Like most college students, Myriam Sarachick had a tough decision to make when it was time to choose her major. She was a junior at Barnard, a women’s liberal arts college in New York City, and she was trying to decide between mathematics, music, literature and physics, among other things. “Physics was very challenging, very highly regarded, and I was very good at math,” Sarachik said. “Physics looked like it was something I could sink my teeth into, and it was fun.”
She took that choice and ran with it, and now, 50 years later, Sarachik is an experimental condensed matter physicist with almost 150 published articles under her belt. She is a former president of the American Physical Society, and is a Distinguished Professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York, where she has been teaching since 1964.
Myriam Sarachick in her low temperature laboratory.
“I really love New York,” she said. She was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and after a five-and-a-half year stopover in Havana, Cuba, “I came to New York with my family, and I’ve been here ever since.”
She attended graduate school at Columbia University, where she earned her PhD in 1960. She did postdoctoral work at IBM Watson and Bell Laboratories while teaching an evening course at CUNY, and had a child. “It was a very busy time,” she said. After her postdoctoral work, she joined the faculty at City College of New York, CUNY, as an associate professor in 1964.
“I didn’t like teaching all that well in the beginning,” she said, “but as the years went by, I grew to like it more and more and got much better at it. I think I learned as much from my students as they learned from me. Teaching is a skill and an art, and you really have to develop it and work at it. It is possible to develop into a first-rate teacher”
She is currently on a two-year break from teaching so she can fulfill her APS duties, but she still works with graduate students and postdocs in her lab at CUNY and intends to return to teaching when her presidential stint is up.
She pursues her research in her low temperature laboratory in areas such as metal-insulator transitions and the properties of single-molecule magnets.
When she’s not in her lab or pursuing her other physics interests, she’s found that New York is an excellent place to indulge her hobbies, especially her love of music. “My tastes are pretty eclectic,” she said. “I know more about classical music than anything else, but I love jazz and am open to all kinds of music.” She even once considered a career in music. “I used to practice [the piano] a lot and had become rather good. Now it’s demoralizing every time I sit down to play because I’m so far out of practice.”
In choosing a career in physics over one in music, Sarachik did not opt for an easy path. Her advice to other women interested in physics is: “if you like it, don’t let anything or anyone talk you out of it. But, be prepared to work hard.”