As cool as physics is, just like any graduate degree, it’s still quite a bit of work to get. Add in creating YouTube videos about the field you love, and what Katie McGill does is pretty amazing. Today she shares her story with us, not only about being a physics PhD candidate, but also about creating videos for her YouTube Channel, The Physics Factor.
Sarah Worsham: What types of research are you doing for your degree?
Katie McGill: I work in the field of nanotechnology, or “very tiny devices”. You can thank developments in this field for the little electrical components that make your phone and computer work. My particular sub-field is two-dimensional (2D) materials such as graphene, a single sheet of carbon atoms. (That’s right: it’s only one atom thick.) Given that we live in a three-dimensional world, you might not be surprised to learn that the physics we know and love behaves rather differently in 2D materials. I have fun making devices that exploit some of those differences.
Sarah: What gave you the idea to start The Physics Factor?
Katie: I was originally inspired by John and Hank Green’s work on their YouTube channel, The Vlogbrothers. Before learning about the concept of “vlogging”, I thought that YouTube consisted mainly of music videos and viral videos of cute animals. Of course, those two types of videos exist in abundance on YouTube, but there’s also a significant community of vloggers, or video bloggers, creating YouTube content. I saw a lot of potential for using a vlog to comment on life as a physicist, and voilà! – The Physics Factor was born.
Sarah: If you could attain your wildest dreams with The Physics Factor, what would they be?
Katie: I love the idea of working on The Physics Factor full-time. I think that physicists, and more broadly, scientists, have a lot of stories and perspectives to share that aren’t often depicted in traditional media. I also have ideas for related channels bouncing around my head, and being in a position to make them a reality would be great. (Though one YouTube channel is more than enough to manage while I finish grad school.)
Sarah: What do you hope to do after you attain your degree?
Katie: Even though in my wildest dreams I imagine working on The Physics Factor and related channels full-time, I think that I really would prefer combining a position as a physics lecturer with my work in online video. Teaching physics in-person forces you to constantly re-evaluate what you think you know (and why you think you know it) because students bring so many different thought processes with them to class. There’s something about the immediacy of that situation that appeals to me.
Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?
Katie: I’ve always enjoyed math, but even at a young age I sensed that it wasn’t “enough” for me – that some sort of science would really suit my interests. However, I didn’t settle on a particular field until I took physics my junior year of high school. I was fortunate to have an excellent high school physics teacher, and I came out of my first class knowing that I wanted to pursue physics in college and beyond.
Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?
Katie: I never really had any role models that I wanted to emulate; I just liked math and physics and went with it. My parents were always supportive of my interest in math and science, and in particular my dad, who was a math major himself, often fed me mathy things to do and think about. My high school physics teacher also had a huge influence on me; he had this amazing ability to convey the wonder inherent in studying physics, even at the high school level. As I’ve grown up and learned about other women’s experiences, I’ve realized how incredibly fortunate I’ve been. I had so much encouragement built-in to my young life that I never needed a role model. I wish that level of encouragement was the reality for all girls and minorities interested in STEM fields.
Sarah: What was your favorite game or toy growing up and why?
Katie: I enjoyed playing a lot of “let’s pretend” games with my friends: they presented plenty of “scope for the imagination”, to quote my good friend Anne Shirley. On one memorable occasion, we pretended that we were merchants traveling the Silk Road, and we managed to barter most of the house while our parents were chatting in another room. I think they were both impressed and displeased by the mess we made, but we certainly had a good time.
Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?
Katie: I’m glad to report that I’ve never felt as if my gender has held me back in my physics pursuits. That being said, I’ve met several women over the years who have dealt with varying levels of sexism, and the ways in which we differentiate the assumed interests of boys and girls as they grow up is still very much a problem in our society. At this point in history, institutional sexism, rather than overt sexism, may be the bigger challenge to overcome.
Sarah: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?
Katie: I think that we really need a shift at the societal level in our perception of girls’ STEM abilities, but I don’t have any “this is sure to work!” suggestions for enacting such change. I think it’s about giving girls the space to be interested in STEM fields. Targeted camps and workshops are great, large-scale ways to do this, but it also comes down to awareness on a personal level. If a girl expresses her interest in math or science, do we act as if those are unusual things for her to like? We really shouldn’t be surprised; we live in a science- and technology-driven world. Every kid should be interested, yet the science and engineering toys are still largely found in the boys’ aisle of the toy store. If we make it ok for girls to like science, if we give them the same assumed resources and attitudes that we give boys, I do think we’ll end up with comparable numbers of women and men in STEM careers.
Connect with Katie
Thank you to Katie! Hopefully you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring. If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!