Today at Berkeley Lab

Persis Drell: The ‘Accidental’ Lab Director

By Lyn Hunter

Persis Drell — who heads up the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford — never set out to be director of a national lab. In fact, being a scientist wasn’t even an early goal for her.

But, as Dr. Seuss says: “From near to far, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” Drell likes to use this quote to describe her unlikely career path, which started in 7th grade.

“After tracking low in math, my parents encouraged me to work hard to get tracked higher,” explains Drell. “During that process, I actually developed an interest in it.” She later entered Wellesley to study math, but after taking a physics course taught by an outstanding female professor, Drell decided to pursue physics.

She shared these and other reflections about her career during a noon talk last Thursday as guest speaker of the Lab’s Women Scientists and Engineers Council, sponsored by Human Resources.

Drell discussed how she navigated the world of science research and academia as a woman, wife, and mother, and how her choices affected outcomes. Drell emphasized the need to establish priorities to make that journey successful.

“The year I entered graduate school at UC Berkeley, I was the only woman in the physics program,” she said. “I didn’t ask questions in class because I didn’t want to stand out if I said something stupid.”

This isolation led her to seek outside social activities. As a cellist, she joined a musical group and met her husband to be, a violist as well as a physicist. They married just out of graduate school and set their priorities: family, jobs in the same location, then research. “In the end, being a mom was more important to me than being a physicist,” said Drell.

It was a delicate balancing act, weighing children, day care, chores and finances with tenure, travel, research, and leadership roles, she says. This affected where they took jobs and how they structured their life.

Cornell offered the flexibility that allowed them to raise their three children, plus it was affordable, so they headed there. The university also offered her the option to reduce her time and not teach as a junior faculty member, which she took advantage of every third or fourth semester. She also limited travel.

As the couple reached the mid-point of their careers, they decided they needed a change and moved the family out west for jobs at SLAC. She became associate director of the lab, then deputy director. She stepped down in 2007 to concentrate on research.

“Then I did one thing I swore I’d never do…become a lab director at SLAC,” Drell said. “But there are times in life when you do things you don’t want to because it’s the right thing to do.”

In reflecting upon her career path, Drell admitted that being a woman in a predominately male field has its liabilities. “You can get marginalized, feel isolated, and be patronized,” she said. “But it can also be an advantage, so don’t apologize when it’s an asset.”

As an example, she cited being invited to speak at conferences where it was evident she wasn’t the obvious choice, but the organizers wanted a woman on the bill. “When I was younger, this bothered me,” said Drell. “But then I decided that instead of being upset, I would just work hard and try to give the best talks at the conference.”

While she has been very successful in her field, Drell lamented that she’s missed out on some things over the last 30 years. “Going to movies and concerts, reading books, practicing my cello, learning Italian…these are all activities I gave up,” she said. “But I made the choice, and I don’t regret it at all.”