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Who Says Science Movies Don’t Matter?

When I was 12, my father took me to The Children’s Museum in Mexico City to see a movie that I remember as Planets, Moons and Stars. It was unlike any movie I had seen before. There were no good and bad guys or furry animals — just colorful spheres rotating around a ball of fire against an empty black background. My heart filled with joy. I dreamed of flying into outer space, of becoming an astronaut and exploring that dark space myself. I still remember the excitement I felt when we left the movie theater, and how I peppered my father with questions about the Solar System and the Universe on the way home.

My interest in science was endearing at 12, but at 16 it was viewed as a waste of time. When I confessed to my parents and teachers in high school that I wanted to study math and physics at university, my dreams were met with disapproval. I was told those careers were too hard for women and I should study something more appropriate like communications or marketing.

I didn’t have any professional female role models to turn to for advice and support, so eventually I gave in to the pressure around me. In my first two years at the Iberoamericana University, I studied philosophy. I thought I could sublimate my desire to understand the natural world by tackling philosophical questions about human existence. But the more I tried to hide my love for math and physics, the more intensely I would hear an inner voice clamoring for science.

Eventually, the tension between what I was doing and what I wanted to do became too great. Behind my parents’ back, I applied to American universities because a friend told me that, “in the U.S., you can study more than one subject at a time,” and one of the subjects I would study there would be physics.

I was accepted to Brandeis with a full scholarship. I continued with my philosophy major because I hadn’t taken a math course in several years and the other students seemed so knowledgeable. My inner voice was always there, but as often happens in life, when an opportunity becomes real, the fear of failure becomes real too: I was scared to make the switch.

One day I saw a leaflet advertising a course in astronomy. It was for non-science majors, requiring only little math. I felt less scared. And then I remembered the movie. Finally, a chance to understand those colorful spheres and explore the dark space myself!

I enrolled in the course and my life changed forever. The teaching assistant, Roopesh Ohja — today an astronomer working for NASA — became my first mentor. Toward the end of the course, I sat with him under a tree in Harvard Square and said: “Roopesh, I just don’t want to die without trying. Without trying to study physics.” But I didn’t know how. Since my scholarship was for only two years, I couldn’t start a physics major from scratch. Instead, I would have to jump right into junior-level physics courses. Roopesh tutored me the whole summer and asked for only one thing in return: that one day I become a mentor too. Two years later, I graduated with a double major in physics and philosophy.

Afterwards, I became the first Mexican woman to get a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford, and I did post-doctoral work in physics and applied math at NYU and Columbia. Since then, I have been using my physics skills to tackle problems in different fields. And remembering Roopesh’s message, I’ve been mentoring young students in science.

I’ve never forgotten the movie that kindled my interest in physics. For that reason, I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the team creating Secrets of the Universe. This Giant Screen/IMAX film will present the cutting-edge research at the biggest scientific experiment on Earth — the Large Hadron Collider at CERN — and explore some of the questions being investigated there (What is dark matter? How many dimensions does the universe have?).

A loftier goal is to encourage the next generation of minds to pursue science, especially women and minorities who are underrepresented in science. By using a medium that is exciting and accessible, we hope to convey the wonder of science and how beautiful is the journey to discovery — and how useful too. (One discovery at CERN that benefits us all was the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee.)

Science is for everyone and I think that an important part of being human is to appreciate science. Because you never know whose life will be changed by a movie.

Follow Deborah Berebichez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/debbiebere

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