Illustration by Nina Rachmanony

Charlotte Muth 
10 April 2018
An interview with Sydney Schreppler.
On a crisp Tuesday afternoon, I set out to interview the impressive Sydney Schreppler — a postdoctoral researcher in Physics at UC Berkeley. In October, she received a $60,000 grant from For Women in Science, a program started by L’Oréal to benefit women in STEM. She was one of five in the United States to receive this honor.  

From a little research on Sydney, I found that we came from opposite ends of the country, studied vastly different things and are roughly a decade apart in age.  Further, the publication that I write for (the one you’re looking at right now!) focuses on fashion, arts and lifestyle – a far cry from the superconducting qubits that Sydney spends her time researching. This interview was destined to be an interesting crossing of paths.

I was immediately intrigued by the intersection of a company that revolves around female beauty and aesthetics, and an empirical academic field that has historically underrepresented women. From the L’Oréal For Women In Science press release, the company acknowledges “the legacy of innovation that would not have been possible without the women who make up the majority of our scientific workforce.”

After exchanging brief autobiographies with one another, I began my interview questions in earnest.

CM: How did you come across this grant?

SS: I knew about it because there are some women in Physics who are now professors who I very much respected and admired, who had gotten this when they were postdocs, and I remember being an undergrad and hearing about these really motivational grants. It’s wonderful that they really take the time to highlight women in science, not just by giving them money – because that would almost be the easy thing for them to do – but they actually do a lot of work on promotion of the science that women are doing, so they’ve made videos for us that highlight our work. They’ve helped us a lot on how to communicate what we’re doing to a broader audience.

CM: Could you tell me a little bit about your research?

SS: We are trying to understand Quantum Mechanics better. And Quantum Mechanics is the set of laws that very small (small!) particles obey. So, you and I obey Classical Mechanics; we fall off the roof, etc. But, electrons and even atoms have different laws that they follow, and we’re trying to understand that better. One way to do that is to look at atoms and electrons and try to measure them in your lab. Another way is to try to build a circuit that also obeys Quantum Mechanics. The way you do that is to make it very, very cold, where they superconduct. So, if we build a circuit that is Quantum Mechanical, then we can in principle build a computer or a microscope or a telephone that is Quantum Mechanical.

CM: This grant seems to be a true intersection of genres: L’Oréal is a company that is interested in beauty and aesthetics and presentation, yet it is also interested in supporting the empirical field of STEM. In a way, this intersection seems to revolve around gender and the way in which women can participate in both aspects . . .

SS: Well, a fascinating thing was that we got to visit the L’Oréal USA laboratory in New Jersey and see that they employ a lot of people with PhDs in science. fake id texas. They were founded by a chemist. When you think more carefully about it, you would prefer that people know what goes into your mascara, so that your eyelashes don’t fall off! Another really amazing thing for me going into their lab is that I am used to be surrounded by men: if you walk into the Physics department, it’s all men. That’s become the new norm for me. But, walking into the labs at L’Oréal – which are full of chemists and biochemists and material scientists – you might expect that the diversity makeup would mirror what you see in academia, but that wasn’t the case.

CM: That’s a beautiful thing.

SS: Yes! There were lots of women and they had this really cool lab, which was the multicultural research arm, which is for finding different makeup for people of color, and an important thing is to have the diversity that you’re trying to reach out to in your own lab.

CM: How have intersecting genres played a role in your life?

SS: There’s two things I can say about that. One is that I loved studying lots of different topics when I was an undergrad: I really loved poetry. So, I was worried I would be abandoning that by going to graduate school for Physics. But, it turns out that I really need a lot of those skills outside of the lab to actually take the next step in terms of a scientific career. In terms of communication, there’s a lot of speaking, a lot of reaching for metaphors, so we can share with both non-scientists and scientists. That comes from a holistic education and set of interests. So there’s a lot of overlap there.

Another point I would make is how gender has shaped my experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about representation lately and what was really important for the start of my career was having very strong role models who were women in science. I was lucky, because there aren’t that many women in science overall. My mom had an Engineering degree and was a computer programmer. Growing up, if you think, “What do women do?” you think “What does Mom do?” And so, now I’m thinking that not every woman is as lucky as I have been, so how do we get the message out that there are women in science?

CM: How do you find beauty in your research?

SS: That’s a great question. I think there’s something that ties together a lot of Physicists: looking for symmetry, looking for elegance in solutions and expecting to find it. We find it very satisfying when a solution is brief, elegant and intuitive. And we actually try to find laws that adhere to those norms. There’s quite a bit of aesthetic desire in Physics.

CM: And frustration when the questions are not answered?

SS: Exactly! But, both choosing problems that should adhere to some sort of design principle and also finding ways to communicate the answers that are elegant in their simplicity are important in our field. People remember and learn better when there is some pattern that they can follow. The great thing about Physics is that we can find rules that apply to planets and that apply to atoms; and they’re the same rules that apply at totally different size scales. And that’s very exciting in how little information you need to describe how much of the Universe.

. . .

As we parted ways, we exchanged contact information. She wrote down her email, in case I would have difficulty with her “special, German last name.” I told her that I also have a tricky German surname, but my debacle is the pronunciation – spelled “Muth,” but pronounced like “youth” with an “m” before it. I told her that it may not be the proper, German pronunciation but that’s the way my family always said it. I told her my last name allegedly means “courage.” She joked that she could never find any dictionary meaning for her last name, but figured it must mean “one who Schrepples.” We laughed and left.