Profile: Miriam Deutsch

Photograph courtesy UO Department of Physics

The only female professor in her department, Miriam Deutsch can’t recall the day it stopped being weird to be a woman studying physics. The trend of few females pursuing science typically begins during the teen years, she says. Deutsch wants to get girls hooked early because “if they start thinking about themselves as scientists at the age of eleven then they might not let go of that later on.”

That’s where SPICE (Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Excellence) comes in. In 2008, Deutsch cofounded the program in which UO undergraduate and graduate students introduce science to middle schoolers (girls and boys) in fun, hands-on investigations. In creating the activities, Deutsch uses a strategy she calls “hiding the broccoli in the brownies.” She disguises chemistry in solving a CSI-like faux crime scene, physics in playing with prisms, and engineering in constructing crazy Rube Goldberg devices.

During the school year, Deutsch and her UO students meet with middle schoolers on weekends and after school. Come summer, her program brings the teens to the UO for a weeklong camp during which they can “get in there, get dirty, do experiments, mess up, break stuff, make mistakes.

“We really want to make them comfortable with just the process of exploring, of not knowing something but not feeling that they’re going to shy away from it because they don’t know it,” Deutsch says.

For many of the middle schoolers (sixty in all this year), camp is their first experience on a college campus, offering a chance for them to grow familiar with University life. In turn, UO students gain teaching experience while making a little money in the process.

Deutsch (who receives no salary for SPICE) focuses the program the way she does her regular University classes: by making science interesting. She aims to have her students understand “why you should care about this particular physical phenomenon or physical principle.” She does this by offering real-life problems and then introducing the physics needed to solve the puzzle. “You always have to have a hook,” she explains.

Figuring out how to accomplish this goal is the same type of problem-solving Deutsch originally fell in love with during her own time as an undergraduate.

“My classes made sense. They were challenging. They made me think,” she says. “And that, for me, was really the best thing about going to university. To think really hard about something.”

Name: Miriam Deutsch

Education: PhD ’97, Hebrew University, Israel

Teaching Experience: Joined the UO faculty in spring 2001.

Awards: National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Off-Campus: Deutsch likes to hike at Mount Pisgah, swim, and cook with her two daughters.

Last Word: “My mom used to say that if you want me to do something, tell me it’s challenging.”

By Elisabeth Kramer