Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile: The balance of María Cristina Depassier after completing 40 years of experience

The professor at the Institute of Physics, María Cristina Depassier, grew up surrounded by working women: her mother worked as a commercial engineer, her aunts were a dentist and a mathematics teacher, and one of her grandmothers had even worked, something unconventional for her time. Hence, as a child it never occurred to her that there were limits for women.

Since she was little she was a fanatic reader. In high school it was debated between studying classical languages ​​or physics. The one who tipped the balance was his teacher of this last subject, a serious, fair, and very disciplined woman, who called the attention of little María Cristina. Her family supported her from the beginning. In fact, his mother wanted him to do what he really liked, without impositions.

Another experience that marked her was her time at a high school where most of the students came from the National Institute. Many of them dreamed of doing an undergraduate degree and going out to study a doctorate outside of Chile, an opportunity that she had not heard of before.

“I was always the only woman in the course, but the truth is that it never complicated me. During university I was super applied, I was on the same level with my classmates, so I never felt inferior to them in any way” – María Cristina Depassier, academic at the Institute of Physics.

Determined, in 1970 Depassier began her Bachelor of Science studies at the Catholic University, which was the way through which she could access Physics, a relatively new career in the country. Then, together with two colleagues, he completed a Master’s in Physics, between 1974 and 1975.

“I was always the only woman in the class, but the truth is that it never complicated me. During university I was super applied, I was on the same level with my classmates, so I never felt inferior to them in any way. It’s true. , It was not a comfortable situation to be the only one, because sometimes men are more aggressive, and I did not have so many friends to support me in the race, but that was never a barrier for me, ” explains the academic who turned 40 in 2021 years as a professor at the Faculty of Physics.

Entrance to Columbia

“I feel super happy to have achieved two very important things: we increased the academic staff and, in addition, we managed to create the area of ​​medical physics in the faculty, a goal that had been set several years before and that had not been able to be executed. I set out to achieve it, and I did it ”.
Determined to continue her doctoral studies abroad, she prepared to apply to Columbia University. In parallel, she gave classes at the Catholic University, the University of Santiago and the University of Chile, where she was welcomed and supported by researcher Igor Saavedra. When he received his acceptance it was an unforgettable day, the effort and preparation had been worth it.

“I did not leave with a scholarship from Chile, it was Columbia University that financed my studies. I even had a hard time getting a sponsorship letter stating that it was in the interest of the Catholic University for me to study these subjects abroad, which was one of the requirements to apply for scholarships in Europe. At that time, many of the men were going to doctorates at universities with less reputation, and they started off with scholarships, with a contract, salary and other guarantees. I feel that the treatment was not the same with me, because I am a woman, despite having been accepted at a first-rate university ” , reflects the researcher.

“This is a competitive race, which requires a little skill, a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but in which you get a big prize, an entertaining and rewarding job” – María Cristina Depassier, academic at the Institute of Physics

María Cristina was passionate about theoretical physics, which is why she began her research on star models. However, after a short while, he discovered “chaos theory”: an innovative, dynamic and entertaining line that allowed him to ask himself new questions.

During his doctorate he began work on nonlinear equations applied to waves in certain types of fluids. These types of equations are called reaction-diffusion equations and allow us to describe and extract the essence of a diffusive event, whether applied to a physical, chemical or biological problem. This characteristic has allowed him throughout his career to tackle such diverse problems, ranging from population growth patterns and diseases to the spread of flames and fires, obtaining results that are applicable to various areas.

“There was a simple problem in the more classical reaction-diffusion equation, which had been applied to the study of population dynamics and in the context of flame spread. However, when studying the equation in explosive chemical events, depending on certain characteristics, it behaved in different ways and it was not understood why. Together with Rafael Benguria we found a way to characterize exactly the speed with which the wave of this explosive event propagates, and how the wave speed transition occurs. This finding is a widely cited paper, but more importantly, it is included as a subject in several books and bears our name, “he says .

A new challenge
María Cristina returned to Chile in 1981 and joined the academic staff of the Faculty of Physics. During the years 2006 to 2013 she assumed the leadership of the faculty as dean. This era brought new challenges:

“I feel super happy to have achieved two very important things: we increased the academic staff and, in addition, we managed to create the area of ​​medical physics in the faculty, a goal that had been set several years before and that had not been able to be executed. I set out to achieve it, and I did. This implied making known what it was about, convincing the Central House that this area was important, and raising the resources ” .

“At that time many of the men were going to doctorates at universities with less reputation, and they started off with scholarships, with a contract, salary and other guarantees. I feel that the treatment was not the same with me, because I am a woman, despite having been accepted at a first-rate university ”- María Cristina Depassier, academic at the Institute of Physics.

His initiative paid off, and currently, the area has six full-time professors, and teaches a master’s degree that has been attractive to students and from which there are already graduates working and in the process of pursuing a doctorate. Another achievement in his management was the creation of CIEN UC, a collaborative nanoscience center between different faculties that promotes research in the area.

Captivated by the new properties that materials acquire at nanometric scales, in recent years, Depassier has set herself a new challenge: applying what she has developed in diffusion reaction equations to magnetic nanotubes , to extract the dynamics of the waves that one go into them, using fluid methods to treat nanomagnetism problems. The potential of these works is essentially applied, because carbon nanotubes are used to improve transmission and stability in different electronic objects.

Traditional experiments show that the speed reaches a limit that cannot be passed, however, with certain types of nanotubes it is possible to exceed this speed, called the relativistic limit, associated with the speed of spin waves. Although there are numerical simulations of the phenomenon that confirm that this happens, there is no mathematical model that allows it to be described and understood.

María Cristina is searching for that equation: “I am studying a lot, because it is a new area for me. My goal is to analyze the phenomenon analytically in order to extract a simple model. The most exciting thing about this is that I have no idea how to do it. So, it is very entertaining, because when you find it, it is almost always true that these equations constitute a model for many phenomena, since things in nature are not so different. For example, there are water waves in the sea, and also in the strings, there are waves waves in different parts, but there is a single wave equation that can be extracted from different physical realities ” .

Four decades and more
With more than 40 years of career, María Cristina recognizes that hers has been one of her engines, however, for her her most relevant contribution has been to train students and motivate them to investigate.

“This is a competitive race, which requires a little skill, a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but one in which you get a big prize, an entertaining and rewarding job. If I manage to inspire an extremely capable student, much more intelligent than me, to dedicate himself to Physics, any grain of sand that I have put into motivating him will lead to much larger contributions at the research level and also, through intellect of his students, and so on, this is multiplied, as in a diffusion reaction model ” , he reflects.


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