It was less of a lecture and more of a conversation about a common love over cookies and coffee.
Thirty Loudoun County high school girls who have a knack for science were invited to visit with one of the most respected scientists in the field of theoretical computer science and physics—Jennifer Tour Chayes—at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus Wednesday.
A read through Chayes’ résumé would intimidate most anyone. She is the managing director of Microsoft Research New England and Microsoft Research New York City, both of which she co-founded, and also holds more than 25 patents.
But Chayes’ casual demeanor instead invited the girls to take part in a dialogue about a subject they all share a passion for and can all contribute to—science.
Plus, it helps that Chayes started the lecture with this admission: “I’m a bit of a rebel.”
“When I was younger, I used my rebellion for bad, and when I was older I use my rebellion for good,” she said, and told them she dropped out of high school and married at age 19 before pursuing a career in theoretical physics. “Use your rebel productively.”
Chayes shared her story of how she turned her favorite school subjects into a successful career, saying, “At first, I thought math was a hobby. I didn’t realize you could do anything with it.”
Chayes graduated first in her class at Wesleyan University, and later earned her Ph.D. in mathematical physics at Princeton. She taught for several years as a professor of mathematics at the University of California Los Angeles before she joined Microsoft Research in 1997 when she co-founded the Theory Group. The Theory Group, according to Chayes, analyzes questions in theoretical computer science using techniques from statistical physics and discrete mathematics.
“I think I have the risk gene,” Chayes told the girls of giving up tenure at UCLA to go to Microsoft. But, she added, it was a good risk to take because “the things I had been thinking about in physics came to life as a way to explain all these networks. Suddenly, it was all relevant.”
Eager to turn the spotlight on the group of girls, Chayes asked each of them what they hope to do with their talents and interests in science. Each of the girls rattled off a long list of universities to which they’ve applied, and an equally impressive list of career aspirations, including neuroscience, medicine, psychology, biology research and veterinary science.
During a question and answer portion of the session, one of the girls asked Chayes to offer other tips for pursuing those dream careers, saying, “I think we know we want to do it, we just don’t know how to get there.”
Chayes urged the girls to look for scholarship opportunities, including seeking out organizations and companies who want to fund a particular field of research. She also encouraged them to work on their writing and communication skills. “You have to be able to explain and sell your work to get it funded,” she added.
Anjali Bhatnagar and Priya Brito, both seniors at Potomac Falls High School, said during a break that the event with Chayes offered more than a typical lecture but a bit of inspiration.
“It’s encouraging to see another woman who is interested in science and is proof that you can actually excel in it,” said Anjali, who plans to study pre-med or veterinary science.
“Schools are pushing STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] so much, and this is an opportunity to see what STEM is all about in the real world,” added Priya, who has her focus set on a career in medicine.
Anjali said she looks for any opportunities to connect with those who have excelled in science because it gives her encouragement to continue to work hard toward her career aspirations.
“It’s good to hear how they got to where they are,” she said, “and see, oh, OK, what I’m learning in class is useful.”
The girls who attended the event are at the top in their class at their respective schools. They were nominated by the science department chairs at each of their high schools to attend the event.
Chayes also presented a talk, “Age of Networks,” to more than 300 Wednesday evening as part of the Janelia Farm Research Campus’ Dialogues of Discovery lecture series. But Chayes’ afternoon discussion with high school students was a unique event for the campus.
For other events at the research campus, located in Ashburn, go to www.janelia.org.