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Visiting physicist finds MIT 'a joy'

Thanks to a National Science Foundation program for women scientists, Dr. Marie Machacek is getting the chance to do research she never would have been able to do otherwise.

Dr. Machacek, an associate professor of physics at Northeastern University, is here at MIT until the end of next summer under the NSF's Visiting Professorships for Women (VPW) program. She is one of 23 professors in 17 states and 20 scientific fields who were awarded a total of $3 million this year. The program gives experienced female scientists and engineers the opportunity to conduct research at academic institutions of their choice, where they have access to the top scientists in their fields and the most advanced research facilities in the country.

Dr. Machacek is working in Professor Edmund Bertschinger's group, studying the astrophysics of the early universe and of structure formation. She is currently engaged in an analytical study of the cosmic background radiation anisotropy in nonflat spaces-variations in temperature in different parts of the sky as viewed from Earth, which are a clue to the origins of small ripples in the density of matter that act as seeds for structure formation. Much of her work this year at the Institute will involve use of the new Cray T3D supercomputer in Pittsburgh to study the physics of galaxy formation. "I wouldn't have a hope of gaining access to a machine of that type" without being part of the group at MIT, she said.

Her route to her work at the Institute was somewhat roundabout. She originally hoped to attend MIT as an undergraduate; although she was accepted, she felt the expense (about $4,000 a year at the time) was too big a burden for her family, so she went to Coe College in Iowa on a scholarship instead. "It's very satisfying almost 30 years later to find myself here," she said.

Dr. Machacek's later training was not as an astrophysicist but as a high-energy theorist. She worked extensively with nonabelian gauge theories (which describe the fundamental forces that govern strong interactions between elementary particles such as quarks) and tests of their unification at ultra-high energies-"and ultra-high energies draw one naturally to the origin of the universe," she explained.

The VPW program aims to break down barriers for women in the traditionally male worlds of science and engineering, a world where "a hostile climate can really limit you," Dr. Machacek said. In the US physics community, "unfortunately that (atmosphere) still exists in places, though it's not as blatant as it was when I entered the field."

According to NSF figures for 1992, women constituted 45 percent of all workers in the US but only 18 percent of the science and engineering work force. Underrepresentation varies by field; for example, according to the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators, women comprised 30 percent of all chemists but only 11 percent of all geologists and nine percent of working engineers that year.

The attitudes of some male scientists "can intimidate or put off a woman student, though I don't think they realize they're doing it," Dr. Machacek said. In addition to giving her a professional opportunity and the opportunity to be a role model for women interested in physics, the VPW program "can also show the men students that we're here, too," she added.

As for MIT, she has nothing but praise. "This has been an absolute joy," she said. "The climate for research is marvelous-the cooperation, the access to facilities and help, the collegiality have all been great."

This term, Dr. Machacek is concentrating on research, but she will teach in the spring and hopes to have a UROP student as well. Freed from administrative responsibilities by her VPW grant, "the chance to be able to devote full time to these problems is like play," she said. Back at Northeastern next fall, she hopes to be able to continue what she began here. "I hope the research collaborations I've begun won't end this year," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 10).

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