Despite change in academic pursuits, ASU graduate’s love for science remained steadfast
2018 Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academy of Science, astrophysicist, researcher, concertmaster/violinist, activist, policy director, scholar of classical Greek literature… just a few of the many ways to caption an image of Human and Social Dimensions student Elizabeth Garbee.
With this medley of accomplishments, accolades and eclectic pursuits, Garbee’s modest disposition belies her impressive resume. She credits the unique opportunities offered by the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) as the fuel that sustained her as she completed her PhD in just four short years.
Garbee got her bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and classical Greek literature from Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied gravitational wave astronomy and spinning black hole binary systems. But it wasn’t until a disaster struck her hometown that she realized she no longer wanted to pursue her original plan of pursuing a PhD in astrophysics.
The transition was not easy. Few resources were available to point her in the right direction, and instead of inspiration and encouragement, she received warnings not to “waste” her physics degree by pursuing another track. But Garbee knew she was destined for something different, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. That’s when she stumbled across SFIS’ Human and Social Dimensions in Science and Technology PhD program at ASU. She fell in love with the kindness, charisma and passion of the people within the unique academic community.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study your field?
Answer: The summer before my senior year of college, we had a local tragedy that affected me deeply (a forest fire swept through the town). And when something really traumatic in your life happens to you, to your family, and to your whole town, you have to figure out what to do now because it sort of splits your life into before and after. Before, I thought that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but after, when I was looking at PhD programs in astrophysics, I had an actual panic attack. Like a real, physical, full-blown panic attack. It took a little while to figure out that it was a reaction to the idea of doing a PhD in astrophysics.
I didn’t want to spend the next six or seven years of my life alone in a telescope observation room or alone in the basement of a windowless physics building that maybe eight people in the world cared about, six of whom were checking to see if I cited them or not. So I was like, OK, well, what now? The thing you think you’re preparing for throughout your entire academic career, turns out you don’t actually want it. I did some Google searching and found this program, I applied, and I got in, which was totally unexpected. And when I came out for the visiting day, I fell in love with the people here. I love it.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: I think I always had a sneaking suspicion, as a physicist, that there was something more going on behind the scenes in terms of who gets to decide what science we do, who gets to decide what research means, whether science has an absolute claim to a “capital T” truth or not — spoiler alert: for that last one, the answer is no. It’s one of the reasons I think I was drawn to this program. But it wasn’t until I got here, and I was in my first class with Dr. Jameson Wetmore — there was the week that we talked about the social construction of science. I had a mini meltdown: “What do you mean that science is influenced by the people who do it?! Isn’t science objective? Isn’t it the only thing that we can count on to be free from human intervention?!” Subconsciously, part of me must have known that this was the case because otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen the program, but it was actually having to confront it that was so shocking.
If I had to pick one idea that sort of changed everything it would be that people do science, science doesn’t do itself. It’s like breaking everything you’ve known down into little pieces and having to rebuild it slowly and in a new way. I had to take those pieces and build a new lens with which to see the world, a lens that is more intellectually honest and serves me better.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I applied to many programs, and this one was the only one that accepted me and I think that was for a reason. At the time it feels really disheartening and you’re asking yourself, what did I do wrong? But then you have to think, no, wait a minute, that’s a sign that the admissions committee was doing their job. They looked at you and said, “We don’t think you’re a good fit for us” and you don’t want to go to a school that you’re not a good fit for. Of course you don’t feel that way when you first get those rejection letters. And for me it was really a crapshoot because I had no guidance. My professors didn’t even know that something like science and technology studies existed, and neither did I. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do, I just knew it wasn’t physics. But I didn’t ever want to abandon science, because it is so important to who I am and what I want to do in my career.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you want and what you need. Especially in graduate school where you have to be your own advocate, and it’s really scary because oftentimes you don’t even know what you want or need. But there is sort of that small voice that at least has an idea. If you bury that voice under everyone else’s expectations of you, you’re never going to find it, and you’re just going to spend years wandering around trying to live out someone else’s story of who you think you should be.
A lot of times you don’t know what you want or what you need, but you just know it’s not this, whatever “this” is. There were several times that I had that feeling. The only thing you can do in that moment is ask for help. Thankfully for me, I was lucky enough to find a mentor and adviser, Dr. Andrew Maynard, who was a really great fit for me my second year here and ever since then he’s been my advocate. He never had to step up to the plate because that’s just where he lives, he just made a home there in my corner. He’s there, always.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My cube [in the SFIS office]! I cleaned it out on Friday, and I was a wreck on the drive home. I was not ashamed to take up space, and I decorated it with things that I loved, things that motivated me, things that inspired me. I had a wall of just quotes I had on Post-It notes that I hung up there. And everybody knew that if they wanted to come find me on campus, I was either at the music building (I’m a violinist, and I was concertmaster at one of the orchestras) or I was in my spot in my cube.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: This is actually day two of my job, I started yesterday. I am the policy and field director for Heather Ross for Congress — one of our faculty members and a dear friend and colleague of mine, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the Arizona 6th district. I’ve been volunteering for her campaign since August and am now full-time campaign staff.
I hope at one point soon it will hit me that I’m now Dr. Garbee! It’ll probably be like six months from now when someone introduces me as Dr. Garbee and I do a double take, looking for my long-lost cousin in the room or something.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Clean water for every living person on the planet. Access to clean water would fundamentally reshape the economies and cultures of entire nation-states around the world. There are entire communities that could lift themselves out of poverty, if they didn’t have to worry about where their water was going to come from. And the fact that we have a magic lever in our kitchens and in our bathrooms that just delivers it to us on demand is a miracle.
I was without easy access to clean, fresh water for two and a half weeks a couple summers ago when I rafted from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other. We had to take a little generator with us to make drinkable water. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have a faucet I could go to. How I deal with this extraordinary privilege that I have is turning it into service. Because if I’ve been given tools, access, expertise, the only thing I can do with that is service.