theoretician, he shook his head and said that if you went to Princeton, you had better put your ego in your back pocket, because those guys were so brilliant and competitive that you would get that ego crushed, which made me feel as if I weren’t brilliant or competitive enough to apply. Not even the math professor who supervised my senior thesis urged me to go on for a Ph.D. I had spent nine months missing parties, skipping dinners and losing sleep, trying to figure out why waves — of sound, of light, of anything — travel in a spherical shell, like the skin of a balloon, in any odd-dimensional space, but like a solid bowling ball in any space of even dimension. When at last I found the answer, I knocked triumphantly at my adviser’s door. Yet I don’t remember him praising me in any way. I was dying to ask if my ability to solve the problem meant that I was good enough to make it as a theoretical physicist. But I knew that if I needed to ask, I wasn’t.”

— Eileen Pollack (via logicandgrace)