Quantum Physics for All - with Deborah Berebichez

Quantum Physicist and TV Host Deborah Berebichez talks about her experience in Finland, along with how she has made it as a woman in science.

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Quantum Physics for All - with Deborah Berebichez




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Deborah Berebichez Episode

Antonio Santiago: Mary Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Jane Goodall, Alice Ball, and Mary Jackson all have one thing in common being women who are scientists in a field dominated by men. According to a 2018 study women only make up 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math, and they make up even less of the workforce in computer science fields.

 Hi folks, you're listening to that's, child's play brought to you by Kide Science. And in today's episode, we are going to discuss women and girls in stem explaining quantum physics to children.

And if you really actually exist, so without further ado, let's get into it.

 Kide Science talks a lot about equality and education. Because research shows that play-based science learning transcends socioeconomic status, gender, and sex. This guest. 

She popularizes complex science concepts on the little screen. 

Deborah: there's no way that someone can jump off of 30 feet into a shallow pool of water and survive that. light travels a lot faster through hot air than to cold air, which is a lot denser. A great example of resonance frequency is that trick we've all seen when people press their finger around the rim of a wineglass and you know, you've hit resonant frequency

when the glass goes, waaaah

 double slit experiment is a way to show that both light and matter can display characteristics of a wave. 

Antonio Santiago: Our guest today is the first Mexican woman to get a PhD in physics from Stanford. She's a physicist, quantum scientist, keynote speaker And TV host, her name is Deborah Berebichez she now lives in Helsinki, Finland working as a lead scientist in the micro electronics and quantum computing sector at the research center V T T.

Deborah: And Finland. 

Is building its first quantum computer there. And that's the team that I work in. 

Antonio Santiago: Deborah is well-established and she's made great contributions in the stem field. She's like a one in a million in society. And as a Latino woman, it almost didn't happen.


Deborah: I was actually discouraged from pursuing a career in science when I was very young in Mexico because I belonged to a small conservative community. And I was told that as a girl, I better pick something more feminine, like communications or marketing and. 

As I grew older, I started to read books about mathematics and physics because I was insanely curious about the world. but I always felt that it wouldn't be for me and I wouldn't be able to do it because all of these men and Counselors in school. And my friends in school were saying, that's ridiculous. Physics is for men and it's for geniuses, too, which I knew I wasn't. It was a pretty scary time where I think I lost a lot of confidence about my math skills. 

Antonio Santiago: Eventually, despite the odds, Debbie would go on to get a degree from Brandeis university in philosophy and physics. It's rare for Latina women, especially at that time, but Debbie had an inspiration. 

Deborah: My father was a civil engineer. May he rest in peace. I recall from a very young age, he would take me on these trips and he was building this huge construction things like a hydraulic dam or bridges or highways. And there was always physics and engineering involved in it. And I was extremely curious. So even from age three, I would go on trips with him. 

And I would ask my father questions about how they would build things and he had all these theories about vectors and the support of the bridge and this and that. And I was. Just always very inspired by what are the laws of nature that make all of this possible. And I ask questions and questions. And then when I was about 14 years old, I met a friend. 

 Who was really cool and really crazy in a sense that he was listening to David Bowie music when no one in Mexico knew what it was. And I always looked up to him and he loved physics. And so he really. It was like the cool thing for him. He made it cool he made it part of it wasn't just for nerds or outcasts, like everybody else had made me think of it. 

He made it be really cool and modern and befitting to my curiosity and my lifestyle. So that's when I said, I want to study this field. 

Antonio Santiago: So he made science cool and accessible for you that tracks with your career currently, uh, especially with your presence in media and trying to make science accessible for the general public. Did you know that this was something that you wanted to do? 

Deborah: I knew I wanted to do this. Media and acting and presenting on TV way before I knew I wanted to do physics. And so when I finished my BA in physics, I had an amazing mentor, Janet Who had come from Turkey like 30 years before me with the same scholarship at Brandeis. And she had told me that with the privilege of having the scholarship and being able to study. 

For free, in a very good university in the U S I had a responsibility with privilege comes responsibility, and that I could be a role model for many other girls in other countries, or even in the U S who like myself. Felt attracted to science, but felt like they couldn't do it. And so from then I said, wow, how powerful would it be? If I could combine both areas that I'm passionate about acting and presenting and explaining things in entertaining ways. 

And the very technical field of physics that I study. And I'm so passionate about. And I started to look for opportunities of doing that. So first it was in kindergartens or, primary schools. I would get invited to speak to Hispanic. , girls and I was the first role model they had ever seen in science. And then it was in larger stages like Ted and, Ted X's at local cities. 

 I started to see that being on camera, being . Out there. Presenting creating initiatives and workshops for young women really made a big change because I started to hear the stories back from them. 

And seeing that after meeting me and meeting others and networking with other female scientists. change the course of their life. They changed their choice for their career. So I've been looking for more and more opportunities to do that. 

Antonio Santiago: Yeah, representation is really important for everyone. Little ones need to see more than one image of a scientist to believe that they can also be a scientist. So you study really complex things like quantum physics, and that is a topic that is. Not child's play. How do you convey these difficult topics to the average media consumer? 

Deborah: It's a great question. Antonio and, they say, Einstein said this, other people say Feinman another famous physicist, said it, but there's a quote saying, if you cannot explain what you're doing, 

To your grandmother or to a five-year-old in simple words, it means you don't understand it. And I really take it to heart. I love this quote. And so for example, right now I'm working. With engineering a machine that is based on the laws of quantum mechanics, which is an incredibly complex and weird area of mathematics and physics. 

And how do I start what the process is first? I like to say that because I wasn't the kind of kid. Who was like super talented from the beginning and things came easy to them. Because I know what it's like to not understand something. Then I'm pretty good at explaining it because I go to the very basics of it. 

For example, I've spent the past couple of weeks reading papers from 50 years ago, when scientists dreamt about what a quantum computer would be like and what they thought it could do. And I go to the very almost cartoonish ways of explaining quantum mechanics. And I see where the potential mistakes are because of course my responsibilities, I have to be faithful to the science. 

It has to be correct. It has to be that I'm explaining things. As they are, as we know them. So how do you do that with at the same time being entertaining and clear and concise. And it's a very hard process, I must say, it's. So I first imbue myself in all the. Old literature of the very basics of the topic. 

Then I challenge myself to forget about all the papers I've read and just write a script about what I want to say. How would I explain it to a five-year old? Like my daughter and then I have meetings with colleagues who are a t the top of these fields, cutting edge. And I explain it back to them. 

As in the language of a five-year-old and then they're like, oh no, be careful because you know that i s not entirely correct because it could be interpreted as this and that. And so they point out all the mistakes. So I go back to the board and I tried again to add some complexity to it. 

But, to be more faithful, but at the same time, keeping it. Rather entertaining. I work very hard with illustrators and graphic designers for when I do videos so that they can help me. Visualize things that are happening in the quantum world. And even if we can't see them in reality, because these are like tiny, 

Particles, at least I can make a drawing or a visualization of it so that people can imagine better what's happening so that it's a whole process of back and forth and editing and just progressing until you get to the. To the optimal approximation of what reality and all the data is telling us. 

Antonio Santiago: Okay, Debbie, I have a challenge. I watch a lot of Netflix, documentaries and YouTube videos about quantum physics. And they're just so. Weird. Like it goes against everything we've ever learned and thought about physics in a way. My favorite concept that I've dived deep into is quantum. Um, entanglement, but I can't exactly wrap my head around it. 

Can you explain to me in layman's terms? What is quantum entanglement? 


So entanglement means. That two particles are related. Even when they can be a very large distance away from each other. In what way are they related? We don't exactly know. What does it mean? In our regular world to be. Related meaning to influence one another. We have to be pretty close. We, I don't know. I can push you. So then I have a force. 

On you, I can electrify you if I've touched Van der Graaf generator. And so I transfer forces to you through a mechanism that we know. Now in quantum physics, we don't know the mechanism, but what we do know is that we measure that. Again, in, in quantum mechanics, you can't know both the momentum or the speed of a particle as well as its position. You don't know where something is until you measure it. And when you measure that means that you have no information you've given up on any information about the speed that it was traveling any direction it was traveling in, et cetera. 

If you'd know the speed and you go ahead and measure the speed, then you have absolutely no information about where that particle is in that particular moment when you measured it. So entanglement means that there are things like spin. Which you can think of as a magnet, being north pole, south pole, like up and down. 

If we measure a particle that is related to another particle somewhere else. Even if they haven't been in contact and we know that their spin is going to be the same. And then we change the spin of one here. And a mile away or very far away, the other particle also changes spin. So we know they are related because 

there is some transfer of information. But we don't know the exact mechanism, why they are related. 

Antonio Santiago: Okay. Yeah. I love that explanation and I'm just so excited for us to figure out something like quantum entanglement. Now, Debbie on social media and interviews, you often state that you're not a genius in math or physics, and that people shouldn't necessarily have to feel like a genius to get into the field. 

But how do you graduate with a literal PhD in physics from literally Stanford? 

And not claim to be a genius. 

Deborah: I do think there's certainly an innate talent that makes people gravitate towards certain fields. But I'm. a huge believer in that talent plays a small role, actually. And I'll tell you why. I was never encouraged to pursue math when I was young. So I wasn't bad at math, but I also wasn't the wizard kid. 

That won the math Olympiads and was like the best in math in the class. And everybody thought, oh my God, , they're gonna go and be a mathematician I wasn't that. I did have a bit of innate talent, but. 

I started my physics PhD at Stanford with a creme de la creme, the top students from all over the world. Who had been most of we were 34 people starting in my cohort and only I think, 14 or so graduated. After six, seven years of doing the PhD and many of the people who quit, we were only two women in those 34, by the way. 

But many of the people who quit were actually quite talented at it. Their parents were professors at Harvard or Princeton in physics. they actually had one. The math Olympics and whatnot. , but they didn't stay put, they didn't have maybe the resiliency that you need or they didn't have the. 

courage that it takes to choose a topic and research it. They didn't have the discipline or whatever. In the end, the ones who make it and the ones who succeed are not the people for whom things come easily. It's the people who learn how to get up. Every time they have a challenge and after each obstacle. 

Those are the people. Who get to the end and succeed. 

Antonio Santiago: As mentioned Debbie was in her PhD physics program with one other woman. The only two women finished the program. So they started with 34 students around 14 finished, 

and two of them were women. I couldn't help, but theorize, why the numbers worked out that way? It was almost like while the others felt like they deserved a seat at the table. The women in the program had to make a seat at the table. 

And Debbie has to deal with the intersectionality of being not only a woman, but a Latina and an immigrant in the United States. 

Deborah: Being a woman in physics in these times definitely had its challenges. It has its advantages too, for example, once you overcome a lot of obstacles and you're invited to a conference to speak and present. You definitely stand out because it's a sea of men in the program and so , it has an advantage that you will probably receive a little bit more curiosity or attention. However, the disadvantages are plenty. So it's still a huge cost, especially in physics. 

A personally I did encounter a lot of Challenges, . So that intersectionality comes into the equation because as a Latin woman, 

I'm more expressive and I'm more social. And I tend to be more. Not louder, just, wanting to socialize more. And that was a big no-no in a physics department where it's. Big difference being, the nerds in school that have always stayed away from the parties and the socializing. They want to keep their. 

Boys club. And then this woman comes from Latin America, from Mexico, and she wants to do physics, but she also wants to go salsa dancing on the weekends. There was a lot of rejection. Whereas the more American woman that was with us in the program, she was more accepted as part of the crowd because 

they perceived her probably as a better fit to that. Community. And so I think it, it was very hard and then at work. It became very challenging. I remember when I was working in data science and we were selling models to banks, risk models, I would go with a male colleague. 

to meetings with all these PhDs. And my colleague was very smart, but he worked in sales. His job was only to talk about pricing of the models and. Various factors that included in how the bank or the hedge fund could use the model. But I was a researcher who created the model. And very often they would ask him the technical questions, they thought I was a secretary or the assistant of this male colleague, even though I was a researcher behind it, 

I have numerous examples. 

Antonio Santiago: Yeah. And study after study shows that women who are assertive often get confused with being aggressive. And that people have a much lower tolerance for women standing up for themselves than men. Now. Debbie came to Finland and has received a lot of media coverage. Finland is a small country and having a media presence. 

Like her here is a big deal. 

Some things happened that you can Google, but basically Debbie standing up for herself, caught a lot of flack and led to a lot of negative comments. Debbie, how do you handle things like this? 

Deborah: Thank you for asking that Antonio I'm developing a course. To teach everything I've learned in a 25 year career. To how to accelerate your career for women in stem. And one of the main things is that it's there was a study at NYU called the likeability study. Men don't have to choose to be either likeable, or competent. They can be both that, you go to wall street. And they can be. 

Really unlikable and not very nice people and they're hugely respected. And if it's a man, it's part of his job to be like super hard on people and make people cry and well, that's just part of it. And that's because he's so competent. Nobody understands them. If you're a woman. You are forced to choose if you want to be liked, which was my initial desire. When I started working there, then I was nice to everyone. And what happened over time is that I was perceived as not competent. 

And, I got passed over for a promotion. When, it was clear that I deserved that as much as the colleagues that were working with me. And, all sorts of things because I ended up doing people's work and not getting credit for it. And then if you choose to be competent, there are, like you say, adjectives out there that describe. 

Female CEOs and women in stem with really nasty words. again, it's a thing that definitely affects people in their career. I've had female colleagues who say I can't be on Twitter because when I started to promote science, I get attacked so much that I just on a personal level, I can't take it. 

Antonio Santiago: Has your experience in Finland been any different? 

Deborah: Sadly? No. So as soon as I arrived in Finland, I started asking. Around I met my first three months in Helsinki. I met the most spectacular women, like the highest concentration of really cool kick-ass women that I had ever met in such a short amount of time. Every week, people were introducing me to two or three women who are CEOs in tech companies, who were 

developing amazing things and technologies and data science, new materials and packaging, and you name it and at the same time, when I spoke to a public speaking agent, he said to me, no, there's still very few women in science and tech comparatively. To the proportions in population. I said, but why, if all these women here are amazing and free to study, he said, it could be a historical thing, but we even have a term for it. 

Antonio Santiago: There is a term for this. And this term is called the gender paradox. 

Deborah: Which states that, even though there seem to be no barriers for women to get attracted and pursue careers in stem, they s till choose. Careers that were more appropriate. For women in the old, in old school, in the sixties or seventies. 

And I'm very curious about why that is. 

Antonio Santiago: The gender paradox is just so fascinating. 

One hypothesis has been that. Even though society is equal for the most part here, Scandinavian and Nordic countries are still consuming media where gender stereotypes are still very much portrayed. 

So how can you a little girl see yourself as a scientist or aspire to be a scientist when that's just not what you're seeing on a day-to-day basis? . 

Deborah: I've been surprised, like for example, my son loves tractors and engines and machines, and there are a lot of women operating heavy machinery in Helsinki, and it's amazing. Like we are watching this 

huge lever like lifting something, I don't know, 20 floors up in the sky and there's a woman giving the directions and it's just beautiful to watch. And I'm. Happy that both my son and my daughter are looking at those examples. Also police or people in parks and doing, the cutting of trees and stuff. A lot of it is women, and this is fantastic to see. 

Antonio Santiago: Now, given the nature of this pod, we of course have to talk about. Finnish pedagogy and how strongly tied it is to play based learning. How has it been for your kids here 

Deborah: It's one of the best things in Finland. It's what makes me want to stay here for longer. The education is amazing. The freedom that kids have, the safety that you feel for them to engage in play. They actually by law or by requirement in Finland, they play outdoors at least three hours a day, every day in New York city, which. 

You could say has much better weather than Finland. They would only go outdoors every couple of weeks or every three weeks. And if it's raining, forget it. If it's snowing, you may not even go to school. And here, no matter what the weather is they told us this is the stuff you need to buy to prepare them for the weather. So they get prepared. They go, every day they explore the forest, they explore like survival techniques and she's like, mommy, don't worry that it's raining. I can build us a shelter. 

This is just so incredible and they are not asked to, or obligated to write their names or study math at five years old. Not yet. Right now, it's all focused on play. Have I ever met a 10 year old that doesn't know how to write their name? No, never. They'll eventually learn. To write words very well. It's not a competition. It's about learning how to enjoy learning. 

And that they're doing. 

Antonio Santiago: So why is enjoying learning important and how can we keep that joy?

Deborah: because we have taken. Learning to such a competitive environment that you see right now, a lot of it in the U S in. Asia. And even in Europe, a lot of stressed out kids who have to compete because getting into schools. 

Comes from being better for being faster at something. When I have friends who are standing out and, kicking ass out there in physics. Who were really slow at calculating certain things, but eventually they persisted and they're still there, even though they may be slower at some things. So it's not about doing it faster and better and being the first in class to, to do things. I also came to physics a bit late because I was not allowed to before. 

And so the more you teach a child to enjoy nature to. To play with learning the more they're going to love it and like it, and be attracted to it. Uh, My son, for example, loves reading books. He doesn't know how to read it, but he thinks that he says I'm reading a book. And. And we, we find it so fascinating when we try to encourage it. 

I really hope that for his entire life, he views books as a game, as a play, because that guarantees that he'll go back to them and he'll u se books as a means for enjoying life. And what better guarantee that he'll continue to read than viewing books as a play? That's why it's so important. And science is all about trial and error. 

And if we're in a culture that penalizes people for failure, then we're never going to advance, right? That's why the us is so amazing in technology because it's a culture, fostering startups and failure is even celebrated. In Silicon valley. And we want that because when you play in the world, when you have new ideas and you risk proposing them and going ahead and discovering new things in a playful way, 

Those are the people that changed the world. Those are the people that are going to arrive at amazing new and innovative results. 

Antonio Santiago: Also, when we talk about learning through play, we talk a lot about working with a child's curiosity that when you embrace a child's ability to wonder and ask questions, you're truly allowing them to gain critical thinking skills. It's why I love what I do so much, because it seems so strongly attached to creating a better planet. 

Deborah: That's why I always say the best gift you can give to anyone is curiosity. The gift of being curious about the world. When parents ask me for advice, how do I convey to my kids? That science is cool. I say. Just don't ever give them the answer to something. Don't get them used to a world where what they care about is getting the answer, right? Like mommy, 

why is the sky blue and you just like Google it or why, why is two plus two, four? Let's think about it. Okay. Grab those apples. Okay, so you give me two and then. your brother's going to give me another two. So how many do you have you see it now? Let's play. What if then you take one away. If they visualize it, if they see it, they're going to be much more open-minded and more. 

Certain. About that result. And so I am a huge advocate for, teaching kids to approach the world with a critical and open mind. Why do you think it's blue? 

Antonio Santiago: Okay. And Debbie, every episode we ask this question, What is something that a child <has asked or said that left you shocked or curious or questioning the meaning of life my two year old son is constantly. 

 Playing with me and saying this phrase, where is me? Instead of saying, "Where am I?" - He, it's the cutest thing. And he goes and hides behind the curtain and he says, where is me? Where is me and so now my husband and I have started saying that all the time and it's or. Then my daughter started saying, what is me? 

And then we're like, wow, like that's such a good question. Yes, what is me like that leaves me, like, how do I answer that? Of course he's. Saying it with the purpose of mommy, look for me behind the curtain, but for us it really makes you ponder. And my daughter. 

Just keeps asking, all kinds of questions every day that leave me. baffled 

and just the idea that something as small as a language mistake can lead to an existential crisis. I can just imagine that if I heard that this sort of rabbit hole, I'd go down like. Wait a minute. What IS me? 

Deborah: It's also like about quantum mechanics. I want to be like, where is me is not so certain. You are here. But in quantum mechanics, you are also not here. And you're also here in this other place. So where is me? It's not a straightforward answer. 

Part of you's here, but some of your atoms are. Somewhere else. 

Antonio Santiago: We're here and we're not here. Great note to end it on. 

Debbie. Thank you so much for coming onto the show. 

Deborah: Thank you, Antonio. I really admire what you guys are doing at Kita science. 

Antonio Santiago: Well, that's it for this week's episode. If you liked what you heard, please like follow or leave us a review on apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you're interested in a free trial of Kide Science, just go to Kide Science dot com. We also have a Facebook community with many different resources, a blog, and just so many other good and free play based learning activities. 

All of this can be found in the show notes. All right. Well, thank you so much for listening to that's. Child's play. See you next time. 


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