by Susan Josephs
As a teenager living in Mexico City, Deborah Berebichez internalized the message from family and teachers that “physics wasn’t an appropriate career for a young woman. But the more I tried to hide my love for physics, the more I wanted to follow my dream,” she recalls.
For Berebichez, this meant leaving Mexico for the United States, where, in 2004, she became the first Mexican woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. Since then, she has forged a uniquely multi-faceted career as a scientist, television host, public speaker and educator who has dedicated her life to empowering young women interested in science careers. A 2008 winner of Oprah Winfrey’s White House Leadership Project for her video series “The Science of Everyday Life,” she loves nothing more than demystifying scientific concepts for mainstream audiences and “breaking stereotypes on what a female scientist is supposed to be.”
“I went from a girl who didn’t know algebra to watching my dream come true,” says the New York City-based physicist, who has conducted pioneering research on wireless technology and worked on Wall Street as a quantitative analyst. “So now I’m here to tell other women that yes, you can be a scientist and a mother and wear dresses and high heels.”
Crediting her success to several academic mentors, an insatiable curiosity and an endless passion for physics, Berebichez currently juggles a jam-packed schedule as a scientist for the software company ThoughtWorks and co-host of Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science. She also recently collaborated on a data science curriculum specifically designed for female students and serves as a global ambassador for the organization Technovation, which promotes technology and entrepreneurship for girls. “From a soul perspective, this is the best part of my work,” she says of her educational endeavors.
"I’m here to tell other women that yes, you can be a scientist and a mother and wear dresses and high heels.”
A native of Mexico City’s tight-knit Jewish community, Berebichez learned to speak Hebrew and Yiddish fluently and found an intellectual role model in her grandfather, an immigrant scholar who helped other Jews escape the Holocaust. Talented at acting and creative writing, she also spent hours on the roof of her home studying the stars and reading about famous scientists from an encyclopedia that her grandfather gave her. “I didn’t have science role models in life but I found them in books,” she observes.
Encouraged by academic counselors to study “something more feminine,” Berebichez majored in philosophy at a private Mexican university. But after two years, she transferred to Brandeis University, where she experienced a life-changing epiphany during an introduction to astronomy class. The teaching assistant “told me I had a talent for physics and a few months later, I realized I didn’t want to die without trying to be a scientist,” she recalls.
With the help of the teaching assistant, who tutored her for several months, Berebichez graduated from Brandeis with degrees in physics and philosophy. Two years later, she enrolled at Stanford, where she worked in the lab of Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu. Though she experienced “many obstacles as one of three women in my class, I had this inner fire that wouldn’t let me quit,” she says of her perseverance.
Married to physicist Neer Asherie, Berebichez remains fiercely committed to serving as a “role model” and dreams of establishing her own foundation for girls who want to be scientists. “I strongly believe that the key to improving the world is through education,” she says. “This is what keeps me going.”