Physics Spotlight

September 2016
Photo of Professor Lori Goldner

Lori Goldner

Ph.D., University of California at Santa Barbara (1991)

We have chosen Professor Goldner to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to her research in Single Molecule Biophysics, her dedication to the advancement of women in science, and her new role as the Director of the Center for Biological Physics. Professor Goldner specializes in Single Molecule Biophysics and has a background in Low Temperature Physics and Atomic Physics. Please take a moment to check out the Goldner Research Lab website.

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

My background is diverse.  I majored in physics at Cornell University, but I am also two courses short of a music major, and I completed a senior thesis on the perception of sound in the psychology department. While I was an undergrad I worked in 5 different labs, including two summer internships at Bell Labs, and was introduced to research in high energy, laser, low-temperature and solid state physics.  I decided to go on in low temperature physics for graduate school but never intended to stay in the field. I did a postdoc in atomic physics at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and then worked in their Optical Technology division for another 14 years, developing super-resolution and single-molecule-sensitive microscopies. At UMass, I use single-molecule-sensitive techniques to study biological molecules and molecular complexes.

I think that my very diverse background, including 17 years outside of academia, give me unique perspective that is useful in advising.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

First, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be an experimentalist.  I loved observing nature and doing experiments as a kid, and I’ve always enjoyed building things, so that part was a no-brainer. The choice of field was harder, because I am interested in very many things.  I chose low temperature physics because it was technically challenging and I thought I would learn more earning a PhD in low temp than in any other subfield.  To pick a graduate school I first got advice from my undergraduate professors regarding which universities had the best low temp programs.  I applied to the top 6 or so and visited the ones that I got into over spring break, making sure that I scheduled appointments with any professors whose work looked interesting to me.  I was seeking research groups and faculty with whom I would enjoy working, and also a good peer group. I identified three such faculty at U.C. Santa Barbara and the students seemed both a lot smarter than me and very friendly, so I went there.

My advice to students would be twofold.

First: Be sure that you love the idea of graduate school and can commit to working long hours (including nights and weekends) for at least 5 years.  It takes a lot to get a PhD.  Physics graduate school pays for itself (enough to live on, including tuition), so don’t let money figure into your decision.

Second: Think carefully about what school you will attend, contact faculty, visit, be sure there are at least a few faculty members and research groups that you would enjoy working with.  You are going to be spending a lot of time with these folks; if you’re not happy things can get very difficult.  Note that unless you are very, very, sure, identifying a single faculty member is not enough.  First impressions acquired during a quick visit aren’t always correct.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?

For undergraduates:  You should not be flipping burgers after your freshman year.  Get into a lab as soon as possible, work in as many different labs as you can, apply for summer internships. Course work is a lot more interesting and exciting, and you’re likely to do better at it, if you are using what you learn in a real job. Take computational physics, the electronics lab course, and/or ILab as soon as you can: these courses give you skills that make you immediately employable in a tech job. Learn to program in at least Matlab and a more conventional language like python, java, or C++.  Potential employers most likely want you to have some experience working in tech and some familiarity with programming.

For graduate students:  Join a professional society that caters to the industry you are interested in.  For example, SPIE meetings are fantastic places to network and meet potential employers.  Go to at least one of these meetings before graduating.  Remember that employers don’t often care that much about your specific training: most likely no one else does exactly what they do, so there is the assumption that you will need to be trained. They want to know that you can work in a team, that you have good communication skills, that you are motivated, and that you can learn new things quickly and independently.  The PhD (or a Masters degree) tells them you can do the latter. Your own networking does the rest.

For everyone: Be patient. My experience is that it takes 3-8 months to land the right job.  Have a good, professional, resume. The resume gets you in the door and will be widely distributed.  It says a lot about you and how you communicate. It should be written in such a way as to make it easy for the reader to find important information about you.  It also needs to be professionally formatted and absolutely free of spelling and grammar mistakes.

Briefly, explain your research:

I use optical techniques to understand the structural changes and function of single biomolecules in complex environments up to and including living cells.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

No one class covers it.  There is an undergraduate biological physics class and an optics laboratory course that are relevant.  The intermediate laboratory course (ILab) has some units that are closely related.  Statistical Physics, Mechanics, E&M, even Quantum Mechanics, all have some relevance.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I typically work with 2 to 5 undergraduates.  Right now there are two.  One is working on a project to characterize the pH inside of attoliter water droplets.  We use these droplets to confine single molecules for study, and pH control is important.  The other undergraduate is working on a project to characterize and understand the motion of a particular enzymatic complex in plant cells.  Many of my papers have at least one undergraduate co-author.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

I like teaching small, hands-on courses. ILab and Computational Physics are two examples.

What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?

I enjoy music and play several instruments.  I also enjoy biking and kayaking.

What is the biggest challenge you faced as a woman in physics?  What is the biggest challenge to women in physics today?

Implicit bias is the biggest challenge. My experience is that the problem is quite a lot worse in academia than outside of it. I suspect that this is because the academic culture is based on constant evaluations, all of which are subject to implicit bias. There are now many studies that show a glaring gap in the assessment of work done for example, by men and by women, even when the only difference in the work is a masculine or feminine name at the top of the paper.  In industry and at government labs, evaluations are few and far between (once a year) and often involve face to face discussions with a supervisor.  The emphasis is on getting good work done as a team. The process can be useful to everyone involved. In academia, the culture is primarily one of individual achievement, and there are constant and impersonal (not face-to-face and often single-blind) evaluations going on:  grants, peer reviews in publication, tenure and promotion decisions, annual reviews.  It seems to me that the effort to make decisions more objective by, for example, withholding the names of reviewers but not reviewees, just gives folks more of an opportunity to integrate implicit bias in decision making.  I’m not saying I know what the answer is, I don’t. But implicit bias remains an enormous problem and one that I deal with daily.  My biggest challenge is not letting this reality drag me down.

We know you are working to organize a group of biophysicists on campus, what are some of the biggest questions facing the biophysics community?  Do you have any upcoming events that you would like the physics community to know about?

I am the incoming director of the Center for Biological Physics, taking over from Adrian Parsegian upon his retirement, and for answers to these questions I refer the reader to that website: http://www.physics.umass.edu/cbp/