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Chung-Pei Ma’s far from unbalanced life

| 20 November 2003


Associate professor of astronomy Chung-Pei Ma
Wendy Edelstein photo

Chung-Pei Ma, whose modeling of interstellar dark matter is attracting significant attention in astronomical circles, grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, the daughter of two journalists. Her mother, who doesn’t have a science background, would often comment, upon interviewing one famous scientist or another, that “some people never explain anything in a way you can understand.”

Ma’s mother, however, didn’t try to dissuade her daughter from pursuing a career in science. The two professions she did counsel against were music and medicine. Her mother thought that the musicians she interviewed lived unbalanced lives, because, as Ma explains, “they had to be completely devoted to music from a very early age. And while doctors do great things,” she adds with a laugh, “my mother didn’t like that they spend most of their time with sick people.”

“That’s very un-Chinese,” notes Ma. “Most Chinese want their kids to be doctors and lawyers.”

Her mother’s fears that her daughter might be lured into a life of music may have stemmed from the fact that Ma began playing violin when she was five. Then, at the tender age of nine, Ma found herself at a crossroads. Her violin teacher asked if she wanted to be a musician. “He said if that’s what I wanted, I should go to Vienna or New York to study,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘No, I want to be an astronaut.’”

Ma came to America as a high-school senior to be closer to relatives who lived in Houston. From there she went on to MIT in 1989, where she wrote her undergraduate thesis in astrophysics, then stayed to complete a Ph.D. in astronomy. She accepted an assistant professorship in 1996 at the University of Pennsylvania, and was promoted to associate professor in 2001. Ma joined Berkeley’s astronomy department as an associate professor in 2002. She says she was drawn to Berkeley, because its astrophysics program is among the nation’s top three.

While Ma, now 36, has achieved impressive success in academia, she has consistently maintained her musical practice. During her doctoral studies at MIT, she took violin lessons across the river in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music and “performed all the time” at school concerts and in the Boston area.

Ma recently formed a string quartet at Berkeley with two computer scientists and a psychologist, all of whom attended music conservatories — though only half of the group’s members actually completed a music degree. “We’re going to call ourselves ‘The Dropouts,’” Ma jokes.

The quartet recently auditioned for the music department’s noontime concert series, with hopes of performing in the spring.

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