Oral-History:Eva Andrei

About Eva Andrei

Eva Andrei is an experimental condensed matter physicist recognized for her work on low dimensional electron systems, including two-dimensional electrons on helium, magnetically induced Wigner crystal in semiconductor heterojunctions and vortices in superconductors. She is known particularly for her ground-breaking work on the electronic properties of graphene, a one-atom thick membrane of crystalline carbon with extraordinary electronic properties stemming from charge carriers that behave like ultra-relativistic particles.

In this interview, Andrei discusses her childhood, education, and career at Bell Labs. At the end of the interview, Andrei reflects on gender issues and gives advice to aspiring professionals.

About the Interview

EVA ANDREI: An Interview Conducted by Amanda Kapetanakis, IEEE History Center, December 27, 2016.

Interview #783 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to Indiana University and to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Eva Andrei, an oral history conducted in 2016 by Amanda Kapetanakis, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Eva Andrei

INTERVIEWER: Amanda Kapetanakis

DATE: December 27, 2016

Introduction

Kapetanakis:

Hi, Dr. Andrei. I’d like to welcome you to your oral history interview. We hope to cover the main events of your life to best understand how you got where you are today. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to answer any questions at any time, we can move on to another question keeping in mind that you will be able to edit the transcript and add or delete anything you would like.

So let’s begin talking about your early life and education.

Andrei:

Hello Amanda. When I agreed to participate in this interview, I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive. As scientists we are trained to look at the world outside ourselves, so reflecting on the past and on the choices that I’ve made along the way to share with you today does not come naturally to me.

Early Life and Education

My parents came from well-to do Jewish families in Czernowitz, which is part of today’s Ukraine. This city, once a thriving cultural, intellectual and artistic center which was dubbed "Little Vienna" and "Jerusalem upon the Prut" was home to a vibrant Jewish community. My father’s family owned a large textile factory and my mother’s family owned a pub. During the upheavals of the twenieth century the Jewish population of the city was decimated. Many members of my family perished in Nazi death camps. Those who remained were labeled capitalists by the conquering Russian army and deported to Siberian labor camps.

My parents were the lucky ones. They were able to flee communist Romania and settled in Bucharest where I was born. They were assigned to live in a third floor communist party apartment that they shared with a string of other families. We were very poor. My father worked in a factory for meager wages because his capitalist past precluded his employment as an engineer. To supplement our income he built a couple of looms for weaving shawls, scarves and carpets which they sold clandestinely. Our communal living room was a hub for meals and work. There was always something interesting going on there. Machines were designed and then built, weaving, hammering, furs stretched and sewn, and lively discussions. As a four-year old I owned a little wooden stool and kept myself busy driving nails through its top. The stool ended up with no wood showing, its surface having been fully covered by nail heads, and I earned the admiration of the entire room. My earliest memories are filled with people making things – I was fascinated by the watchmaker on the ground floor. He would take apart intricate contraptions made of springs and gears that were so tiny he had to use a magnifying glass. There were shoe makers, soda makers, tailors, and nylon repair-women. To me this world was magical and full of wonder. I was insatiably curious about everything around me. Although there were no toys we did have a couple of German story books by Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm which my mother would read to me when she had time. One day out of boredom I picked up the Andersen book and started telling myself the story which I knew by heart. All of a sudden I made the connection between the gothic letters and the words and realized that I could read on my own. This was an incredible eureka moment. It gave me my first intoxicating taste of discovery.

Thinking back on my childhood, I always loved playing games and solving puzzles, and I chose a profession where I am paid to do just that. Being a physicist, in particular an experimental physicist, you look at the world with a child's eyes, with the lab being a playground full with instruments, challenges and surprises. When I use my STM microscope to hunt after elusive electrons it brings back the fascination of arranging nails in a perfect lattice or observing the watchmaker at his trade.

Kapetanakis:

Now that we’ve talked about your early life, let’s move on to your career.

Career

Andrei:

There is a saying, which is sometimes attributed to Phil Anderson, that good physicists know their vocation by age ten. We used to take this as a joke but the more I think about it the more it rings true. So, what does it take to be a good physicist? I think that passion and having fun are important components. This is true not only for physics, it applies to any vocation. Artists, innovators and scientists would probably agree that passion for your subject and the joy of doing it comes before success.

So, thinking back on my own history I was shaped by three early influences: my older brother, communism and competitive sports.

My brother, who is twelve years older than me, is the person who had the biggest impact on my early life. He appointed himself as overseer of my education, starting very early to challenge me with riddles, puzzles and brain teasers. Responding to his challenges was a top priority for me. At age five he threw at me a puzzle which I remember to this day. “A chicken farmer has figured out that a hen and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half. How many hens would he need to produce one dozen eggs in six days?

Kapetanakis:

I’ve never heard that one.

Andrei:

If you know algebra you can solve this in two lines. But I had no idea about algebra. I toiled on the riddle for days, not giving up till I eked out a solution for which I essentially had to reinvent algebra. I still remember the sheer thrill of it. When I started school my brother made a point of checking my homework and not letting me get away with cutting corners or being sloppy. Even when you do well. When I proudly brought home a grade of ninety five out of one hundred he would ask why I lost the five points. At age ten he told me that I “will be a physicist” before I knew what the word meant.

And remembering these early experiences I can connect with the idea that one’s character, passions and talents gel very early in life. If you’re a physicist, or working in any other demanding profession, you most likely have embarked on this journey early on, even if you don’t consciously know it. There are of course notable exceptions, but this is how it was in my case.

I think the second factor was communism. I have no great sympathy for the system, but there are a few things they got right. One, is that gender is irrelevant – all were equally poor, regardless of gender. So gender was less of an issue than in more affluent countries. Importantly there was no difference in educational opportunities for girls and boys. Girls learned wood work, did math, and played sports together with the boys. The math education in these countries used to be excellent. When I left for Israel in fifth grade, we caught up to the math I learned in Romania only in eighth grade. I hear similar stories from people who immigrated to the United States. And finally there was tinkering - being poor and deprived, people become resourceful and creative making and fixing things.

The third ingredient was sports. Kids in Romania were encouraged to go into competitive sports. There were many opportunities and it was free. I started gymnastics at age three and swimming at five. It was an incredibly good preparation for life as a scientist. Above all it taught me that hard work, perseverance and resilience in sports as in science are prerequisites for success. Another important lesson that came in handy later in my career, and continues to this day, is the joy of competition. Competitive sports teach you to be prepared to lose just as you are prepared to win. And if you lose, to go back into training to correct your mistakes and prepare better for the next chance.

Moving on to school and college years. My first few months in an Israeli school I could do the math, gym class and sing in the choir but not much else as I did not know the language. It was fun to play the guessing game of trying to figure out what was going on in class. But eventually I picked up the language and the game lost its magic. The following year I rose to the top of the class and school was easy. I had enough time for daily training on a swim team and to be on the school gymnastics team. I became national champion for my age group but by the time I turned sixteen and started losing to younger girls I decided to change course. Instead I spent the summer in a physics camp which was run by the Israeli atomic energy commission. This was an amazing experience. Many of the kids who went through this camp ended up as professional physicists. We learned calculus, linear algebra, and quantum mechanics; and did experiments with impressive names such as Moesbauer and Rutherford.

When I graduated from high school I had to decide whether to go through the normal course of army service or request an academic deferral which is an elite core of students who are allowed to complete college while serving in the army. I leaned toward enlisting into the normal army service with the rest of my friends but my mother persuaded me to try for the academic deferral. I halfheartedly followed her advice and so ended up entering college right after high-school. There was a very tough entrance exam, which consisted mainly of math problems way beyond high school level. My years of puzzle solving and my physics summer camp served me well and I passed but only barely.

Kapetanakis:

Oh wow.

Andrei:

My decision to pursue physics was a natural step for me. I love math I love tinkering and solving puzzles and it’s pretty much what physics is all about applying math to understanding the world around us, solving real world problems and improving the way we do things. This was a three-year program that was completely science oriented heavy on math, computer science, programming, physics, and chemistry. During my time in college physics had the smallest ratio of women to men, about one to ten. While I would have liked to see a more even balance I never considered that being a woman was necessarily a disadvantage. It was in fact kind of the opposite, it almost became an added incentive to succeed and I was kind of proud to tell people that I was studying physics. I’d get a kick out of the surprised reaction that I would get sometimes. I still do actually. It was really an opportunity to stand out, and to sometimes surprise people.

Kapetanakis:

That’s cool. A quick question. You said you ended up learning the language. Hebrew, right?

Andrei:

Yes.

Kapetanakis:

Do you still speak it, or remember it?

Andrei:

Oh yeah, of course. I speak five languages.

Kapetanakis:

Oh wow. Okay.

Andrei:

This is nothing compared to my husband’s ten.

Kapetanakis:

Oh my gosh. Wow, that’s a lot. That’s impressive.

Andrei:

Okay, so that brings us to college, and so one of the advantages of having such a low proportion of women is that you get your pick of cute guys. I ended up marrying the cutest and the smartest in my class! We then decided to go together for grad school in the United States. My husband was accepted into the Princeton Physics program and I into Princeton engineering, with an option to switch into physics. I was also accepted at Rutgers, and other places. When I asked my professors at Tel Aviv for advice where to go, they said, oh you want to be an experimentalist, why go to Princeton, go to Rutgers. Princeton and Rutgers are only eighteen miles away from each other, we decided to go for this option. So I started an experimental program at Rutgers, and my husband, a theoretical program at Princeton.

Kapetanakis:

Oh wow.

Andrei:

So by the end of grad school, we had our daughter, Talia, and she was present at my defense. She was so fascinated that she slept straight through the whole event. After grad school, I had the opportunity to do other things. I was offered a job in a startup company with lots of money, and at the same time I got a few postdoctoral offers, one at IBM, and the other one at Bell Laboratories, and I decided to go to Bell Laboratories. They were paying the least amount. I chose Bell even though they were paying less than IBM and much less than the startup. I decided that I was not going after the money, but following my passion for physics to the best place where I could grow as a scientist.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah, that makes sense.

Andrei:

The reason I chose to work at Bell labs is because as a student I attended a colloquium by a staff scientist that absolutely fascinated me. What he was doing was to spray electrons on the surface of superfluid helium and causing them to crystallize by pushing them together, and I thought that this was the coolest thing in the world. So I went to do a postdoc in his group. What was amazing about Bell Labs was its stimulating atmosphere where top scientists could freely debate and try out new and even crazy ideas working with state of the art research facilities. To give you an idea of the sheer intellectual power of that place, the corridor my lab was on housed five physicists who later ended up getting the Nobel Prize. I used to say that if this was a disease, maybe I’d catch it one day.

Kapetanakis:

I have a list of different awards and honors you’ve received. Do you want to talk about some of them that stood out as really important to you.

Awards and Honors

Andrei:

Okay. The first and most important award for me was for work that I did in France. That was actually quite interesting. When you push a two dimensional layer of electrons together they first form a beautiful crystal. But when you continue to squeeze them, they start jiggling around harder and harder due to quantum fluctuations, until the crystal loses its structure and melts into a quantum liquid, which is what electrons in metals are. This so called quantum phase transition has been a kind of Holy Grail in this field since it was predicted by Eugene Wigner in the 1930s, and nobody had observed it. And that was one of the things that we were trying to do at Bell Laboratories and failed. The reason we failed is that basically, it’s impossible to do this with electrons on helium. The parameters are just wrong. It turns out that this was impossible to do with any two-dimensional electron system that we knew at the time. And then at a conference I met the leader of one of the top French groups who was also interested in this problem. I received an offer to join his group and soon found myself living in Paris and commuting to the lab in the suburbs. We decided to rethink the problem and ended up taking a completely different approach. Soon we realized that by applying a magnetic field, we could get there, not with electrons on helium, but starting with electrons trapped at the interface between two different semiconductors. With this system in place we were able to get to the right parameters and eventually by applying a very large magnetic field– the largest attainable at the time - we did in fact see the quantum phase transition by magnetically freezing out the quantum liquid. This is what the prize was for. At the time our discovery was very much disputed. One of my former Bell labs colleagues fought us tooth and nail about this, and almost cost me my job. In the end, we prevailed but it took a few years for this to be accepted. It is why this is the prize I am most proud of. It was a tough fight but in the end good science won out.

The more recent National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellowships are an example of how playfulness and serendipity can sometimes lead to good science. One starts a project in one direction and hits on an unexpected discovery that changes the scope of research, like going to the forest to pick mushrooms and returning home with a basket full of delicious wild raspberries. This is how I stumbled on graphene - a one-atom thick crystal of carbon arranged in a honeycomb structure which has fascinating and useful properties. Before its recent rise to prominence, graphene was just a sheet of graphite, the stuff in pencils and in soot, the poor relative of the diamond. You wouldn’t have given it a second look.

My own entry into this field was, as I said, accidental. We were building a scanning tunneling microscope, STM in short, on a shoestring budget to look at certain properties of superconductors. An STM can image individual atoms and it allows an observer to figure out how electrons move among atoms. As any microscope builder knows, the last step before declaring victory is to do a calibration, a gauging of the instrument to a standard scale. For STM, the calibration of choice is to look at the atoms on the surface of a piece of graphite. In our case, we also had to see what happens when turning on a magnetic field. This was when we had our 'eureka!' moment. We found ourselves staring at a sequence of tall peaks, which left us dumbfounded. The peaks told a story of strange electrons doing bizarre things that they were not supposed to do in graphite. No one had reported seeing such a sequence before. I recalled attending, at the 2005 March meeting of the American Physical Society, a presentation by Andre Geim on his isolation of graphene and realized that, by a turn of luck, we were looking at a piece of graphene which, although sitting on the graphite substrate, was not quite 'talking' to it. For all practical purposes we were looking at the most perfect piece of isolated graphene one could imagine. In 2006 after our discovery, we started working full steam on understanding the strange and wonderful world of electrons in graphene. We found that these electrons move like rays of light—as if they had no mass at all; that we can get them to do strange things such as banding together to produce particles with fractional charge or behaving the way superconductors do.

Kapetanakis:

Oh wow. Okay, now that we’ve talked about your career, one of the things we are particularly interested in for this interview is the challenges of being a woman in a STEM field.

Gender Related

Andrei:

More generally, I think that there has never been a better time to be a scientist. People today recognize that science is a good thing, it helps us sustain 7.4 billion people on a rock that was not designed for so many. It keeps us fed, healthy, connected, entertained, and challenged. And society has become more accepting of the kind of science that I’m doing which is curiosity-driven rather than being aimed at technological advances. People understand that it’s important to devote resources to basic research because it is an investment which lays the foundation for future advances that can benefit humanity. Another important recent development is the convergence of disciplines which blurs the boundaries between physics, chemistry, engineering etc. Within physics itself the boundaries between sub-disciplines are also fading. It’s a very exciting time. There’s a shrinking gap between theory and experiment. It used to take years or even decades for an experiment to be explained by theory. Take superconductivity for example which was discovered in 1911. It took about half a century for it to be explained theoretically. Nowadays, things happen much, much faster, sometimes only months go by between experimental discovery and theory. And occasionally the theoretical predictions come even before the discovery, as is the case in my field now, graphene. We are beginning to be able to ask questions that we never dared approach before, and this makes it a very exciting time for science.

Now, as far as gender, it might not seem like this to you and other young women, but I think that there’s never been a better time for women in physics. So I have some statistics in front of me. If you look at the trend and percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned by women by major, you see that the trend is definitely going up in all fields. The biggest advances for women were of course in biology, by now about sixty percent of bachelors in biology are women. Physics and engineering are lagging behind, but if you look at the trend, we have reached above twenty percent, which is a historical record in the US. Things are looking up.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah, I agree with that.

Andrei:

So there’s always this question, why aren’t there more women in this field. I can think of several reasons. First of all, it is really tough to hang in there and most importantly it is too easy to drop out. For women it’s easier to drop out than for men because there is less social pressure not to quit, and sometimes if you have another option, you just drop out. One of the hardest parts of a career in physics is the transitions from postdoctoral to permanent position. Getting a postdoctoral position is fairly easy, but transitioning to a permanent position is hard. It’s the make it or break it time for most physicists. Everybody has a hard time, with some very few exceptions. My husband went from being a postdoc to a tenured professorship but this is extremely rare. In my case, I have a full drawer of rejection letters, which I like to brag about.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah.

Andrei:

For women I think that giving up is easy because there’s always the option to say I’m going to be a stay at home mom. Or I’m going to stay at home and go back to my career after I raise my kids. So one of the reasons why more women drop out is because it is socially acceptable, whereas men are pushed back into the arena. And when you get all these rejections, it is easy to just quit and stay back in your comfort zone. But if you don’t step out of your comfort zone you are missing out on the magic that happens out there. Maybe this is where competitive sports, which teach you not to quit even in the face of defeat, can play an important role.

Kapetanakis:

How did you balance your professional and personal life, like when your daughter was young, and even now?

Andrei:

Here I can use a quote by Marie Curie: “I frequently have been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career.” And her answer: “Well, it has not been easy.” I think that one of the most important things is to have a husband who is a true partner. We always shared everything fifty-fifty. In fact, when I was a postdoc at Bell Labs, and I was in the lab long days and sometimes nights, they would both come to meet me, have dinner somewhere, and go back home. So he was a tremendous help, and being a theorist, he didn’t have to be in the lab all day long. This period was a wonderful experience for him. It forged a bond between them that lasts to this day.

I’d also like to quote Millie Dresselhaus who said: “there’s no difference between men and women in the way we do science. The difference is in biology and then sociology.” Biology wise, okay we have to take time off to give birth. Some women take off two days, others a week, and then some women take off two years. You can take off a couple of months, but if it turns into years, there’s no way to go back into physics. As Millie Dresselhaus said, we have to take off while having kids, and she had four, but we make up for it because we last longer, and this is certainly true. Then there’s the sociological aspect. Women have the option of quitting, where men don’t. I think that’s an important factor. Men are expected to hang in there, to pursue their careers, but they miss out tremendously on raising kids. I think that fathers should not be deprived of parenting joys. I have a couple of colleagues whose husbands are stay at home dads and love it. Today this is less of a stigma than it used to be, just another career choice.

Kapetanakis:

Reflection and advice. So basically, like what was your favorite job that you held, reflecting back on if you could change anything, would you, and why?

Reflection and Advice

Andrei:

Here I’m going to use another one of Marie Curie’s quotes “There’s nothing more wonderful than being a scientist. Nowhere would I rather be than in my lab staining up my clothes, and getting paid to play.” The take home message for girls, for anybody, is to first find your passion. This is not always easy. If you haven’t found it by the age of ten, it’s never too late. I think the second thing is to remember that you are paid to play with the most amazing toys in the lab – so have fun. This together with work and perseverance will take you where you want to go. And the third thing is to say “don’t tell me I can’t do something because I’m a girl”.

Kapetanakis:

I agree, yeah.

Andrei:

And all the obstacles are, as far as I can tell, internal.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah.

Andrei:

And maybe, you know, don’t hang out in your comfort zone.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah, that’s important not to do. I agree.

Andrei:

Do one thing out of your comfort zone every day. The more it scares you, the more it’s worth doing.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah, that’s a really good life lesson. I like that. And then we also have a quote that we put in here by Eleanor Roosevelt, and she said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” And with that, we were basically getting at, what are your goals in the coming years. What are you working on now, or what do you have set for the future?

Andrei:

Well, my passion is to tease out the secrets of nature, and the more I find, the more I realize that there are secrets out there that I want to discover. So, you know, every day is an opportunity to have an ‘aha moment’, and there’s nothing more exciting and exhilarating than that.

Kapetanakis:

Yeah, I agree. Okay, is there anything else you want to add?

Andrei:

Well no, I think that’s pretty much it.

Conclusion

Kapetanakis:

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this oral history interview. We will be contacting you to review the transcript of this interview so that you have the opportunity to make any changes or additions. Meeting you and conducting your oral history interview truly has been my pleasure. Thank you very much for your time.

We really appreciate your taking the time to do the oral history interview. It means a lot, and it’s really nice to hear your path, and your story, and you can go online and read this [information], like you went to this university, you’re doing this now, but it’s nice to hear it from you, and hear about some of the obstacles you had to overcome to get where you are today, so it was really cool to hear that. I really liked hearing your story, and I really liked the advice you gave.

Andrei:

Thank you, Amanda. I’m looking forward to reading this, and when I was talking to you, I was pretty much talking to my daughter. I never actually put together my story like this before, so this was a real opportunity for me to sit down and do it.

Kapetanakis:

I’m excited to have been able to do this for you.

Thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed meeting you.

Andrei:

Same here. Bye and good luck.