Stephanie’s Story: a research visit to the ESRF (Part 3)

Stephanie Burg mounting specimens at the ESRF.

Part I: Learning to Jump

Although I had been introduced to Stephanie Burg several times during the early stages of my residency, the circumstances of our meetings were always such that we didn’t exchange many words; and her natural shyness precluded the kind of conversation that leads to a significantly better knowledge of a person. It was not until my research visit to the ESRF in Grenoble that I got to know her well enough to hear her story.

Stephanie was born in Champaigne Illinois. Here father was (and still is) the captain of a US Coastguard Vessel, her mother a homemaker. Although her family never left America, she grew up in remarkably nomadic circumstances: moving every two years, she had seen 46 of the 50 US states and had attended 9 different schools before high school graduation.

Something of a child prodigy, she started higher education during her 16th year, turning 17 on first day of university. Her supervisor from UC Davis* encountered Dr Andrew Parnell (her current supervisor at The University of Sheffield) at a conference and recommended her as a good PhD candidate. This was a providential recommendation, enabling her to achieve her own trajectory earlier than she would have been able to in her country of birth.

Although leaving the US for the UK was something of a leap of faith, Stephanie has told me that she regards this as the first step (or hop) in a process of ‘learning to jump’ that she has continued throughout her career to date. She celebrated her 21st birthday on the first week that she moved to Sheffield.

Stephanie didn’t set out to be a physicist, beginning her scientific training as a chemical engineer and majoring in Materials Science. Undergraduate research in solar cells provided her with an introduction to polymers and she graduated from UC Davis* with a degree in chemical engineering; but she didn’t want to be a chemical engineer, didn’t want to be subject to the limitations of a career in the petrochemical industry; Stephanie wanted to do research. She had realised by this stage that her interests lay at what she describes as the ‘boundary between science fiction and reality’: what we might think of as the imaginative and experimental construction of our ever-changing knowledge of reality – the creative construction of fact. When I asked her about how she had developed an interest in the study of structural colour, she told me that this was not by design; that she had fallen into it.

Perhaps falling into a topic of interest might be the gravitational consequence of Stephanie’s ongoing process of ‘learning to jump’ …

Part II: Learning to Sew

Stephanie‘s great-grandmother taught her to sew at a young age. Her great grandmother makes dolls – porcelain dolls. She is involved in all stages of their making: colouring the porcelain heads, designing and tailoring the costumes …

Stephanie has a doll that was made for her, and given to her, by her great-grandmother when she was 2 years old … She also has a collection of trinkets, miniatures and delicate glass figurines that have travelled with her from the USA, and which travelled with her as her family moved around the states … she tells me about her liking for small things: clay sculptures made with tooth picks.

She has been in possession of a sewing machine of her own since the age of 17. Before then she borrowed her mothers or grandmother’s machines, or busied herself with hand sewing and embroidery. As I write, I think about the words ‘sewing machine’, about this precision tool for making, about the gendered nature of associations that inevitably spring to mind. I regret the fact that I didn’t ask what make of sewing machine this was, but I look up images of Singer sewing machines on Google …

I remember being taught to use the sewing machine by mother – I remember my fascination with the workings of the device, the complexities of threading, the shining bobbin that shuttled too and fro when the machine came to life and began it’s strange liturgical clacking …

I think of that scene in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck spins a typical yarn by pretending to be a girl, but is fooling nobody: ‘You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you, child, when you set out to thread a needle don’t hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it; that’s the way a woman most always does, but a man always does t’other way.’

This story has always stuck with me, and to this day I thread a needle this way.

Stephanie tells me more about her interest in dressmaking. We talk about clothing cut on the bias – engineered to a shape. When clothing is made in this way all seams meet, cloth falls pleasingly, the design persuades the cloth to hang symmetrically – the human body, by nature, is not symmetrical.

We remember a conversation with Adam Washington, the other American researcher who worked on the experiment at the ESRF. Adam was talking about measurements for fitting – 27 measurements for the female body, I couldn’t recall how many measurements are required for a man but Stephanie reminds me: for jeans it’s just 2 – waist and inseam. We talk further about the use of tools of measurement – protractors, compasses, tape measures; about circle skirts – how to mathematically construct the fullest skirt out of one piece of fabric. Through this process of spatial reasoning the body might be enveloped in calculations; 2 dimensions expanded to enfold 3, like a map plotted on plane, cut to fit the surface of an irregular Euclidean space…

We talk about designing experiments, how ingenuity and imaginative craft are required to make an experiment work – about creative trial and error. I think about how this discussion resonates with Stephanie’s training in engineering. Also threading a sewing machine, threading a needle, sewing by hand requires very fine, very refined motor skills.

Here we come to the point of Stephanie’s story, to the symmetry within the narrative, how these two ideas of engineering, creativity and a unique form of needlecraft have achieved a kind of poetic resonance: the reason I was drawn to telling this tale.

Beetle scale mounted on the point of a needle. Cropped from an image measuring 0.322mm ...
Beetle scale mounted on the point of a needle. Cropped from an image measuring 0.322mm …

Part III: Dancing on the point of a needle

‘Peter Harrison has suggested that the first reference to angels dancing on a needle’s point occurs in an expository work by the English divine, William Sclater (1575-1626). In An exposition with notes upon the first Epistle to the Thessalonians (1619), Sclater claimed that scholastic philosophers occupied themselves with such pointless questions as whether angels “did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points.” Harrison proposes that the reason an English writer first introduced the “needle’s point” into a critique of medieval angelology is that it makes for a clever pun on “needless point”.’  

The experiment that Stephanie and Adam and Andrew were jointly conducting at the ESRF involved firing a beam of electrons into the scale of a beetle in order to examine the internal structure that convinces us of the chalky white colour of the wing cases – or electra – of the beetle Lepidiota stigma. In order to achieve the best image of this structure, the scale needs to be mounted the scale is 1/10th of a millimeter in length …

Stephanie talks about scientific specialization, about the satisfaction of becoming an expert in a tiny speck, a grain of sand gathered from the endless shores of knowledge …

It took three weeks for her to master the process of mounting the beetle scales on the end of needles, fixing them with a minute blob of glue. Even using devices that limit the shaking of nervous hands, this is an outstanding feat of precision, patience and care. What I find remarkable is that she took specimens with her to Grenoble to mount during the experiment, working with great intricacy in the small hours of the morning, during the window of time that was booked in the beam line …

As we talk we are at Adam Washington’s leaving do in a pub in Sheffield. It is lunchtime and men with drinks surround us. Looking around our table – Stephanie is the only female in the room.

So, finally, I asked Stephanie the obvious question about how it feels to be a young woman in the male dominated world of physics.

She talks about how teaching has given her confidence … How to begin with she was shy and fearful of debate, how in her experience female students are less likely to ask questions in a social context that, although primarily gentle, is also sometimes combative and demands assertion. She talks about how, in the USA, young women would be checked upon when in the labs – ensuring that hair was tied back, clothes appropriate to the task in hand …

I think of the knowledge as a material, how this young woman, with a very special skill set embedded in eyes, brain and hands, is making that material into understanding; measuring out the cloth and modeling details – teasing out tiny threads of enmeshed information that exist at the limits of what we can see with precision, and with the closest possible form of attention.

* The University of California, Davis


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