Sunday, February 22, 2009

Academic badassery: Claire Max

by Molly Borowitz

Congratulations to Professor Claire Max '72, the first woman to receive Princeton's James Madison Medal—awarded annually to a Graduate School alumnus or alumna "who has had a distinguished career, advanced the cause of graduate education or achieved an outstanding record of public service."

I happened to be at the Alumni Day luncheon yesterday when Professor Max received her award, and I found her speech to be entertaining, a bit poignant, and thoroughly relevant to our purposes here. For starters, President Tilghman seemed uniquely pleased to be able to present the Madison Medal to its first female recipient (although it was hard to tell because she is just so poised and professional at all times)—yeah, women! Represent! No, but really. Professor Max, who received her undergrad degree from Radcliffe College in 1968 (when the ratio of women to men was about one to five, she said), told her audience that coming to Princeton in the late 1960s was "a little weird." There weren't any girls on campus, she pointed out. To be one of the only women studying at Princeton was flattering but also isolating. But she was there in the fall of 1969 when the first female freshmen walked through Fitzrandolph Gate, and she expressed honor and pride at getting to have that experience.

She was also proud of Princeton and its Board of Trustees; she mentioned an educational study released in the late '60s that indicated that co-ed classrooms with equal numbers of girls and boys ("just how we wanted it," she said, "fifty-fifty") were the most effective learning environment for college students of both sexes, and said she thought it was "pretty neat" that Princeton had responded so quickly to that evidence. (Now, that's not to say that all problems were resolved once women were allowed on Princeton's campus, but it should be remembered that some eating clubs went co-ed right away!)

The presenters briefly listed Professor Max's academic achievements—or perhaps I should say "as briefly as possible," because this lady is an academic badass. Although her Ph.D from Princeton is in astrophysical sciences, she has also worked in plasma physics, laser fusion, astronomy, and adaptive optics (a technique that keeps the Earth's atmosphere from blurring the images produced by ground-based telescopes, so that they're just as clear as images taken by telescopes in space). She is a professor at UC Santa Cruz and the astronomer for the UC observatories, and she was just recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of science and engineering's top honors (Shirley T is also a member). David Spergel, chair of Princeton's astrophysical sciences department, says that Professor Max "has developed the techniques that let us see planets, quasars, and galaxies with remarkable clarity…Claire's work is essential not only for the current generation of great telescopes but is a key element in the next generation."

I think my favorite part of the experience was sharing it with my friend Adam, a senior in the physics department. As Professor Max's credentials were being read, he turned to me and said, "Who says there can't be great women physicists?" Charmed, I laughed. "No, but really," he said, very earnest, "I would say that some of the most important discoveries in all of physics have been made by women." So congratulations again to Professor Max for breaking down barriers in the academic world, in the atmosphere, and in the minds of Princeton's men. 40 years later, we can't tell you how much we appreciate all you've done.

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