As we gear up for Hidden Figures Revealed: Realizing the Dream, a panel discussion and screening of the 20th Century Fox movie production Hidden Figures happening in the LSU Union Theater this Friday, March 17, we are bringing you the voices and faces of outstanding women in STEM fields at LSU and beyond! We are engaging in a larger conversation about it's like to be a woman, and a woman of color, in science, technology, engineering and math.
This week, we chatted with Amber Stuver, a LIGO scientist and instructor in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy. Amber is realizing her dreams not only through her contributions to our ability to detect gravitational waves traveling across the universe, but also through her science communication activities and active support of other women in STEM, including her students.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Amber Stuver: Hello everyone! I am originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I got interested in science, especially astronomy, as a child, and I grew up to be exactly what I wanted to be: a scientist. In high school, I had an amazing high school teacher, Mr. Bowman, who introduced me to relativity. It was amazing. I thought to myself that if I was able to do the basic stuff in high school, I could do it for real. That is what led me to get a B.S. in physics (from Frostburg State University) and then an M.Ed. and a Ph.D. in physics (both from Penn State University).
I've worked on gravitational waves since I started graduate school because they fulfill my love for both astronomy and relativity. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. With the recent detections made by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, one of which is located in Livingston, LA), we are using gravitational waves to observe the universe using gravity instead of light. This is a whole new field of astronomy called gravitational-wave astronomy, and I've been privileged to be a part of it!
College of Science. What does a typical day look like for you?
Amber Stuver: I split my time between LIGO in Livingston and LSU. When I am at LSU, I get to work at around 10 a.m. since I don't have an early class this semester (and I am not a morning person). As soon as I get in, I start prepping for the three classes I'll teach that day. This includes getting demonstrations out of the demo room and making sure that my lecture notes and examples are prepared for presentations (although I do the bulk of that the night before).
I teach a calculus-based physics class for engineering majors starting at 11:30 a.m. I use the next hour to prep for my algebra-based physics class, which I teach for many pre-med and other majors. Then I have 30 minutes to eat lunch and go to the bathroom! Office hours are between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m., and then I have a half-hour to prep for my conceptual physical science class. After that class I go home, eat dinner, and do whatever I need to do for my day at LIGO the next day, which can include reviewing the daily performance of the detector when I am the scientist responsible for this.
Days at LIGO are early (for me) since I live about 45 minutes away. I leave at about 8 a.m. to be at LIGO on time to help at the Science Education Center with visiting students from around the state. The afternoon is mine to do my research. Since the announcement of the detections, there has been more interest in LIGO and gravitational waves, so I have also been doing more tours for dignitaries who are visiting the area and can't visit us during our monthly open houses. After I get home and eat dinner, I spend a few hours preparing lessons that I will give at LSU the next day.
I'm very busy!
College of Science: What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Amber Stuver: I wanted to discover new things about the universe. I've always had an interest in science, especially astronomy. I think what may have started this is watching classic Star Trek episodes as a kid. I even read the books!
Another important inspiration was getting to visit planetariums and science centers as a child. My family always supported my interest and never once did anyone tell me that I couldn't do this because I was a girl. I think that helped me a lot when my classes started being mostly boys. I never saw myself as different from them because my family never gave me the idea that I was different. That also helped me fit in a little better!
College of Science: How has being a woman impacted your experiences as a scientist? Have you faced particular challenges, or opportunities? Is there anything you wish were different about your own experience in science, or how other woman in STEM fields are treated?
Amber Stuver: During the first week of one of my classes in graduate school, the professor said to the whole class that he was surprised by the number of women that were admitted, because most of us would ultimately get married, have babies, and leave the field, he said. Mind you, maybe 25% of my incoming graduate class members were women, and he thought that was too many.
I shrugged it off because getting upset wouldn't do much for me. I resolved to simply prove him wrong. What was really heartening to me is how outraged my male friends were that a professor would say such a thing! Really, they were so much more upset than I was, and it went a long way to making me feel better. After all, that professor was on the verge of retirement and my friends were my future colleagues. I knew this behavior would not be as tolerated in the future.
Most of the time, being treated differently because I am a woman is much more subtle. Men have tried to silence me by criticizing everything I say and then trying to make it look like I am having hysterics when I defend myself. I don't even think that all the men who have done this to me realize what they are doing; I think it is ingrained in our society.
Other examples of ingrained behavior happen in all parts of society, like when assertive women are seen as being "bossy" (and I am censoring myself here) while the same attributes in men are seen as being "strong." I deal with this by managing the people around me. I won't be viewed in a favorable way if I come across as bossy so I have developed a personality that is very congenial. This is genuine (I really do like being nice and making people happy) and tends to make people want to cooperate with me. But if it is important and I am not being heard, I will absolutely stand up for myself and not care one bit what other people think of me.
College of Science: What advice do you have for other woman in STEM?
1: Don't see yourself as different. That is putting yourself at a disadvantage. That also means not expecting ANY special treatment, good or bad. Don't expect things to be handed to you, but also don't let people dismiss you.
2: Treat others fairly. I try very hard not to treat women differently than men and not to treat people who are different from me in other ways differently.
3: Make change where you can, but recognize when there is nothing you can do. If there is nothing you can do to change a situation, don't let the experience change how you see yourself.
4: Make GOOD friends. I don't mean friends who are like you in gender or race. I mean friends who will support you as you support them. There is no reason that a man cannot stand up for what is right for me as a woman. Distancing yourself from others doesn't affect change.
Also, beware of the Imposter Syndrome. This is a well-known phenomenon where someone who is a high achiever believes that they are going to be "found out" as a fraud even though there is no evidence to support it. I fight this battle with myself all the time. Even though I have a list of cool things I have done, I can convince myself that it was accidental and eventually it is all going to come out that I don't belong. This isn't something that just affects women or minorities. Everyone I've talked to about this has experienced it. Watch out for it and recognize it for what it is: insecurity and self-doubt. That doesn't make it true.
College of Science: Who is your science role model?
Amber Stuver: Dr. Gabriela Gonzalez. She is the person who got me involved in LIGO research when she was a professor at Penn State. When she came to LSU and I stayed behind to be with my husband, I was sad but glad that I still had an amazing scientist to work with in her stead. She has always been a mentor to me, she has always cared about me as a person. She has always been confident in what I can do, even when I was swamped in self-doubt, and she is an amazing scientist in her own right. I never thought that not only would I call her my friend almost 20 years later, but that we would both be faculty members at LSU. I want to be her when I grow up!
College of Science: How or where have you found support at LSU?
Amber Stuver: The community as a whole here at LSU has been great to me. The Department of Physics & Astronomy has been supportive of my teaching and accommodating of me needing to be off-campus for my research at LIGO. I've made good friends in the other faculty members who care about me and treat me as an equal. I've been through some tough times in the five years I've been teaching at LSU, but I looked forward to coming to work because I knew that I had a friend there who would listen to me when I wanted to talk or distract me when I didn't.
I've tried to do the same for my students. I care about their learning, but I also care about them. A few students have confided in me when there have been issues that got in the way of their studies. I find that to be one of the most rewarding things about teaching... when I can be more than just a teacher to them and help them become who they want to be.
College of Science: What are your goals / dreams for the future?
Amber Stuver: I am passionate about both the research and the teaching I do, so that is what I want to keep doing. Looking back, I think the little girl I was would be pleased with what I've become. I think I am who she wanted to be when she grew up. But what's next? I don't know! The scary part of being a scientist is that you become exactly who you work to be. If you want to become more, you need to put yourself out there; you need to put yourself out there even if you are scared that you may fail.
My mother gave me advice: Even if you try and you fail, you are in the same place as if you'd done nothing at all.
LIGO has FREE open houses every 3rd Saturday of the month, 1 - 5 p.m. at the LIGO Livingston Observatory.
Join the College of Science on March 17th to watch Hidden Figures, with scientists! Showtime is 5 p.m. in the LSU Student Union Theater. RSVP here.
FRIDAY, MARCH 17 | LSU UNION THEATER
- 3:45 p.m. Meet and greet with panelists
- 4:30 p.m. Theater doors open
- 5 p.m. Movie Screening
- 7 p.m. Panel discussion
Open to the public!