The Dallas, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia-raised dancer and Columbia graduate student on studying quantum physics in Chile, finding support in—and out of—institutions, and her favorite celestial body
Interview by Sophia Richards
Photography by Blakey Bessire
Haley Fica straddles two very different worlds: she’s a dancer with her eyes set on Broadway and a mechanical engineering MA student at Columbia University, weaving together graduate level STEM research with a passion for the arts. Sophia Richards of Mythos Magazine talked to Haley this spring about systematic inequality in academia, working on the world’s largest telescope, and the fine-tuned art of Southern hospitality.
Sophia Richards: Hi, Haley! Can you start by talking about how you initially developed your interest in physics?
Haley Fica: I came to Barnard [College], and I was like, “I could be happy doing anything!” Which I still think is pretty true. I was a bit of a lost puppy. But my first-year advisor was Laura Kay, who is now the chair of the physics department. I really liked her because she’s kind of a hardass and a really cool person. She did feminist studies and physics at Stanford. My first-year seminar professor was Janna Levin, who teaches physics. Then I took Intro to Astronomy, which was really cool and seemed fun, but physics is more broad, and I ended up liking it way more. I went into that, then transferred to mechanical engineering because I liked the instrumentation side of astronomy research. So now I’m in a mechanical engineering master’s program at SEAS [Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Sciences]. It kind of happened by accident. I had to do the whole physics major in five semesters if I was going to go abroad, which was super important to me. I told the department, “I’m going to go abroad!” And they were like, “You probably shouldn’t!” And I was like, “I'm going to do it anyway!” And they were like, “Ok.”
SR: Can you talk about the work you did abroad?
HF: I went to Melbourne, Australia, and I took two quantum physics classes and a linear algebra class. Honestly, it was a lot of messing around and learning how to be a college student and a person. At Columbia, people get caught up in the prestige a lot. So I got to eat really good food and go out and drink really good coffee and go to the beach. It was great.
SR: What about your research interests more generally?
HF: I started doing research with Barnard SRI at the American Museum of Natural History under three researchers who run a group called Brown Dwarf New York City, which is the only all-women-run research group I’ve ever heard of. To my knowledge,, in the past five years, there have only been three straight white dudes in the group. All the other researchers have been women, gay men, or people of color. So they really cater to the idea that anyone can do research, and that the more diverse group you have, the better your research will be—which is so true. So I worked with them on data reduction on a telescope as well as some research modeling.
Then a woman I met at a conference put me in touch with the man who built one of the spectrographs for the telescope that I used. He had never had a student before. So I emailed him out of the blue, and I was like, “I have no funding. I'm abroad in Australia and I wouldn’t be able to get there until July, but then I could do eight weeks of research. And I have nothing to offer you, because I don’t know how to do engineering.” And he was like, “Ok! Here's some money. Here's housing.” And I was like, “Amazing.” His name is Jeff Crane and he is the most wonderful mentor I think I’ve ever had. I helped him remodel some spectrographs on this Chilean telescope instrument. Then I did characteristic testing for the tertiary mirror of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the biggest telescope on earth when it’s finished in 2025.
This [past] fall, I did Python modeling––trying to find the smallest rocket that can go to the moon. It was kind of fruitless, because the way rockets work is that you need them to be really big; even if you want them to be small, they still have to be really big. We were trying to find an effective way to go to the moon on this small rocket, but it's just impossible.
Hopefully in the summer, I’ll be working at NASA Ames, which is their research center in the Bay Area, doing more spectrograph research. Ultimately, I either want to be a Broadway dancer, or I want to work for NASA and build space things.
SR: What is it like for the two most dominant fields in your life, physics and dance, to be such very differently gendered spaces?
HF: It’s really weird. I really like the engineers that I work with now. They’re great people. But when we do a group project, I typically get the bitch work. Like, I have one project where we’re 3D printing food, and I'm the one who gets to Google and test out all the recipes. These guys are like, “What’s in cookie dough?” I’m like, “Oh my god. Have you never baked cookies in your life?” And they’re like, “I don't think I've ever cooked in my life.” So I was like, “My god…never mind, that’ll be my job.”
Dance is always super supportive, because it’s a bunch of really broke young women, so we share the same struggles. Like, “I woke up at 4 a.m. to write my name on a list to come to this audition and didn't even get seen.” It kind of sucks for all of us.
SR: I went to interview this Latina civil engineer for my own magazine, Mythos, and it was so crazy because I got there, and she was like, “I quit my job yesterday.” And it ended up transforming into this huge rant about how there is no structural support in STEM for people who aren’t white men.
HF: I had that issue with the Columbia Physics Department. I went up to my professor at the end of the semester, and I told him, “I feel really unsupported in the Columbia Physics department.” He asked why, and I said, “Because you guys don't have a single female professor who teaches undergrad classes.” And he said, “Yes, we do.” So I was like, “Name one!” And he said, “Reshmi Mukherjee,” who is a Barnard professor. So then he said, “Janna Levin.” And I was like, “Barnard professor.” And he couldn’t name anyone else who teaches undergrad classes.
He told me they were trying to hire a new faculty member, so I said, “Ok, hire a woman or a person of color.” And he was like, “Well, it's not that easy.” And I was like, “It is that easy. They have a Ph.D, right? There you go. There’s your equalizer.” And who do they hire? A white dude.
SR: As someone who has directly engaged with problems like this, do you have any conclusions about effective or ineffective ways to go about handling them?
HF: It’s hard, because you don't want to step on their toes. It’s also really hard to fix a department if they don’t think there’s an issue. The Physics department here is so ingrained in their own ways, and very preoccupied with being “Columbia” and “a big institution,” and they just want the best of the best. I don’t think they realize that people who aren’t straight white dudes have a very different career path, because they cut through a lot more bullshit than any white dude ever does. The attitude is very, “It was easy for me. Why shouldn't it be easy for you?” But like...have you had someone stare at your legs every single day while you’re in class? Probably not. Maybe you should see what kind of effect that has on a person.
They just don't want to listen to you. So I would say if you're trying to make change in the department, you really have to have someone back you, which is tough, And they have to be willing to want to do better and face consequences from the university system. It’s unfortunate. Even if you have a very progressive postdoc and Ph.D student group, it still won’t necessarily change.
SR: How do you think growing up in the South has impacted your perspective on work and life?
HF: My parents aren’t from the South, which I feel like is a very big distinction. Both my parents are super liberal, so I think that really shaped who I was. I grew up in Dallas, and then I moved to a fairly well-off suburb in Atlanta, which was infinitely more diverse. I was really grateful to move to a more diverse location of the South, because had I stayed in Texas, I wouldn’t have done physics. I probably would have done a non-science related major, since I sorta fell into science, at a big state school.
I think the South definitely isn’t great if you’re a female person who wants to go into a male-dominated field, because you’re so inclined to just do…not what’s easy, because any degree you get is tough regardless.
SR: But easier because the way has been paved so thoroughly.
HF: Yeah, and what feels like you are expected to do. Most everyone I knew went to a big state school and I was pretty focused on going to a big city and dancing, something I was lucky enough to be able to do. I very much tried to go against the classical southern grain by choice, and by being fairly privileged. But coming from the South also gives you a huge appreciation for that culture.
The South also made me a pretty friendly person. If they’re going to judge you, they’re going to be really polite about it. Like my mom, I think, could talk to a brick wall.
HF: You laugh, but it’s so true! My mom went to Mexico City for this Girl Scout retreat recently, and she became friends with, like, everyone that she went to this matador bullfight with. They were giving her free stuff.
SR: That’s amazing. I’m writing my thesis on To the Lighthouse right now, which is very much about the Victorian mother and art of conversation.
HF: I think that’s something that the South prepares you for greatly: being able to converse with anyone and find things that you have in common. What else are you going to talk about?
SR: What is your favorite celestial body?
HF: I'm going to say Pluto. When I was in third grade, Pluto was still a planet. R.I.P. I did this huge project on Pluto. And I loved it. I actually have this on my Twitter, let me read it to you. “Pluto was a favorite with people since its discovery in 1930. Even Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse’s dog in its honor. Pluto, the little planet with the big moon, has a bright future.”
HF: Isn't it funny? Pluto is just really cute. I went to the American Astronomical Society conference [A.A.S], in January 2016 right after all the data was released from New Horizons, the orbiter that went around Pluto. Have you seen the new photos?
HF: Oh my god. They're so cute! Pluto is like this little white moon with like, a heart in it. It's so cute! I love it. That’s my favorite planet, but I think they’re all really cool. Other celestial bodies...I think Andromeda, our closest galaxy, is really pretty, too.
SR: Is there anything else you would like to say to Constellation’s readers?
HF: I would say that if you are a woman or a non-binary person who wants to go into STEM, find a department that supports you. And if you don’t find a department that supports you, find a professor who will. That will make all the difference in the world. And surround yourself with other people in your department who care about your well-being, who care about you, who you can study with, and who aren’t gonna make you feel silly for not understanding things. STEM things are hard for a reason, and there’s a reason that a lot of people end up leaving. You deserve to work in a department that you feel supported in, and where you don’t feel unsafe. And if you feel unsafe, you should talk to someone. ★
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sophia Richards is the editor-in-chief of Mythos, an online magazine that publishes long-form, ideologically rigorous, and unconventionally glamorous conversations about womanhood and, in the process, "aims to revere the hard faces of contemporary femininity both visually and textually, push the boundaries of women’s journalism, and democratize accessibility to the hidden wisdom of the women that surround us."
Clothing credits: Top: Hannah Kristina Metz. Overalls: Samantha Pleet. Socks: Henrik Vibskov, Bracelets: vintage. Shoes and hat: Haley's own.