On our next stop for the “Before They Were Scientists” world tour, I sat down with Jelena Vuckovic, who spends part of her year in Germany and the other part at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Read on to learn about her experiences as a middle school student in the former Yugoslavia where she played with Legos, almost became a French teacher, and was never told it was unique for a girl to love physics.
Lea: Can you tell me what comes to mind when you think about middle school?
Jelena: I have a six-year-old daughter now and when I think back to the time when it’s important to start thinking about a career in science I think back to middle school. I’ve had conversations with my research group and they also independently came to the conclusion that middle school is the right time to do it.
You got me thinking about middle school – I was in Serbia, it was part of Yugoslovia at that time. I was in a really little town of 30,000 people. The school system is different there: you go to the same school for the first eight grades and it’s called “elementary” or “primary” school and then you go to a high school after that. In the upper four grades starting in fifth grade you get separate teachers for separate subjects – which is technically a middle school in the US. I didn’t follow the typical path and went to a different school after fifth grade. I was experiencing middle school and had the pressure to find new friends at the same time. I changed schools because my brother, who is seven years older than me, recommended that I change schools because the other school was better. So I switched schools for academic reasons, but also the new school was closer to where we lived.
Looking back on it I think it was a really good school. I had some great teachers. My physics and French teachers were really great. After middle school I thought I would either study physics or French – it’s so amazing how much influence good teachers can have on you.
After middle school I thought I would either study physics or French – it’s so amazing how much influence good teachers can have on you.
What got you interested in science?
We had physics as a separate subject in the sixth grade. My teacher was really great and we had weekly labs for which we would write lab reports. Looking back I thought that what I had was a usual experience and that everybody had that, but after many years of doing physics and engineering I realized that what I had was a completely unusual experience for a sixth grader. I learned so much. First I got interested in physics because my brother liked it and thought that I would like it too – he was a big influence in my life. He would say, “When you get to physics in school you will really like it because it’s such a great subject.”
First I got interested in physics because my brother liked it and thought that I would like it too – he was a big influence in my life.
My French teacher was also spectacular. She would bring in records with French songs – she would play them in class and we would learn the songs, it was really cool. That was also the reason that Paris was the first place I traveled to once I could travel alone as an 18 year-old.
Thinking of middle school – it’s a different place and in a different time. It can be a tough period because of hormones and social groups and science is not very high on the popularity list. But my experience was not bad at all… maybe the environment was somewhat different and people were not discouraged to be different. That was important. It was not “uncool” to be a nerd. I think if you were good at school that was just fine. I don’t think anybody had a hard time. It was fine if you were interested in physics and you were a girl. That made my life much easier. I guess I was probably balanced by my interests in French a little bit, but I think my experience was fine.
It was fine if you were interested in physics and you were a girl. That made my life much easier.
What was it like going to a new school for middle school?
I had a hard time initially because I switched schools so I had to work hard to make friends. All of the kids had been together for a while, but at some point I just remember thinking of going back to my old school. I thought after being there a few weeks I’d never have friends there, and then I spoke with my parents and they reassured me that it was still early in the year and that I should be the one to make the effort. They encouraged me to be the one to approach others. I remember my dad saying that – and I thought that was a good idea. I approached people and asked them if they wanted to be friends with me – it worked out and after that I had a much better time. I decided to stick to that school and so I stayed there.
What did you like to do after school?
I went to a lot of competitions. I competed in math, physics and French, too. I liked physics – I liked the connection with the real world and all the math. I liked to build things, and I think that goes back before middle school. My favorite toy in middle school was Legos – like many engineers, of course. When I was four or five, because of Legos, I thought I would be an architect when I realized there was a profession related to building and construction. Then later on everything that I did was somehow connected to that idea of engineering and creativity. I liked to build things.
In middle school I didn’t see all of the creativity and beauty that comes with electrical engineering. It didn’t seem like a very cool engineering profession, but I think as I was growing up I realized that there was a lot of creativity and art related to other branches of engineering and that maybe my interests in physics was what drew me eventually to electrical engineering because it’s really an applied physics.
Were you in any clubs or have hobbies?
We had a math club, a physics club, and a French club. We went to competitions and had after school programs. I was also interested in music; I played the flute. I wished I had played the guitar, but I played the flute. Guitar was very popular and I was late to enroll so when I got there they said they didn’t have any more spots for guitar. But they had a new flute program so I learned flute. I was not interested in sports; I ran around a lot but I was not in any organized sports. It was mostly music, physics, math and French. I liked to read a lot and listen to music. I discovered popular music at that time, not just the classical music that I was learning how to play on the flute.
What was your biggest worry when you were in middle school?
The biggest worry was finding friends because I switched schools. I can’t remember exactly how long that lasted; it was probably just the first month. But that was resolved after I followed my dad’s advice and approached other kids. I don’t remember having any other big worries. We didn’t really have cliques in middle school. I think times have changed, but there were no “cool” kids and “uncool” kids. It was more just finding friends you could play with. I think it was pretty inclusive and eventually everyone was friends with everybody, which made our lives easier. It was challenging, actually, academically. In retrospect that was probably a good thing because they kept us busy. We had to work together and had to focus on our academics and homework. That was good. I don’t remember having a lot of worries.
Later on, towards the end of middle school, I started worrying about what I would do. We had specialized high schools; we had language high schools that specialized in languages and high schools that specialized in science and math. At the end of middle school I worried about what I wanted to do. I could go to a general high school, like a gymnasium, where you have a little bit of everything.
There were these specialized schools, which were really good, but you had to make the choice of what you were going to do later in life. I was really undecided until the very day when I had to apply to high school. I remember standing in front of the building that housed the school for languages and the school for math and physics. You had to make a left turn to actually enroll in the school that specialized in math and make a right turn to enroll in the school that specialized in languages. The very morning that we went there I was standing there with my dad. We were standing there and my dad finally said, “OK! Make up your mind!”
We ended up going left.
I sometimes think that maybe I would be a French professor today if I went right. It’s so unbelievable. My parents let me decide. I was really good in physics and languages, so it was a really hard decision. I would probably be fine today, maybe I wouldn’t be a professor at Stanford, but I guess I would still be happy doing the other thing.
You had to make a left turn to actually enroll in the school that specialized in math and make a right turn to enroll in the school that specialized in languages.
What did your parents do?
They are not scientists. My father was a high school professor and taught history and philosophy. He’s in the humanities, but he always appreciated and respected math and the sciences. He also tried to incite interest in the sciences with my brother and me. My mom worked in sales and marketing for a big glass factory. In high school she was interested in chemistry, but later on she switched careers and did something really different. She’s very good in math, so I think I have her math talent. I think if she had pursued math she would have been a really good mathematician.
My parents were very supportive. They let both my brother and I decide what we wanted to do and to make our own choices. They tried to educate us about everything, but they let us figure out our own ways.
Who was you childhood hero?
My brother, being seven years older, had to go through everything first so he gave me a lot of advice. He’s the one who got me interested in physics. He was a big influence on me. He never pushed me in any direction, but I followed his footsteps many times. He was my hero in many ways. Being the big brother – and seeing him there doing all of that — I thought physics must be cool because he was doing it.
What does your brother do now?
He is a software engineer; he did computer science.
What was your first concert?
There are a lot of bands from Serbia that probably don’t mean much to most of the world. I went with my brother to Katarina II – they were an alternative band in Belgrade. That was towards the end of middle school. Later on I went to big rock concerts. I saw The Rolling Stones in Budapest, but that was beyond middle school.
Did you ever think that you would become a scientist? What did you think that scientists did all day?
I don’t think I thought about that in middle school. I thought I would do something related to physics. I thought about architecture… I thought maybe I would be a professor teaching physics or French at a high school or maybe at a college. I was very curious, always. I liked to build things and I had a good basis – I liked to do problem solving. I asked a lot of questions about everything. I did all of the labs and experiments, but I didn’t really think that was what scientists did during their daily lives. I just thought that teaching was the real profession and that playing in the lab was just playing. Of course my job today has a lot of teaching components and I like that. Honestly, I don’t think I thought about it until I was in college. Then I realized that I actually liked to do research and I really liked to figure things out myself… and that I would prefer to do something in science and that’s how I decided to go to grad school.
What’s your favorite part about teaching?
I like transferring knowledge and experience and helping people figure things out. I like explaining to others what I know. The most satisfactory part about teaching is having an influence on students and helping them discover that some area is interesting (or not).
What I enjoy the most is when someone who is not interested in physics or engineering tells me at the end of the quarter that they actually liked what they learned and that they might pursue it later in life. Sometimes, especially when you teach graduate classes, you end up with students who have already made up their mind. You transfer knowledge, but you’re not impacting their lives so much because they’re there to do what they do. The undergrads (which is why I prefer to teach undergrads more) are very different because usually they haven’t made up their mind. They come to class thinking that this will be another boring subject with lots of math. At the end of the quarter some of them like it so much more. Of course not everybody reacts like that, but there are students who change their minds and you impact their lives with that one quarter of teaching. That’s the greatest part and what makes it worthwhile.
If you could give your middle school self, or younger self, some advice what would you tell yourself?
Not to worry and not to rush. There is plenty of time to make decisions. You won’t follow a straight line in your life and you can change your mind later. I worried too much about picking the right school. Should I do French or physics? I always thought I had to make these decisions and that it would impact the rest of my life. Of course later on I know that even if I went to grad school for something, you still have time to change decisions and figure out different things and make choices. I would just tell my middle school self not to worry. Everything that I probably worried about, 20 or 30 years later, seems funny and not worth worrying about.
It’s good to try different things — try as many things as you can. Try different sports, try different instruments. Meet people. Travel. Try different subjects.
The more you learn and the more you see, then it’s easier for you to make the right choices later in life.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life now?
Probably that I’m married and that I have a kid. That was not on my radar in middle school. I was not really thinking about it at all. That was so far in the future. My middle school self would be surprised seeing me as a mom. Also that I exercise and that I like it. I swim almost every day. I was so uninterested in sports in middle school and now I am. That’s probably the other surprising fact about my present life.
Maybe my middle school self would be surprised with my choice of profession to some extent. Not the fact that I’m teaching, but the fact that I’m also doing research. I didn’t really think about that very much as a middle schooler. I think that’s probably it.
Is there something, like a memento or a token or something that you have kept with you from when you were in middle school?
I changed countries right after college and came here, so I have only one middle school photo with me
Did you play outside when you were young?
Yes, a lot. School was different – you would go to school either at 7:30 in the morning to 1:00pm or from 1:30pm until 5:30 or 6:00pm. We shifted shifts every week or month. I do remember playing outside a lot. I’d come back from school and have lunch and go outside. We lived in an apartment building and all the kids would go outside and play. We were never really unattended as there were so many kids running around and our parents could see us from the balcony. We would play soccer, basketball… hide and seek. That was really a big part of my daily life. That was normal – have lunch, go outside and play, go back and do your homework and start over the next day.
How did you get to school?
I walked. It was a different time and a small town. We all walked to school. There were so many kids. It was maybe a 10 or 15 minute walk. I walked alone or with friends. I think, in that respect, things are different now. We were always walking without adults – there was always a bunch of kids walking to and from school. We were pretty independent in that respect. It was a chance to talk with my friends and exchange thoughts. Sometimes you stop for a little bit and play and then go back home. It was really how daily life was like.
Did you collect anything?
I went through different phases. At one point I collected stamps – that was in middle school. Then I switched to collecting vinyl records. I still have them. That started in middle school and they’re still in my parent’s apartment. I have a few of them with me. They’re becoming more popular now. I switched from stamps to records at some point towards the end of middle school.
Have you ever had a professional crisis and wanted to quit engineering?
Nothing like a crisis where I would leave the field. I’ve questioned myself my whole life – Is this the right thing to do? Maybe I would be happier doing something else. Somehow I always come to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t.
When I finished the high school that specialized in physics and math, I was seriously considering starting architecture. You had to make your choice of department or faculty when you would enroll at a university; you don’t have one or two years to pick a major.
That was maybe the biggest crisis. I thought maybe physics was not very creative. I mean “creative” in the sense that I was looking for some artistic component to what I wanted to do. I changed my mind again and did electrical engineering. Towards the end of the first year of engineering I still wasn’t sure I saw the creativity in it and thought I’d go back to architecture. Several people I knew at that time gave up and went to study something very different – from applied arts to the humanities. When you’re 18 or 19, it’s a time when a lot of people question themselves. This is especially the case for the first year of electrical engineering because it’s quite general and you don’t get to see what it’s all about. I did question myself for a while and then went back to what I did.
I’ve questioned myself my whole life – Is this the right thing to do? Maybe I would be happier doing something else. Somehow I always come to the conclusion that I probably wouldn’t.
Have you been able to find creativity in your field?
Oh, yes. Very much so, especially in grad school. Even when I went to grad school I was still not sure what field of engineering or physics I would study. I thought I would do something related more to math or information theory and then I discovered what I do now, which is nanophotonics, studying small optical structures and devices. There’s a lot of creativity and beauty and art. You’re making little things that are smaller than a micrometer and you’re making them with different tools. It’s like sculpting on a small scale. There’s a lot of art in that. I was not really aware of that when I was younger. I saw that in architecture because you could see buildings and they were beautiful and people could live and work in them. It’s very hard to see that there are a lot of aspects of that in electrical engineering and physics. You can build a little thing that people use and it’s beautiful, but those types of things are just not on your radar when you’re little. In that respect it’s very similar to architecture, especially when it comes to the artistic component. I’m very happy with it. Although it is harder to see, there are a lot of aspects of that in electrical engineering and physics. I’m trying to communicate that to my daughter and other kids.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
Louis Pasteur said that “Chance follows the prepared mind.” It’s hard to distinguish chance. You have to be prepared and have to be in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out: equipment doesn’t work, and you have to come back and do an experiment again. If you’re lucky it will work the first time, but usually that’s not the case and you have to repeat experiments. If you use equipment, everything has to be put together perfectly. Sometimes everything goes smoothly, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s chance, sometimes it’s a stream of good luck, sometimes it’s a stream of bad luck, but that’s life. I can’t factor out how much is chance or how much isn’t. You have to depend on things and other people. Even people who have everything perfect also have periods when things haven’t gone very well. You have to keep trying.
How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Are there any particular occasions that stand out to you?
I like when people argue with me and tell me that I’m wrong. I like the challenge. I think that’s great. Nobody is right all the time so I like when people tell me that I’m wrong, even if they’re wrong. That has happened all of my life, and I never take it personally. It helps me question myself and helps me think about science from a different perspective. I think about it as a positive thing when you have people who will tell you that you are wrong. For personal decisions, for research, for everything else I think it’s great. I like to have a healthy debate. Nothing particular strikes me from middle school but I’m sure I was told I was wrong by friends or others. My brother, especially, told me many times that I was wrong. Maybe that’s why I like it. I grew up being told I was wrong.
I think about it as a positive thing when you have people who will tell you that you are wrong.
Did you ever feel bored when you were young? What did your parents do when you said you were bored?
My parents were always afraid of the summer break because I would get bored so quickly and they would have to think of a way to entertain me or send me to a different place. There was no school and not so many activities. I don’t like boredom. Even now if I have nothing to do I’ll look for something else to keep me busy, and I was like that even as a kid. It is good, I think, having said all that; I think it’s good to not have your whole life structured. It gives you time for different things.
Since we were at school half of the day, I had time to play and work on my homework. Except for music, I didn’t really have any particular structure in my afternoons beyond the math and physics clubs. I was outside of the house playing, and I was always busy and had something to do. I don’t recall being bored during the school year. I quickly figured out something to do when I got bored.
Did you somehow feel that you were somehow different from other children?
I didn’t feel that. I think being different was just fine, probably even admired where I grew up. Everybody was trying to be different in some way, meaning that you could be involved in sports or like biology or be good in music and play in a band… we didn’t really have pressure to all play in the band or to all be cheerleaders or all be in sports.Kids try to be different in middle school, which is good. Somehow everybody tried to find their own niche. I think everybody wanted to feel different and be different and I don’t think I felt that more than others.
I didn’t think there was anything unusual in me being interested in physics or math. There were other kids interested in math. I never really, until grad school, realized that overall in the world there were more guys doing electrical engineering compared to girls. That was not on my radar and I never thought it was unusual. My parents never spoke to me about it and so I just didn’t know it was different. I never thought I was different. I still don’t. I realize I’m one of very few women doing electrical engineering, now, of course, but it’s just something that I’m good at.
But my middle school self just looks at it as the area that I’m good in and it’s my niche, where I’m different and good. Like somebody who plays in a rock band, but it could have been something else, whatever I ended up doing.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?
I remember one of my teachers was asking questions and that’s how they were grading us. We had to raise our hands for biology class. I raised my hand for every question. She never called on me; she was always asking other guys. I said to her in front of everyone, after the fifth or sixth question, that she was not fair. I remember that I got into a little bit of trouble after that but I had no regrets because it really wasn’t fair.
I had to bring a letter home to my parents and I remember my dad’s response when I gave him the letter. I explained what I did at school and he said, “OK, she really wasn’t fair.” So he said he would deal with whatever happened after that. I remember that as being the time I got into trouble, but it was nothing major. I was a pretty good kid overall.
What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
Trapping, slowing down, and controlling light, and tiny lasers. Also all of the research themes that have something that you can relate to comic books or science fiction movies, such as teleportation. Kids find light pretty exciting. My daughter is excited about it too. This is based on what my daughter is excited about with my research and what she remembers. “It’s small lasers,” she says. “My mom makes crystals and works with lasers.” I think my 10 year-old self would also be excited about the same things.
Lasers – I guess that’s easy to excite kids about those. When you can see them and they look like crystals, that’s even more exciting. Also slowing down light. All of those things that have something that you can relate to comic books or science fiction movies — teleportation. That kind of science is cool.
Do you want to talk about your research and explain what it’s about?
I make tiny structures, nanostructures, that can guide, trap and circulate light. The practical applications include optical communications and making faster computers in the future that consume less energy. The other thing we do is work with biological applications. We can put one of these devices into a cell. That’s my current connection to biology after many years, which I’m excited about. The structures are so small that you can insert them into a cell without killing the cell and it can monitor what goes on inside the cell. Other than that it’s used for communication and computing, the Internet and better computers.
If you could have a superpower what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?
We can travel forwards, not backwards, that’s what physics tells us. But we have to travel with the speed of light. I guess traveling backwards in time, strictly speaking, would be a superpower. Traveling forward is allowed by physics. I think out of curiosity to see what happens with the world in the future, that would be interesting. Is there a bigger super power than that? If you can travel through time then you can maybe help people.Help correct bad decisions or do something that would help the world afterwards. There’s nothing more exciting than time travel to a physicist.
Dr. Jelena Vuckovic is a professor of both electrical engineering and applied physics at Stanford University. Her research focuses on nanoscale and quantum photonics. In her free time she spends time with her daughter and swims.