From the time she earned her PhD, it took almost a decade for Elizabeth Freeland to get where she is now, crunching numbers for the Theoretical Physics Department on the third floor of Wilson Hall. After receiving her doctorate in condensed-matter physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1996, Freeland took a five-year career break for motherhood before turning back to the field. She was met with a series of hurdles built by her absence. "There's this mindset that if you take time to do anything but physics, then you're not serious," Freeland said.
Geography limited Freeland's initial job search. Her husband, also a physicist, accepted a job at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Freeland followed, unable to find a job for herself in the same field. Shortly after, the couple moved to Chicago. Freeland always wanted to have children, and she says she didn't want to push her personal dream aside for a professional one. So in 1999, the couple started a family. "I didn't want to have children when I was 40," Freeland said. "I wanted to have them in my late 20s or early 30s, which is not the best time in terms of an academic or science career."
In 2001, Freeland renewed her job search. To secure a full-time job, Freeland needed research experience, so after sending out numerous letters looking to help labs on "small projects" she came to Fermilab hoping to collaborate on summer research. Although Freeland said the lab's staff was very supportive of her situation, she needed a grant to support her research, and grants required her to have a full-time affiliation with less than a five-year break after graduate school. As a mother of two and a part-time physics teacher at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, Freeland had neither, and the search for a grant came up empty. "If I couldn't get a grant, I couldn't have day care, and if I couldn't get day care, I couldn't do the work," she said.
Freeland eventually earned enough money from teaching to pay for day care while conducting part-time research at Fermilab, spending a day or two in the lab and teaching the rest of the week. Then she found a "loophole"-- a grant from the American Association of University Women for which she was eligible. Her application was accepted, and the one-year grant allowed her to start at the lab full-time in July working on Lattice QCD calculations. QCD, or quantum chromodynamics, is a theory that describes strong interaction. Now collaborating with the Lattice QCD group, Freeland studies QCD's effect on the decay of subatomic particles through numerical analysis.
Although her story is one of success, Freeland says the traditional method of awarding grants and hiring, as well as cultural attitudes toward career breaks, sets others up for failure. "You should be able to sit down at a lunch table and say 'When is a good time to have children or how can I deal with this?'" she said. "You should be able to ask that question to a group of physicists and not have it looked at as a negative." For information on coming back from a career break, visit Freeland's Web site.