Profile of Dr. Deborah Berebichez - The Science Babe

Physics Whiz, The Science Babe, Encourages Other Women To Use Their Smarts

Dr. Debbie Berebichez is the first Mexican-born woman to earn her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University
Dr. Debbie Berebichez is the first Mexican-born woman to earn her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. Google Images/sciencewithdebbie.com

Scientists are a starchy bunch, or so it seems. Our perceptions of them linger around the idea that they are humorless geeks. Oh sure there are a few exceptions like Adam Savage, who subjects himself to painful experiments on "Mythbusters", the jovial astrophysicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Canada's David Suzuki, who rides around the country in a giant bus to teach people to reduce their carbon footprint.

Try as I might, writing comically about scientists is like dancing about bricklaying, but the fact is, with a few exceptions they are not necessarily entertaining.

Well here to prove me wrong once again is Dr. Déborah Berebichez, the first Mexican-born woman to earn her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. Debbie has appeared on Dr. Oz's radio program, been the keynote speaker at the 2007 Oprah Magazine Leadership Conference and she can be seen as the science expert on NatGeo's "Humanly Impossible." Those appearances along with her TEDx East talk and a host of print and internet publications are creating global interest in her work.

I met Debbie a few weeks ago for lunch at The Palm, just north of her Wall Street office where she works as a quantitative analyst. The Palm is a jaunty downtown restaurant bedecked with caricatures of New York's wealthy and fabulous painted directly on the walls.

Debbie has an expressive personality that dazzles you twice; once upon meeting her and once again when she unfurls her casually ferocious intellect. I was almost intimidated to work with her, but with her genial personality, she put me at ease.

Debbie speaks five languages and her vast scientific background, as detailed on her website, is startling to a non-academic like me.

"In her scientific career, she is an expert in wave propagation in inhomogeneous media as well as in optimization. She is an inventor of a new technique to localize wireless signals in specific locations in buildings. A Summa Cum Laude B.A. graduate of Brandeis University, she received a full Wien Scholarship and was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After obtaining her doctorate, Debbie pursued two postdoctoral fellowships in applied mathematics and physics and conducted further research at Columbia University's Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics Department as well as at New York University's Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences." Impressive, but it's not why I think she is spectacular.

Dr. Berebichez has a background in philosophy and theater and was well-known in her native Mexico for writing short stories. The creative Debbie is also a compassionate person who finds joy in simple acts of kindness. Her strong sense of empathy allows her to remember what it was like to not understand science, to remember being inquisitive but not knowing how to find the answers. She reaches out to those young Debbies wherever she finds them. She is often asked to speak at schools in New York; in her entertaining talks, she challenges the students to chase their dreams.

She was raised in a conservative community that encouraged the men to study the left-brain topics and the women to study on the right side, or not at all. To attain her BA she studied philosophy and physics, but she never let go of her strong her child-like curiosity in how things worked, so she pursued physics for her doctorate. Debbie is convinced our in-born curiosity remains in all of us, and she is on a quest to engage it.

Using Her Smarts to Show Science Is Fun and All Around Us

In her TED talk she spoke of how physics gains insight from interconnectivity, using the phenomenon of Emergent Behavior, defined by Debbie as "when a system composed of independent parts forms more complex behaviors as a collective, and exhibits properties which the individual components themselves do not have." In academic-speak, this is a difficult concept to get your head around, but Debbie has a way of explaining science so the average Joe can understand it.

In dissecting emergent behavior, she used the analogies of traffic and popularity, concepts we can all relate to. She demonstrated how physics tends to "go the other way," devising ways to probe deeper into each element, in hopes that by understanding the behavior of the smallest component, we can understand the big picture. But Debbie cautions with a smile, "Perhaps when one looks too close, much of what is there disappears."

Debbie agrees that to get more young people interested in science, we need more entertaining scientists such as those we see on the Discovery and NatGeo channels. I believe the world is better served because Debbie Berebichez chose to focus on math and science. She graciously shares her knowledge about scientific principles and helped me with a section of my book. I wanted to apply her thoughts on Emergent Behavior to personal development, but Debbie pointed out that the science wouldn't support my premise. Instead, she told me about yet another area of her intellectual prowess, Optimization, which she uses in her quant work. She enlightened me to a scientific application that is yet to be explored in personal development. Maybe together we can rule the world. Okay, maybe not.

Debbie is obliging to anyone looking to advance science or adventurous ideas. She maintains an exhaustive schedule that begins with her complex work in analytics and doesn't end until she's tinkered with new ideas for upcoming videos, spoken to a youth group or business organization, written for her website, and answered dozens of e-mails and other inquiries, all while remaining friendly and enthusiastic.

I consider myself to be a productive person, but talking with Debbie can make you feel lazy. She seems to have a new idea with every passing moment, and she is effusive in her quest to expand our scientific perceptions. She says she wakes up each morning and puts on her physicist glasses, seeing even mundane daily routines through the lens of science in hopes of discovering new ways to show how scientific principles apply in everyday life, such as her video explaining "The Physics of High Heels." She said, "Even doing something as simple as brushing my teeth or washing dishes; I wonder what principles are at work here that I can teach people."

I asked her what it was like to work and conduct research in male-dominated fields. She said, "I work with highly educated people, many with Ph.D.'s. My colleagues in finance and science are supportive and respectful." She has always enjoyed the process of her research and continues to work closely with her adviser, physics Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin, on promoting the public understanding of science.

Dr. Berebichez's Mission

What is her mission? "To reach out to young people, particularly women, who may have an interest in science; to motivate them before they get older, involved with family and work demands, and slowly lose their curiosity." This is what's spectacular about Dr. Berebichez; her intense desire to shape our world through science, and the ease with which she shares her heart.

Like other women I've interviewed, such as human-rights attorney Karen Tse and architect Ana Manzo, she doesn't concern herself with limiting beliefs. Whether the physicist glasses are on or off; she doesn't see obstacles, only goals. This is a recurring theme I am regretfully discovering with each spectacular woman I speak to. I don't regret that it exists; what I regret is that I am surprised by it. I went into this eager to see what special devices these women employ to overcome hurdles so that I could share them in my personal development circles, but they don't see them at all. Ana Manzo says if you think about them; they become significant, so don't waste the energy. Ahhh, that's the secret after all.