Oral-History:Susan Coppersmith

About Susan Coppersmith

Dr. Susan Coppersmith was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1957. She received her B.S. in Physics from MIT in 1978, and her M.S. and Ph.D. from Cornell in 1981 and 1983, respectively. Specializing in theoretical condensed matter physics, Coppersmith has worked at Bell Labs, was a Professor of physics at the University of Chicago, and currently is a Professor of physics at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

In this interview, Dr. Coppersmith discusses, her early life, education, and work at Bell Labs; addresses gender issues in the field and education; and provided career advice.

About the Interview

SUSAN COPPERSMITH: An Interview Conducted by Hannah Bech, IEEE History Center, 2 June 2015.

Interview # 718 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 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 Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Samuel C. Williams Library, 3rd Floor, 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:

Susan Coppersmith, an oral history conducted in 2015 by Hannah Bech, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Susan Coppersmith
INTERVIEWER: Hannah Bech
DATE: 2 June, 2015
PLACE: Telephone interview

Introduction

Ms. Bech:

Hi, is this Dr. Coppersmith?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes.

Ms. Bech:

Hi! This is Hannah from Augsburg College, Hannah Bech. Would you like to begin your Oral History Interview?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Sure. I have the questions that you sent me on my laptop here. There are a lot of them.

Ms. Bech:

We just send those so you know what we’re going to talk about, and give you a chance to think about some things that are going to come up.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Okay, so I will state my full name. It’s Susan Nan, N-A-N, Coppersmith. I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on March 18th, 1957. I grew up there.

Early Life and Education

Ms. Bech:

So, can you tell me a little about your childhood?

Dr. Coppersmith:

My family lived in a little suburb of Johnstown called Westmont. I went to the public schools, which were not particularly good. Johnstown is in Appalachia, and it is sort of, I’m trying to think of a good way to put this…it was pretty horrible. I was a nerdy kid, and it was socially very difficult. When I was a little kid I probably was completely obnoxious. As I got older I think I got less obnoxious, but I was established as having cooties. The town was a small enough with little enough turnover that I could never overcome my reputation, and so I had cooties all the way through high school. Another issue was that my mother was a manic-depressive, which complicated things at home. Sometimes she was not able to function, and sometimes she was pretty hostile towards me. When I was little I didn’t really understand. I had a lot of insecurity growing up, which I think had a big role in my deciding to go into science. I thought that science had a certainty to it. It seemed like it wasn’t as dependent on other people as other careers. In retrospect, thinking that was a little bit like Humphrey Bogart going to Casablanca for the waters, because dealing with people is really important in science, so I was just misinformed. But when I was young I thought that being good with people wasn’t necessary in science. So it seemed like a good career track for me. I ended up at MIT because I thought it would be a good place for someone smart with poor social skills. (Laughter) We’ll edit it so it doesn’t sound quite so bleak. On a scale of people, I was very privileged. My family supported me and had enough money to send me to college.

Ms. Bech:

Absolutely. So, were you interested in technology and engineering in your youth?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Again, I don’t remember particularly. I was bookish, but it wasn’t like I was taking apart cars or anything like that. My father was a lawyer, and he was not mechanical at all. I even seem to remember him calling an electrician to change a lightbulb. There was no mechanical aptitude in my family whatsoever. My mother gave piano lessons sometimes, but mostly she was miserable. In the intervening time I think I’ve developed much more understanding of why she was miserable. She grew up in a suburb of Boston and ended up marrying my father and then living in Johnstown where there were lots of relatives on his side, and she just really didn’t want to be there. The fact that she was miserable really affected her view of life. I knew I didn’t want to be my mother, but that was all I had really figured out.

Ms. Bech:

So did you have a role model who inspired your scientific interests?

Dr. Coppersmith:

No, really what happened was I was good at science and math, and because my mother was from Boston, it was pretty much assumed that I should go to college in Boston. My brother went to Harvard, and I didn’t want to go to the same place as my brother. It was relatively easy to get into name brand schools from where we grew up, because it was in Appalachia. If you came from a place like that and had high grades and high SAT scores and whatnot, then you could get into Harvard. My brother was two years older, and I hadn’t liked being in his shadow in high school, so I didn’t want to go to the same college. Another factor was that I hadn’t fit in socially in high school because I was too nerdy, so going to MIT felt kind of natural. I went there for those reasons, not because I knew I wanted to do science. I knew I didn’t want to be socially outcast the way I had been. Again, it wasn’t as bleak as I make it sound, but it was pretty bleak. Anyway, my grades were good, my test scores were good, and I was accepted at MIT.

Enrolling in MIT

At MIT, socially it was much better. It was really a turning point in terms of not feeling miserable. I remember when I wrote my college applications and things, I thought I was going to either neuroscience or biochemistry or something like that. I didn’t really know anything about physics. In my high school physics course, a typical question would be to match “Millikan” with “oil drop experiment.” They had a list of people and a list of experiments and you would match the name of the scientist with the name of the experiment. This of course has essentially nothing to do with physics. So when I went to MIT, I was pretty close to a blank slate when it came to physics.

Ms. Bech:

So, did your family encourage your scientific interests once you got to MIT?

Dr. Coppersmith:

My mother had her own problems, so she didn’t have a lot of interest in what I was doing. But again, it was really very bad for her. She ended up committing suicide when I was a junior in college. With mental illness, however bad things are now, it was worse then. One of the things that was bad was that I looked a lot like my father’s side of the family, so when she looked at me I really reminded her of how miserable she was, and my relationship with my mother was pretty terrible. And my father was a really nice guy, but sort of vague. I graduated college and I had my year away and started grad school, and in my second year in grad school, I was an author on a paper on some work that I had done during a summer at Bell Labs. I called my dad and said, “Dad, I got a paper into Physical Review Letters,” which was the most prestigious physics journal. And he said, “Sue, that’s great! You always did like creative writing! Have you played the piano lately? You should practice more!” So, he wanted me to do well, but he had absolutely no idea of what being a scientist entailed. But that was okay, because he was basically supportive.

You sent me links to some of the other [Oral History interviews]. One of them was with Mildred Dresselhaus, who talked about how when she went to Hunter High School, it really changed everything for her. For me, going to MIT changed my view of what you could do in the world. While in Johnstown I was a good student and I did well, but everybody said, “You may be smart for Johnstown, but that doesn’t mean anything.” If you did well at MIT, it meant something. During my first semester at MIT, where everyone has to take a year of physics, I took a course which had the nickname Physics for Masochists. Everybody else in the course had, more or less, gone to high schools where they had actually learned some physics, not just matching names of people with experiments. So it was really hard for me at the start. I had no idea what I was doing, and I went in for extra help. There was a tutor on my floor in the dorm and so I would go to him, and he would say “maybe you shouldn’t take Physics for Masochists, and you should take an easier physics course.” I said, “No no, I’ll do it.” I took the first exam and got a 42 out of 100, really not a good score, and I started to panic. Meanwhile, it turned out that I was a whiz at chemistry. Chemistry came really easily to me, while physics was really really hard. And then one day, I was in recitation section, and I still remember the problem: a raindrop is falling, and it’s gaining some mass, and gravity’s acting, and as the raindrop gets bigger the air drag is increasing because it’s proportional to the radius of the drop, and then you’re supposed to calculate the velocity of this raindrop coming down. Is physics your major? What’s your major?

Ms. Bech:

I’m a sociology major, so, not Natural Science. Social Science.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Oh, sorry, this description might be a bit technical. But I don’t think you have to know any physics to understand the experience. To solve a physics problem like this one, the first step is to draw a force diagram showing the different forces acting on the drop, the force of gravity and the force of friction. For every problem they say, “Draw the force diagram.” Up until that point I would draw the force diagrams and just wouldn’t understand what to do next. Then all of a sudden, with this problem, I understood it all! It wasn’t just that I did what they had told me to do, but I understood how it enabled you to solve a problem. After that, physics just made sense. It was like a lightbulb going on, like “Oh, I see how to do this!” I just thought that was really neat. So I was going along, and when I started I was either going to do chemistry or neuroscience. Neuroscience involved medical things, and all of the pre-med courses met at 8:30 in the morning. I wasn’t willing to get up that early, so then I thought, “Okay, I’ll be a chemistry major.” But then when I got more of what physics was like, I thought, “This is really neat!” This was around 1974 or 1975, since I started college in 1974. It was right after the Arab Oil Embargo, and the most employable major was chemical engineering, and chemistry was almost as good. And at that time, nobody in physics could get a job. I really liked physics, I just liked it more than chemistry, so I thought I would double major. I tried doing that for a little while but I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a double major. There were people who could handle a lot of courses, but I was not able to do it all, so I had to pick a major. By this time I was a sophomore. As I said I was really good at chemistry, but I really liked physics. My problem was, if I go into physics, will I ever get a job? Because at that time, nobody was getting a job in physics while people in chemistry were really employable. I talked about this with a friend who said, “Well, my dad really liked math, and he decided to get a PhD in math. He got his PhD and he didn’t get an academic job in math, but he started designing shopping centers and we have 20 million dollars now!” So I said, “Oh! Okay!” So that’s how I became a physics major! That idea that yeah, it’ll be all right. And that having a specific plan was not such a big deal, you could just study things you like and if it doesn’t work out something else will come along. That was really, really, really important for me.

Ms. Bech:

Totally.

Dr. Coppersmith:

All right, so I’ve told you about my family. My mother had her problems, and my father was basically supportive, but they didn’t really know anything about science and that’s fine. I told you about how I ended up at MIT. The thing about MIT that I liked so much, and again this was back in the day, I realize, but one of the things I liked about it was that it was quite anonymous. The professors who gave the lectures didn’t do any of the grading. I definitely felt that if you were female you were assumed to be stupid, but all of the grading was done by teaching assistants who didn’t know who anybody was. The professors would just give the papers to the teaching assistants. I would always sign my work with my initials and not my first name, and then basically what would happen is that the professor might be dismissive of me early in the semester, but then I would hand in a few homeworks and I would do well on the exam and after that there would be no problem. Then actually it was a problem in grad school when they knew who I was, and I didn’t feel like there was a way to level the playing field. I guess I’ll talk about that later. In terms of specific professors who influenced me [referring to interview question], the one who turned out to be a bit of a mentor was Francis Low, who was quite a famous guy at MIT. I think he was Provost for a while. There was a group of us who really liked his course on quantum mechanics. He was fun and we liked him, and I did well in the course. He remembered me, actually. They did some kind of retrospective of him and I’m mentioned. He remembered me even years later, which was sort of exciting.

My summer jobs turned out to be very important. My first year at MIT, I decided that I really really didn’t want to go back to Johnstown for the summer. So I looked for a job on campus. I got hold of a booklet that listed professors who were willing to hire undergraduate students. At the time I thought I was going to do chemistry, so I went down the list of chemistry faculty alphabetically and I ended up at a guy called Walsh, Christopher Walsh. He’s at Harvard now, but he was at MIT at the time. For all the professors before him I would say I was interested in a summer job, and they would say, “Well, have you taken the chem lab?” and I would say no, and they would ask about other courses I was supposed to have taken, and I would say, “No,” and they didn’t hire me. By the time I went to Walsh, I said “I’m looking for a job in the summer. I haven’t taken the chem lab, I haven’t taken this, I haven’t taken that, but I’ve taken 5.41 and I’m taking 5.42 now, and I’ll do anything to not have to go back to Johnstown, Pennsylvania for the summer.” He had been to Erie once, and was intrigued enough to ask one of his grad students who had been a TA in Chemistry 5.41 about me. I had gotten like the third highest score in the class, which was huge, I mean hundreds and hundreds of people. Like I said, I was really really good at chemistry. And because I had done so well in the class, and because he had been to Erie, Walsh hired me to work for the summer. That ended up being a really important experience, because it turned out I had absolutely no aptitude for experimental chemistry whatsoever. (laughter) That’s how you find out, right? Anyway, in my sophomore year I was looking for something in physics, because by that time I had decided to be a physics major. I was asking people about summer jobs and someone said I should apply for the Summer Research Program at Bell Labs. I don’t even know if they do it anymore, I expect not, but they used to have a Summer Research Program, which was a summer job program targeted towards women and minorities. I don’t even remember who told me about the program. So I applied, and I got in, and that was just hugely important. You probably haven’t talked to anyone who was at Bell Labs in the old days, but it was fantastic. Going there really was really important in terms of my career. There’s no way I would have gone on in science if I hadn’t been associated with Bell Labs. Anyway, so I did one summer at Bell, and it was great. I told some of my friends, “You should look into this program, I did this program and had a great time!” I had gotten the impression that you could only do it one summer, and so I didn’t apply for the summer after my junior year. One of my friends who applied was asked at her interview, “how did you find out about the program?” And she said, “Sue Coppersmith told me about it and said she really liked it!” And the interviewer said, “I’m surprised Sue didn’t apply this year!” The interviewer from Bell Labs called me up and said, “I hear that you were recommending the program but you didn’t apply!” And I told him I thought you couldn’t apply two years in a row. He said, “Well, we don’t encourage people to apply two years in a row, but you can apply and if no one else hires you then I’ll hire you.”

Ms. Bech:

Oh, wow!

Undergraduate work at Bell Labs

Dr. Coppersmith:

So I applied again and went back to Bell Labs. It turned out someone else did hire me and I worked for a different person, but still, getting that call was remarkable. The interviewer was a guy named Dexter Johnston. A followup that is sort of interesting is that several years later a friend of mine interviewed for a job at Bell. I was there and I went to her talk and said hello. Dexter Johnson was at the talk and was one of the people interviewing my friend. My friend told me that he had said, “Well, for this job, we really need somebody who is good with their hands. Are you good with your hands or are you like Sue?” (laughter) So I wondered why he offered to hire me if he could tell I was not good in the lab. Many, many years after that I finally had the chance to ask him about it. I said to him, “This has been bugging me for a really long time. Back when I was an undergraduate you could see I wasn’t good in the lab and yet you offered to hire me.” And he said, “We knew you weren’t good at what you were doing but it seemed like you might be good for something!” (laughter) Maybe it was zany, but that was the point of Bell Labs. They were really looking for you to do well, and that was just tremendous. So Bell Labs had a huge effect on my career starting as an undergraduate.

When I was a senior, I really wanted to travel a little bit because I had lived in Johnstown and hadn’t traveled much. I wanted to go abroad but I didn’t really know any languages. I had taken some French but my French was not good enough to go to France, so I applied in mostly in England. I applied for Rhodes and Marshall and Churchill fellowships. I got a Churchill fellowship, so I went to Cambridge because if you’re a Churchill Fellow you’ll end up at Cambridge.

Ms. Bech:

Okay.

Dr. Coppersmith:

I did what’s called the Applied Mathematics Tripos Part III, but again I did it really for culture as opposed to…

Ms. Bech:

Academic pursuits? Well, it’s academic, but…

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yeah, and actually I learned really interesting things and I’m really glad I went. It was by no means a waste of time, but I didn’t do it for my career. I had gotten a fellowship from Bell to do my graduate work. The people at Bell really didn’t want me to go to Cambridge for a year, but in the end I talked them into it, and they held the fellowship for me for a year.

Condensed Matter Physics at Cornell

Ms. Bech:

So then what led you to Cornell?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Bell had a lot to do with it, because there were a lot of people at Bell who had come from Cornell, and they said, “It’s the place to go for condensed matter physics.” I applied to four places, Penn, Cornell, Berkeley, and UCSD. I think by that time I was sure that I wanted to theory. Up until then all my summer projects were experimental, but the thing about the lab is that I was always pretty sure I was about to electrocute myself. And again, I had grown up in this completely non-electrical and non-mechanical household, with no sense of how anything works or that if something breaks you can fix it. Again, you can compare it to guys who were taking apart their bicycles in their dorm rooms. I was trying to do this because it was part of the MIT ethos, but when I took my bicycle apart, I couldn’t get it back together. People told me that if you work in labs a lot you’ll get more comfortable and won’t have this sense that you’re about to kill yourself. I worked two summers at Bell and I had done the junior lab at MIT, and at the end of it still every time I walked in the lab I was sure I was about to die, and I decided theory would be safer. I really didn’t like Berkeley, and I don’t remember what happened with UCSD. It just didn’t resonate. I’m from the East and California seemed far. A bunch of my friends went to Berkeley but I just didn’t like it. Penn, somehow…I just liked Cornell. I visited on a sunny day and didn’t picture what the weather would be like in the winter. Again, they had really strong condensed matter and low temperature groups, and I was encouraged to go there by the people I knew at Bell. So I ended up going to Cornell. It was horrible. I had a fellowship from Bell Labs called the Graduate Research Fellowship for Women. It was a fellowship that paid for the whole time you were in grad school. In terms of my career, that was the number one thing that saved my career. Maybe Cornell is different now, but my experience was just horrible. When I looked for an advisor, I would say to potential advisors, “I’m interested in what you’re doing,” and they would say, “Well, I don’t have any money.” And I would say, “That’s okay, I have a fellowship so I don’t need any money!” And they would look at me and say, “Well, I don’t have any time, either.” Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s just nuts. Here’s this graduate student who will be free forever. There’s not anything you’ll have to pay, they’re just free, and you’re not even willing to give them a trial. Even thirty-five years later I still think it’s completely amazing, and not in a good way. Anyway, things were bad, there were various things that were bad. I don’t want to go into all the bad things, but at a certain point I was really upset. A really horrible thing happened, and I was really devastated. It turned out that my now-husband – we weren’t married at the time, we were dating, and we were both in Ithaca – had gone to college with Francis Low’s son. He was trying to help, and he called Peter Low and said, “Can I have your father’s phone number?” So we called Francis Low, and I asked him, “Can you tell them that I can do things and they should give me a chance?” And he called somebody at Cornell and tried to put in a good word for me. After that, the people at Cornell said, “How do you have the nerve to call MIT to tell them we don’t treat our students well?” It was a total disaster. I was ostracized by absolutely everybody at Cornell. Nobody would even talk to me. No faculty, no students, nobody. At that point it was just really clear that if I wanted to keep going in physics I had to get out of there. I wasn’t going to be able to succeed there. Never mind succeed, I wasn’t going to be able to survive. Again, I had this fellowship from Bell. I had a mentor who was supposed to help me navigate grad school. I called him up and asked if I could do my thesis with Bell. I also looked into trying to transfer, and my mentor said they really don’t want people to transfer. I said, “If I do that I’ll give up my fellowship and apply, but I’m not staying here, I can’t stay here.” So I groveled and begged and eventually my mentor worked out a deal where I could do my thesis at Bell. My mentor, Bill Brinkman, managed to broker it. He really helped me out a lot. I guess one reason he was willing to go out of his way was that the Graduate Research Program for Women had only been in existence for a few years when I started. At that time they had only had people drop out, and nobody had actually graduated. (laughter)

Ms. Bech:

Oh, interesting.

Dr. Coppersmith:

It’s not so surprising because it takes longer to graduate than it does to drop out. People would drop out after one or two years, so there were quite a few dropouts but no one had actually succeeded at finishing. Later on the numbers were very good and there were lots of successful people who made it through the program, but for me the deal that Brinkman worked out was absolutely the difference between survival and not surviving. Anyway, that was how I ended up doing my thesis at Bell. It was also sort of interesting because again, I was absolutely persona non grata at Cornell for quite a few years. But then at a certain point bygones are bygones. One important thing I learned is you have to move forward and not focus on bad things that have happened in the past. That’s my main lesson from this. Mostly people aren’t really thinking. You think they’re out to get you but mostly they’re just not thinking one way or the other, just whatever makes their life easier. I could tell you stories about that. Well anyway…I’m up to [the tenth question.] Were there teachers who mentored me?

Ms. Bech:

I’m assuming at Bell you had mentorship [at a graduate level.]

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes, that was hugely influential. I’d say in terms of consistent [mentorship], there’s a guy named Chandra Varma who was at Bell when I was in graduate school who was really helpful. Someone else who was really helpful is Peter Littlewood, who I didn’t know that well until I was a postdoc. He was really important. And then Brinkman, I wouldn’t have survived without his help. My actual advisor was a guy named Daniel Fisher. Our relationship wasn’t super, but overall working for him was a positive experience. At Cornell there was one guy, David Mermin, who helped me at least somewhat. He was willing to work it out so that I could do my thesis at Bell. The deal was that every six weeks I was to update him how things were going. This was before email, and I would call him on the phone. It usually took two or three times before eventually I’d catch him in. I’d say, “Professor Mermin, this is Sue Coppersmith!” and there would be this pause. Then eventually he’d remember who I was and say, “Oh, Sue, yes, how are you?” And I would say “I’m just calling to check in because you told me I should check in every six weeks, just so you know how things are going.” And he’d say, “What are you doing again? Who are you working with?” and I’d go over it all and try to get him up to speed. Anyway, in the end it all worked out. He was the one person at Cornell who did something that I remember as being helpful.

Ms. Bech:

So what part of your education do you think was most beneficial to your career later on?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Just in general, learning things is good. Life is divided up into things that aren’t so bad and learning experiences. When something is truly horrible you have to think, “Okay, is there something I can learn from this?” Because figuring out how avoid horrible things in the future is definitely worthwhile. The good stuff is important because if the good stuff doesn’t happen then you lose your motivation, when it’s all terrible you just don’t know why you’re doing it anymore. Probably the most important thing is that you really have to decide what you want to do. There’s a really strong theme in the education system that you’re doing things for approval. We’re socialized very strongly to do things that the teacher says are good. At Cornell I just had no chance for that, and I had to really figure out why I was doing things. It’s true that for a while my motivation was, “I’ll show those a-holes who think I’m not able to do this,” but at some point it morphed into, “What is it I really want to do?” That was really very important for me. In terms of learning how to do physics, just hanging around Bell Labs was the greatest thing ever. That was really important in terms of seeing what science was and how scientists do it. I was just really fortunate. I happened to be doing my thing at a time when that was possible. It was such a small amount of time that a female in physics could have the advantage of being in that environment, so I’m just incredibly lucky. I really appreciate that.

Ms. Bech:

So, now that we’ve talked about your early life, let’s move on to your career. How did you prepare to find your first job after your education?

Thesis work at Bell Labs, Postdoc at University of Brookhaven

Dr. Coppersmith:

Well that process was fairly standard. In those days there were plenty of postdoc jobs. As I said, I did my actual thesis at Bell. I started my thesis work at Bell in the fall of 1981. Daniel Fisher, the guy I was working for, started me on a project, but after a few months I came up with another project that was sort of related. He was perfectly happy for me to do this other project. It went quite well, it was very straightforward. In the fall of 1982, Daniel asked me whether I wanted to finish the next spring or the year after that. I decided I’d rather finish sooner than later. There was one paper I’d done for the summer, the one that got into Physical Review Letters that my father thought was creative writing, a second paper was published, and there was going to be a third paper, so I would have enough papers for a Ph.D. So then the process is that you make your CV, then you make a talk, and then you write to people who do stuff in your field and ask if they have postdoc openings. Daniel was my real advisor, since Mermin, my official advisor, didn’t really keep track of what I was doing. Daniel suggested some names of people to write to, so I wrote to a bunch of them. Some of them invited me to interview, I did some interviews, and I had a certain number of job offers. In the end the decision was between a postdoc at the University of Chicago and one at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The job at Chicago was exciting because this was during the height of nonlinear dynamics and chaos, and Chicago was essentially ground zero in that area. My thesis had built on some work done by Leo Kadanoff, who was really really famous and one of the very top people in the field, and there were several other people at Chicago who were doing work that was really interesting. The other job was at Brookhaven National Laboratory. There it was less exciting, but it was closer to New York, where my husband was in medical school. So I had to decide whether to go to Chicago and do a long-distance commute, or to go to Brookhaven. I remember I had gotten the job offer from Chicago and I met with Prof. Kadanoff during the March meeting in Los Angeles in 1983. I asked him whether I could go to New York on weekends, and sometimes stay an extra day and visit Bell. He said, “You get ten vacation days a year and you can spend them any way you like.” There was clearly no…

Ms. Bech:

No real wiggle room?

Dr. Coppersmith:

No real wiggle room, right. I thought about it and I decided to go to Brookhaven. So that’s how I ended up there. There was another postdoc at Brookhaven named Yonathan Shapir. He was older, he had been in the Israeli army, and he knew a lot more. We got along and it was very useful because he knew more about how to get along in the world than I did. I thought I was going to work with a guy named Vic Emery, but he got promoted into the Lab administration, so I didn’t see him very much. The staff person whom I worked with the most was Per Bak. He was a very interesting guy and I learned a lot from him. In some ways he was the diametric opposite of Daniel, so it was helpful to have that contrast. I also went to Bell one day a week and started collaborating with Peter Littlewood. I lived in Manhattan with my husband, and typically I would go out to Brookhaven on Monday, stay over Monday night, and come back home on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday I would go to Bell, then back to Brookhaven on Thursday and Friday. I also made friends with Dick Klemm, who was at Exxon at the time, so I would go out to Exxon sometimes. At Brookhaven they didn’t care that I visited Bell and Exxon, they were all very nice. How did my postdoc differ from my work on my PhD? [referring to interview question] Well, it was different because I got to decide what to do. The work that ended up having the most impact was the stuff I was doing with Peter on nonlinear dynamics. That work was a pretty natural progression from my thesis work, but looking at issues that were more relevant to experiments, in particular ones that were going on at Bell. I did some work on statistical mechanics with Per and Yonathan. With Dick Klemm I was doing some completely different stuff, studying superconductors. I thought it was important to work on a broader variety of problems. When you’re a postdoc, you’re trying to figure out how to make your own way. You’re trying to come up with new things to do. You’re trying to generate ideas and write papers in the appropriate amount of time, which is less than two years. So now it says how long did I work there? [referring to interview question] I worked there for two years, since was a two year postdoc.

Ms. Bech:

Right.

Dr. Coppersmith:

It was a two year postdoc, so it wasn’t like leaving was optional. That’s the thing about a postdoc. I remember that on my first day at Brookhaven, I showed up, they showed me where the coffee room was, and they showed me where the stockroom was. This was before everyone had computers so I just got pencils and paper out of the stockroom. I sat down at my desk, and thought, I had to come up with something new, get it finished, and in a year and three months I would be on the job market again and have to give an interview talk on something that’s not my thesis. It was like, okay, I had to figure out how to make my way. That’s what the job is. So, where did [I] work afterwards? [referring to interview question] At the end of my first postdoc I only applied for jobs that were near New York, because I really wanted to stay near my husband, who was in the middle of doing an MD-PhD, which takes a long time.

Ms. Bech:

Wow, it would.

Dr. Coppersmith:

I knew I wanted to stay in New York, and while I applied for a few faculty jobs, I didn’t get any of them. In the end I got a second postdoc at Bell. Then also, because I wanted to finish at the same time my husband was finishing his MD-PhD, I spent one year at Princeton. I knew Philip Anderson because he would hang out at Bell when I was a grad student, and he always sort of liked me. At a certain point he called me up and said, “Do you want to come to Princeton for a year?” The NSF had a program called the Visiting Professorship for Women, and so he suggested I apply for it and he would be my host. The timing worked out, so I did that for a year, and then I went back to do more postdoc at Bell. Eventually, in 1987, I was hired to be on the staff at Bell. Peter Littlewood and Chandra Varma were incredibly helpful in getting me the job. But in the meantime I did apply for a lot of academic jobs that I didn’t get, which was totally depressing because I thought I had done enough good work to get a good faculty job. I still don’t understand why I didn’t get a good academic job at that time. But it turned out that working at Bell was great.

Ms. Bech:

So your work has included a balance of technical work and teaching. How have you managed to be successful with both of those things?

On Teaching, Education and Research

Dr. Coppersmith:

I would say that my teaching is OK because I work at it, but I’m not that gifted as a teacher. As a teacher I’m diligent and I try to get the students to understand the material, and the students think I’m okay because they can see that I’m trying to communicate and that I put time into it. The thing I like better about giving talks is that you have so much more control over what the content is. With teaching the lessons just keep coming, with new material that you have to cover every hour. To me, presenting research is more of an art form. It’s not just the presentation, it’s that you created the material that you’re presenting. You’re really trying to communicate a unique perspective, as opposed to when you’re teaching, where you’re communicating knowledge that everybody has to know and you didn’t decide what it was. With a research talk you get to frame the key question and explain why it is new. I’d say that with teaching I use my diligence, and with the research it’s because I really have a vision of what I’m trying to accomplish, even though the vision is extremely hazy 99.9% of the time.

Ms. Bech:

I have a question that actually wasn’t on my list, but I’m just curious now since you were talking about it earlier. Do you find that your students are mostly already interested in physics? You mentioned that you weren’t involved in the sciences too much before you got to college.

Dr. Coppersmith:

At this point I mostly teach a course called Physics in the Arts.

Ms. Bech:

Oh, okay. We have that here!

Dr. Coppersmith:

Okay! It’s for people who have no aptitude or interest in science whatsoever. I like it because while I cover a syllabus and give homeworks and exams, the real goal is to try to give the students some inkling of why physics is interesting. The course fulfills a requirement for the College of Letters and Science. 99.9% of people who are taking it are taking it to satisfy that requirement. And every semester a few students sort of get why physics is neat. It’s a very low batting average, but I gravitated to that course for that reason. There’s the occasional student [to whom] you succeed in explaining why it’s interesting. But you’ve got to make it so that the 90 or 99% who don’t think it’s interesting can [understand] that if you can plug in to this formula and if you can do this sample problem, you’ll fulfill your requirement. Most students just want to make sure they get a decent grade in their requirement. But I still try to explain why physics is neat. Though again, I don’t feel really successful because the batting average is low.

Ms. Bech:

I imagine because a lot of students come in being artsy people, you know.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes, that’s the point, you’re trying to communicate the essence to someone who’s not interested. You’re just not going to succeed a lot of the time. But that’s also true in research, too, where most of the time what you do turns out to be much more boring than you were hoping.

So, the range of topics of my research [referring to interview question]. For each research topic there’s some long story of how I got into it. A lot of times the projects get started by talking with people I know. Somehow at Bell, when my thesis started I was supposed to be doing straight statistical mechanics, which was a big business in those days. The project sort of veered into an area called nonlinear dynamics. That was why turning down the postdoc in Chicago was hard, because Chicago was a hotbed for nonlinear dynamics. Granular materials were an example of that. Granular materials are sort of complicated because they’re nowhere near thermal equilibrium, but they’re not that complicated, compared to many other systems, so it’s not crazy to aspire to construct a tractable theoretical framework to describe them. There are interesting things to understand. For example, you can pour sand like a liquid, and you can stand on it like a solid, and it’s very interesting to see if there is a general approach for being to predict which behavior happens when. I got my faculty job in Chicago because I visited there and did some work on granular materials that they found interesting. There was also someone at Chicago who was interested in quantum magnets, which I had worked on at Bell. The quantum magnet work turned out to be related to quantum computing, so it was natural for me to talk with the people working on quantum computing here in Wisconsin. I liked the group of people who were working on it, so I got into quantum computing here. As I got into it my perspective evolved. At the beginning I thought my angle was going to be via nonlinear dynamics, because basically what you are trying to do is to make a pretty complicated system have a complex but totally prescribed time evolution. When framed that way, quantum computing is very closely related to nonlinear dynamics, where you study the time evolution of complex classical systems. I thought it would be quite similar. As it turns out, there have been times when knowing nonlinear dynamics has been really helpful, but there’s a really big new issue that comes up in quantum computing, which is to understand how to sustain quantum coherence, which is the key difference between classical and quantum physics. This question is really interesting and also the key to actually building a quantum computer. What sparks my interest? [referring to interview question] Sometimes it’s the people. Sometimes the scientific question reminds me of something in a seemingly unrelated field. I really like it when the same concept gives insight into questions in different areas that at first seem to be totally different.

Employment Satisfaction and Success

Ms. Bech:

What kinds of things do you find most satisfying in a job?

Dr. Coppersmith:

It’s really satisfying that I get to decide what I work on. While you are training you have much less of this, but now I get to decide what I do and what’s important scientifically. That, I think, is the most satisfying thing in a job, to feel like you have some control over what you’re doing. I would say also understanding the secrets of nature, that’s neat too. In my current work on quantum computing, I’ve been working very closely with the experimentalists. I’m in the lab every day and I really see what they measure. Every once in a while you can use your theoretical model of what’s going on to say, “That means if we connect this wire here and adjust a voltage there, then this thing should happen.” And then it happens! It’s incredible. It’s so neat to see that the theoretical construct actually applies to an experimental system and enables you to figure out how to make the system do what you want. That’s really neat. But, the most satisfying thing is that when I come in in the morning on most days I pretty much get to decide what I do.

Ms. Bech:

Very cool. So then what constitutes success in your job or career as a whole?

Dr. Coppersmith:

I think that it’s being able to stay in business. In the academic world, there’s understandably a lot of focus on getting tenure. Getting tenure is having a job versus not having a job. But I don’t think that’s success. Success is that you keep doing work. The work itself is the success. It’s even sort of explicit when you think about it. I’m sure this is not original, but I have what I call the “Employment Theory of Physics,” which is that the point of physics is to make employment for other physicists. This we know, because how do you decide if somebody is successful? You say, “Oh look, they’re very highly cited!” That means that other people are employed writing papers. It’s quite explicit. You are generating stuff that other people can use.

Ms. Bech:

I’ve never thought of it that way.

Dr. Coppersmith:

As I said, the “Employment Theory of Physics” is probably not original with me. That reminds me of a problem that I had that seems to happen to other women in science. All the good ideas that I’ve had, once you’ve thought of them, they’re obvious. When you go and tell people, and even though no one has had this idea, if it’s good enough then afterwards it’s so obvious that [people say] “How hard could it be?” Somehow you have to make it seem un-obvious because otherwise you won’t get any credit for having the idea. The thing about giving a talk is setting things up in a way that it’s not obvious until then you say, “Look, once you have this idea, it all makes sense!” I would give talks, and during the setup I would give appropriate credit, I would say “This idea was so-and-so’s.” Then I would talk about my work and of course I didn’t credit my ideas to other people. Once someone said, “Who had this idea?” and I said, “I had this idea!” He said, “No you didn’t, someone else must have had that idea.” Well, no, I’m giving a talk about it because it’s my idea! It’s very strange. Anyway, again, success is being able to just stay in business. It’s interesting.

Ms. Bech:

That is interesting.

Dr. Coppersmith:

You want to be able to get full credit for your work, but I don’t think that that’s the key thing. First of all, it’s not just possible because everyone in the field is fighting for credit for themselves. Second, that’s not the goal, the goal is to stay in business. Doing good work is the reward. Not necessarily getting the credit for doing the good work, but knowing the work is good and having the opportunity to do more good work. That’s the game. It is important not to obsess about getting credit for everything you did, but on the other hand, in order to stay in business you have to get enough credit that people are willing to give you a job and people are willing to fund your grants, etc. So it’s sort of a funny thing. You have to go after enough credit to stay in business, but the goal is not to get the credit. The goal is to be able to stay in business.

Ms. Bech:

Right.

Foundations of a Good Education

Dr. Coppersmith:

So…the foundations of a good education. [referring to interview question] Education is hard. Fundamentally, the thing that we’re trying to teach people is how to learn things. We do that by saying that there is material that everyone should know. You sell it by saying, “You need to know this stuff,” but actually there isn’t anything that you absolutely need to know if you know how to learn things. The goal is to get people to be able to learn things on their own. In terms of the foundations, it’s that learning different things requires…like for me, chemistry was effortless and physics was not…it’s that learning different things is different. Certainly learning things in history, in English and the social sciences, everything is different. I think that’s why you have to have some variety in what you learn. The key thing is that you’re actually not teaching students anything in particular. I mean, that’s not true, we teach them Newton’s Laws, but it wouldn’t matter if they know how to learn them. We start with these things that we think are super fundamental, but that’s what makes education so challenging, because what you’re really trying to teach them is not the material but how to learn the material. That’s really hard, and then also again there’s the relationship business, getting students to want to learn and to figure out how to learn and all that stuff. It’s just hard. I think that the thing I bring is that I know it’s hard, and I take it seriously, I prepare and I don’t wing it.

Academic Departments, Boards, and Committees

The key components of…

Ms. Bech:

…of an academic department. [referring to interview question]

Dr. Coppersmith:

I think the key to a department that functions well is knowing that everyone is trying to do the right thing, and that there is some shared sense of what the goals are. You feel that everybody is trying to do the right thing even if they disagree on what the right thing is. I think a big factor is how people feel about the size of the pie. If people feel that if something good happens to someone else then [they] will get less, then people are just trying to get things at the expense of other people. If people think that the pie can get bigger and it’s not a zero-sum game and that everyone benefits if the department gets better, that’s really helpful in terms of a department having a good atmosphere.

Ms. Bech:

I think it makes sense.

Dr. Coppersmith:

So, advisory boards and committees [referring to interview question]…Some of them are quite interesting. One activity that was very useful for me was to serve on review panels. They are important because of the importance of funding in the field. The government funding situation is really not very good and hasn’t been very good for quite a few years now, and being on review panels really helped my understanding of the process. When I apply for grants, it’s very hit or miss, and it’s very easy to take the rejections personally. But then when you are on some panels and see all the really great proposals that aren’t funded, you start to take it less personally. Instead you think, well, I tried, and if I’m not lucky it’s not that I’m a horrible scientist, it’s that times are tough.

Ms. Bech:

There’s limited funding.

Dr. Coppersmith:

It’s more limited than it used to be.

The most meaningful professional organization…[referring to interview question]. It turned out to be surprisingly meaningful to serve on the Board of Directors of the Gordon Research Conferences. The Gordon Conferences are mostly biological conferences, and exactly how I got on this board is a bit of a mystery to me. GRC is a private organization. They started with a small endowment back in the 1920’s, but now they basically run on cash flow. The registration fees for each conference cover the cost of putting on the conference, but with a little left over that they use to organize the conferences for the next year. While I was on the board, we decided to try to enable more people from underrepresented groups and countries to go to the conferences, and to make a 50/50 male/female board. And we just did it! That was really neat, we started a scholarship program for people from underrepresented groups and countries, and figured out how to make up the election slates so that the Board became 50-50 male/female. It’s really encouraging that occasionally, yes, you actually can do something. That was a fun board partly for that reason, and partly because the meetings were in interesting places. Most of the boards I’m on meet near Washington DC or O’Hare airport, but the GRC board went to Switzerland so we could look at potential conference sites in the Alps. In addition, I think the organization is very worthwhile. The Gordon Conferences are very useful for grad students. The accommodations are sort of primitive but the cost is low, so grad students are able to go. When I was a grad student I went to a couple of Gordon Conferences and I really liked them, so I really liked being on that board. I’ve done a lot of things for the American Physical Society, which I think definitely is the leading representative organization for physicists. Mildred Dresselhaus talked about the APS in her [Oral History Interview]. It is a very worthwhile organization. However, while serving on boards is worthwhile and can be interesting, I don’t see it as core. Research and teaching are the core of what I think I’m doing.

On Gender

So, we’re up to gender related [questions.] [referring to new section of questions] I’ve already talked quite a bit about my experiences in grad school. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but I will say one more thing about it. I made mistakes handling the situation, but on the other hand they did too, and I was 21 years old and they were in positions of authority. They were totally unwilling to admit that maybe there was bias. The manifestations of bias came in two categories. One type was completely cut and dried, there was no way that there wasn’t bias. For example, I was taking a lab course. I was doing an experiment and there was a male student on an identical apparatus next to me doing the same experiment. I set up the experiment and took all the data, and I wanted to be signed off so I could go on the next experiment. The professor said, “You have to analyze some of the data and show me that you know how to analyze the data before I’ll sign you off the experiment.” That was a complete waste of time because there was a limited amount of lab time and you want to do the experiments during the lab time and your data analysis at home when the lab is closed. You don’t need the lab equipment to do the data analysis. Then the guy next to me finished and the professor signed him off, without making him do any data analysis! It was an identical situation, and I was clearly treated as stupider and less competent. When I complained they said, “There’s no doubt you were treated differently but that’s such a trivial example,” and they wouldn’t do anything about it. And then there were a bunch of incidents where it wasn’t completely cut-and-dried because there wasn’t another person in exactly the same situation. As you go on in grad school that happens more and more. There were various unpleasant episodes, but they always said, “Well, that situation was ambiguous. You might think that was a problem, but there isn’t, you just misinterpreted the situation.” So either I had clearcut evidence of bias but it didn’t count because it wasn’t important enough to them, or it was something important but I didn’t have watertight evidence that there was any problem. That was the catch-22 at Cornell. That’s something that I’ve seen many times in the meantime, where somebody says, “Obviously this was not right, but it’s such a trivial example.” I try to be aware that just because the example is trivial, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a larger pervasive [problem].

Ms. Bech:

Right.

Dr. Coppersmith:

What was changing while I was at MIT [referring to interview question]: I was there when the student body was twenty percent female, in the process of going from four percent to fifty percent. First of all, I have to say I had a really great experience at MIT. A lot of people don’t like MIT but for me it was great. One thing that was great for me but that many other people don’t like is that it was possible to be anonymous. With me, that was great because I felt it was fair in a way that graduate school wasn’t. In terms of the gender dynamics at MIT bringing any challenges for female students, again, I only have good things to say, but the one thing was that when I didn’t have a date on Saturday night, I felt really bad, because again the ratio of men to women was so high. But, there was nothing to be done about that. So, what challenges do you see faced by young college girls [referring to interview question]? I’d say again that the big thing is figuring out what you want to do. It’s a tough business and you have to really know that you want to do it. I’d say that’s the hardest thing.

Ms. Bech:

Yes, it can be hard to decide.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes. Another challenge is that some people say, and I certainly have had this said to me, “If you’re a woman here then you got there because of Affirmative Action.” That was back in the day when there was Affirmative Action. You still have to prove yourself, while a guy in the same situation wouldn’t have to prove himself. I think that’s hard for people to be in this constant [situation of] trying to prove themselves, even to the point that you would think you wouldn’t have to do that anymore. Okay, so how do you connect with other women in STEM? [referring to interview question] I do a little bit of organizing events for female scientists. But I’d say the mostly I connect via informal, discussions.

Ms. Bech:

It’s informal?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes.

So, did I ever doubt myself? [referring to interview question] Yes! Did gender play a role in this doubt? I don’t know. I had problems, was gender the reason I was having these problems? [reading question] I suspect so, but I don’t know for sure. How did I overcome these issues [reading question]? Again, the way I overcame the worst problems I had was to leave. (laughter) I guess my view is not standard, but I think that if you’re in a really bad situation leaving is a good thing. Most people say that you should be persistent and stick with it, but that’s not always the right thing to do. [Reading question] Do you feel any pressure to balance your professional and personal life? I think yes. But, my husband also has pressure. I’d say when you want to have two careers and a kid at the same time, you’re always compromising and trying to find a balance. You always feel like you’re making it up as you go along. Do you have any advice for a woman trying to balance career and family life? [reading question] I’d say the main thing is to expect that you’ll feel like you’re making it up, like you’re doing the wrong thing a lot of the time. But overall I found having my daughter was really neat. I like hanging out with her. It’s fun. There was just a lot of fun in living that part of life.

Ms. Bech:

Do you think she’s going to be involved in science in any way? I don’t know how old she is.

Dr. Coppersmith:

I don’t know. She has to figure out what she wants to do. She’s sixteen, so she’s just finishing her sophomore year.

Ms. Bech:

She has time to figure it out.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Hopefully, when she gets to college she’ll figure it out. I don’t know what she’s going to do.

Have you seen women’s roles in STEM fields change over the years? [referring to interview question] It’s really slow. When I’m feeling optimistic, I think it’s going to be all worked out 150 years from now. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I think that maybe we’ll never get there. I certainly do have a perception that any improvement is hard to discern right now. I was very lucky. If I was older than I am I very much doubt that I would have survived because the sexism was so ingrained, but if I was younger I don’t know if I would have survived either because the job market is much tighter. As the job market gets tougher I think it’s harder for women and people in all underrepresented groups because of the sense that the system has to save jobs for the important people. So I would say that I don’t think it’s getting worse, but if it’s getting better I think it’s getting better slowly. In my years of teaching [referring to interview question], in terms of participation of women – I teach this course that again is by majority women. It’s probably two-thirds women. But the course is not at all designed for physics majors, so it’s not relevant to the question you’re asking. I don’t really perceive the change. Certainly in our graduate student population there hasn’t been a big change.

So now [with these next questions] I should reflect on my career or give some advice.

Career advice

Ms. Bech:

Oh yes. So what was your favorite job or position that you’ve held?

Dr. Coppersmith:

That’s a hard question. Going to Cornell was not a good move. But since then, all the other places that I have been at have been good. When I was a postdoc I chose to go to Brookhaven instead of Chicago, and Brookhaven was good. Then later on I did go to Chicago and was on the faculty there for a while, and that was good too! Being at Bell was good! My job now in Wisconsin has been good too! I think it’s actually a secret of life to be able to be in a situation with good things and bad things, and to be able to arrange your life to take advantage of the good things and minimize the bad things. Ever since grad school I’ve liked every job I’ve had. They were all different, but I’ve really enjoyed them all. What’s my favorite and why? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Ms. Bech:

All of them.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes. I liked my job in Chicago, I like my job here in Wisconsin, I liked my job at Bell. I liked being a postdoc at Brookhaven. The thing about Brookhaven is that I had so much freedom. I could hang out, I could visit Bell, I could visit Exxon. It was unbelievable! I was really very fortunate.

How could you help someone who is entering or contemplating physics? [referring to interview question] Now I’ll go on the soapbox a little bit. I purposely went into a little bit of detail about my problems in grad school. Lots of times when you read about famous people, everything just follows smoothly for them. They just go along from triumph to triumph and there’s not any point where they think they’re not going to make it. One thing that I wanted to get across is that I eventually “succeeded,” but I came really close to falling off the track. I came really close on a couple of occasions to not going on. I perceive that people think that if things don’t go smoothly, you must not be any good. But it’s possible to be perfectly capable and still get into a bad situation. That’s why I decided it was important to go on a little bit about being in an environment where nobody liked me, where everybody thought that I was just a problem. I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s fault. Sometimes there just isn’t a good match between what you have to offer and what they’re looking for. Fortunately I was able to get into a different environment where I could show people that I wasn’t just a problem. I hope that going over my experience helps someone else who is in a bad situation change their environment so that it is a better match and then they can show what they can do. That’s why I decided to talk about the problems that I had.

So, how do I define success in life in general [referring to interview question]? I think that success is trying to do something that you find interesting.

What are the steps that young people can take to prepare themselves for their first job? [referring to interview question] I guess it depends on the type of job it is. Do you mean like a science job?

Ms. Bech:

I think really any type of career. Science, or I guess whatever you’d like to say. When I think of this question I think of careers in general, and how to establish professional relationships and things like that.

Dr. Coppersmith:

This isn’t really a direct answer to that question, but I found that the most important thing in terms of building relationships is to see things from the other person’s point of view. When you’re giving a talk, think about what the audience is thinking. Thinking about how my actions affect other people’s perceptions, that for me was really important. But back to how to get started on a career track. There are the obvious things. You can build your CV. My daughter is getting ready to apply to college, so she works to get good grades, there is ACT Prep, then there are activities…

Ms. Bech:

Oh yes, I remember that.

Dr. Coppersmith:

If you want to go to grad school in physics, you need to do well in your classes and you have to do summer research. You need to find out the hoops that are expected and jump through them. But it’s also really important to figure out what you want to do so that you’re jumping through the hoops for the right reasons.

Ms. Bech:

The specific hoops.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Yes. You want to find out what the hoops are, but you really want to decide if you want to jump through them or not.

If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? [referring to interview questions] There are many things about my life that maybe were not ideal, but I would say, whatever. Going to Cornell in a lot of ways was a disaster, but again in the end it came out okay and having that experience of total failure actually has been very useful. As I said before, you can really learn a lot from the unpleasant experiences. So I’ll just go with it as it was. What was the greatest obstacle? [referring to interview question] On a scale of obstacles, all the things I complained about are actually very small, and I do appreciate that. My parents encouraged me to go to college in Boston. They had money to send me. All of the things that I overcame, on a scale of things people have to overcome, were so trivial. I feel that I don’t get to complain. What am I most proud of? [referring to interview question] I would say the thing I’m most proud of is that I have maintained my relationship with my husband, and have it so he can do his thing and I can do my thing and have that all balance and work out on the whole. We’ve been married thirty-three years. He’s been really supportive, and I like to think that I’ve been supportive of him. There are certain pieces of work I’m proud of, and I’m proud that I’ve been in business as long as I have in my career. Maybe that’s it, sustaining the family life and sustaining the career. Sustaining the relationships and the work over the long span.

Ms. Bech:

So here is a quote for you: Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I actually really like that quote. So what are your goals that you’re going to be pursuing in the future?

Dr. Coppersmith:

Right now I am working on quantum computing. The path that has enabled computers to have their incredible development since the 1950s has been to make the components smaller. That path will be basically hitting the end of the line sometime in the next fifteen years. But there are other ways that you can make more powerful computers, and that’s what quantum computing is about. It’s neat because to do it, you really need to do some new physics, and yet there is also a very clear technological goal. There’s a pretty big community of people working on it, with different groups trying to do it in different ways. We’re trying to make a quantum computer using silicon technology, hopefully a really big one. The tangible technological goal makes it different from most of my research, where I have been trying to understand fundamental concepts whose ultimate applications are not immediately obvious. I have this very strong belief that if you understand new things they will be good for something, but it’s actually very easy to explain to people why you’re trying to build a quantum computer and exactly what it will be good for if you succeed. It’s a very exciting time in the field, and it will be fun to work on that for the next bit. Exactly how long the bit will last, I’m not sure, and of course it depends on how well it goes. This goes back to the question you asked before. I’ve worked in a variety of fields, and what attracts me to a field is a vision of something bigger than the actual specific problem that I think I know how to solve. The goal is to crack open a new line of inquiry. The development of computers is a useful analogy, because although the invention of the original transistor was a great thing, the phenomenal importance happened because you could keep building on that advance. It’s sort of like pulling on the string, and the string keeps going and you could just keep progressing down this path and end up in a place that was very different from where you were after that initial advance. What happens is you have the idea that this will be an area that there might be something behind the crack you are going to make. Sometimes you get stuck and you don’t see how you’re going to get there from here, and that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way to turn it into something sort of big and continuing, but you can’t figure out what it is and then you have to find something else to do. You’re trying to do something where it’s sort of an exemplar or something bigger than the actual problem you’re solving. Lots of times it isn’t, you just solve the problem and don’t know what to do next. So my goal is maybe someday doing something really big, something that opens up a new vista that people can really explore. That would be stupendous. I still have the aspiration.

Ms. Bech:

Actually, I guess it was Valentine’s Day, Bill Nye spoke at Augsburg. His main point was just reiterating over and over again that science can change the world. He kept saying it in the funny voice, but just saying that every branch of science is really important to believe in. That’s what keeps things going and that’s progress. I really admire having those aspirations because I think that’s important for the drive.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Right. I think the key is to realize that probably you will fail, but you are not really failing, because there is so much value in trying.

Ms. Bech:

Okay! All right, well, thank you for taking the time to participate in the Oral History interview. Meeting you and talking with you has really been my pleasure, it’s been a fun conversation. Thank you so much for your time and for having the questions in front of you, all just very prepared. I’m very impressed with your work.

Dr. Coppersmith:

Great. Thanks so much!

Ms. Bech:

Thank you so much! Goodbye!

Dr. Coppersmith:

Goodbye.