Lara Anderson Profile

Lara Anderson (Utah & Magdalen College 2004) is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech University. Her research focuses on the interface of High Energy Particle Physics and String Theory. She is a Goldwater Scholar and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She holds Bachelors degrees in Physics and Mathematics from Utah State University, a doctorate in Mathematical Physics from the University of Oxford and has held research positions at the University of Pennsylvania, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and Harvard University.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Lara Anderson: I just finished a book that I really enjoyed called “Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott. It’s a nonfiction description of her first year as a single parent after the birth of her son. It’s an incredibly frank look at parenthood, life and being a professional woman. My husband and I are considering starting a family in the next couple of years and I found it really engaging to find a person honestly talking about going after what they really want and balancing real life at the same time.

Rhodes Project: How did you first become interested in physics?

Lara Anderson: It was a Eureka moment for me when I was twelve years old. I went into a planetarium with my family and there was a star show designed by Stephen Hawking being shown. It was about the history of the universe – large-scale structures, planets, stars, black holes – and I just thought it was so cool that people could figure out stuff like that just by thinking about it; that you could spend your entire life thinking about those questions and even possibly answer them. So I walked out of the planetarium and announced to my family that I wanted to be a physicist when I grew up!

Rhodes Project: What does your research involve at the moment?

Lara Anderson: My research is in high energy particle theory and String Theory. I’m trying to work out what are the basic building blocks of the universe and what laws govern their behavior: the smallest Lego that you can build everything else out of. The work I do is very mathematical but there are also a lot of large scale experiments going on right now that are really exciting. For example, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland just discovered a new particle last year – the first new particle discovered in my professional lifetime – called the Higgs Boson. This particle is responsible for giving other particles that we see in nature their mass, determining how strong they interact with everything else.

Rhodes Project: What do you like most about your job?

Lara Anderson: It ties back to what I discovered when I was twelve. The fact that you can actually figure out very basic, very important things about the universe just by thinking about them is really amazing to me.

Rhodes Project: What has been the most important thing about life you’ve learned as a physicist?

Lara Anderson: The importance of honesty. Honestly with yourself, with how you think about things, with how you approach the world. One of the amazing things about physics is that, for the most part, opinion doesn’t enter into it. There are right and wrong answers. In life it is incredibly easy to deceive yourself about just about everything. The meticulous scientific mindset teaches you not to impose what you want on the world but to try and see how things actually work, to try and keep an open mind and really observe, rather than guess or hope.

Rhodes Project: What’s the next big question in your field?

Lara Anderson: The question is what particles we are going to discover in nature beyond the Higgs Boson. There is one guess, which has been studied very extensively over the last 20 years, called “supersymmetry”. Supersymmetry is a prediction for a whole other collection of particles that would be the partners of all the particles we have seen in nature thus far. Whether this guess is right or not will have very big implications for how all the fundamental forces in nature link up together and really whether the last 50 years of particle physics are on the right track or not.

Rhodes Project: What are the main challenges facing women in science?

Lara Anderson: In my field there are still very few women. In particle physics it is on the order of two or three percent. Although the situation is much better for woman now than 20 or 30 years ago, there is still something of a question of people taking you seriously, whether or not you can really be as competent as a man. I have definitely felt there was a question mark in the air about whether I could do what I wanted to do. I have had very few female role models; not a single female professor as an undergraduate and only one in graduate school.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman looking to go into your area?

Lara Anderson: Do what you are interested in. If you are really enthusiastic, if your work excites you and you are willing to spend a long time figuring it out, that will carry you a long way. Understand that at the moment, women have to be better and little more committed than their male counterparts to be taken as seriously.

Rhodes Project: You were homeschooled during your high school years. How do you think this education away from the traditional classroom, away from the stereotypes that boys are good at math and science and girls are good at creative work, affected your development?

Lara Anderson: It definitely had an impact. My academic upbringing was pretty unusual; my parents did a phenomenal job. They were good at having us feel that the process of learning was our own choice and responsibility; I was 14 when I first realized that if I hadn’t wanted to spend all day reading and learning things that they would have made me anyway. I didn’t feel like there were any limitations on what I could be interested in. That applied not only in academics but in things like sports. As I kid I was very into martial arts and soccer and traditionally male pursuits. Those things are still a part of my life. When I was a PhD student at Oxford I taught self defense classes and I have been part of physics department soccer teams in various places where I have worked.

Rhodes Project: What was an important learning moment you had recently?

Lara Anderson: I have learned how important it is to adapt to new technology that is available to you. My professional field is relying more and more on sophisticated computer algorithms to do the necessary mathematics and I need to stay up to date, know what is available. Even socially, I’m trying to remind myself to stay open to the new possibilities of sites like Twitter, that I had resisted pretty forcefully until recently.

Rhodes Project: If you could go back and do it all again, knowing what you do now, would you do anything differently?

Lara Anderson: My general trajectory professionally and academically I would do pretty much the same, but I would have loved to have known earlier on just how fun it would all be. When I was 12 I was reading this popular science book that stated that in physics we have basically figured everything out that there was to figure out and I was so discouraged by that. I thought that all science was done and I hadn’t had a chance to play yet. If I could have seen just how many beautiful questions there were waiting, I would have been encouraged.

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