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