Faculty and Teaching Staff Stories

Ed Bertschinger

Ed Bertschinger Photo

Institute Community and Equity Officer
Professor of Physics

In my household growing up, the word for grit was Sisu—a Finnish word that is central to my cultural background. Finnish Sisu repelled the Soviet invasion in the Winter War of 1939. Although Finland lost 11% of its pre-war territory, it preserved its independence and gave the world a new word for "guts". One young Finnish farm girl—my mother—later emigrated to the U.S. and taught her son the significance of Sisu.

I was born in Oakland, California but my family moved to a small farming community in southern California when my father lost his job and we inherited a house. We were poor; for several years my mother made the best meals she could from expired bread and chicken backs discarded from a caterer. Ours being the only white family in the neighborhood, my brothers and I grew up in a very multicultural environment. I was a misfit, passionate about math and science, while my parents had little understanding of what I was talking about and only a couple percent of my high school class went to college. I studied alone until the summer after my junior year of high school when I attended a summer science program and for the first time was surrounded by like-minded peers. Inspired by that and driven to learn, I wanted to go to MIT. Unfortunately, I was rejected, so I went to a smaller, less diverse competitor in California.

Sisu got me into academia. A rocky start in college led to an instructor advising me not to pursue theoretical physics. After switching into radio astronomy I recovered well enough to get into the Princeton astrophysics graduate program, where I was initially assigned to work on a project in theoretical cosmology. My preparation was inadequate for the problem at hand and after a semester I moved on. However, I wanted to solve the problem assigned to me so badly that I spent two years teaching myself fluid mechanics and mathematical methods of self-similarity without telling anyone, until I made a breakthrough. When I presented my first-year supervisor the draft of a paper and asked him if he recalled the project and would comment on the suitability for publication of my solution, he was stunned. I learned that he, too, had been interested in finding the solution and had enlisted the collaboration of a senior theorist from Japan. Independently, they had just completed a paper on the same problem. Our methods differed but our results agreed, and my supervisor kindly encouraged me to publish my work as a solo paper. It was my first publication and the launching point for a career in theoretical astrophysics.

Social justice has always been important to me, from college days where I followed women's liberation, to graduate school where I marched in Central Park and contemplated dropping out to join the foreign service, to the present day where I have tremendous privilege as a faculty member and administrator at MIT. Using that privilege to promote equity and inclusion is the most important thing I can give back to my community. You can, too.