My name is Maren Malling, and I am the new chairwoman of KIF (Kvinder i Fysik/Women in Physics). I want to share with you who I am and what my background is. My path into physics has been quite unusual, and I don’t ‘fit the mold’ of what you might expect a physicist to be like. I hope this article can inspire girls and women to follow their inspiration, and not let any concept of what a real physicist should look like hold them back.
I was 43 when I started my physics studies at University of Copenhagen. Prior to that, I worked in the spa industry. I trained as a massage therapist in California and worked at one of the most prestigious hotel spas in the world on the island of Maui. It was a great life, but not something I wanted to do in a life-long career. Long story short, I came back to Denmark with my 7-year-old son after spending 12 years in the USA and Asia. I worked for a while as a spa manager at a hotel in Copenhagen, but when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the hotel decided to sell off the spa part of their business, and I was let go. That was when I decided it was time to do something completely different.
So why did I choose physics? Because of a teacher I once had. I wanted to go back to school, but I was not sure what I wanted to study, so I took math, physics and chemistry at HF (which is Danish adult education) to qualify for enrollment at the university. I discovered how interesting physics is. At my final exam, my teacher asked me if I had considered studying physics, and that question took me by surprise! I had never considered that someone like me could do that. When I imagined a physicist, it was an old man with glasses and crazy hair. But the question sparked an idea which led me to where I am today.
I graduated with a master degree in physics and astronomy in 2016. Today I work as a high school teacher, and I really enjoy the job. There is a myth I would like to bust: Throughout my studies, I heard people say, directly or indirectly, that teaching was only for those who were not smart enough for an academic career. That does not make any sense! Personally, I had a grade average of 11,7 at the master level (12 is the maximum), and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to teach, but I almost did not choose that career because of the negative way it was perceived. I really think we should stop this narrative that some career paths are more prestigious than others. Would it not make more sense to encourage those who are motivated to become teachers? To teach and inspire the future generations of not only physicists, but also data scientists, and tech experts, and innovators that we, as a society, need and want.
I strongly believe that physics and science in general is for all people. Not just men and not just white people. That means we need role models of all kinds in science. Young people need to be able to imagine themselves having a career in science, and role models help with that. I am very aware of being a role model for my students, both the girls and the boys, and I try to expose them to many different role models. My school is a HTX (technical high school), and unfortunately only about 15% of the students are girls. For some reason, at this age most of the girls have already decided that a technical/scientific education is not for them. I would like to change that. We need to change this notion if we want progress. We need to attract all the available talent, as evidence strongly suggests that a more diverse work force creates better results.
And that brings me back to KIF, and why I am involved. I want to change the unconscious biases a lot of us hold about what a real physicist is. I want to shine a light on the achievements of women in physics, and I want to do my part in breaking down the barriers that impede progress because we don’t bring into play all the available talent. I am looking very much forward to doing that with the great team of women on the KIF board.