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Couples podcast: second-chance encounter

Their first conversation revolved around quantum physics, but it’s not the first time they met. Brian and Teri Odom found proof of a near-meeting that almost happened at a childhood summer camp

Photos by Doug Haight.

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Podcast transcript:

Welcome to Northwestern Now. In this episode of our couples podcast series: a second chance meeting. See where this couple almost met decades before they said their first hello’s, plus the photo that proves this close encounter. In this seemingly destined match, two leading scientists work hard to make life meaningful inside and outside their respective labs in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Teri: I’m Teri Odom. I’m a Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry and associate director of the International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Brian: I’m Brian Odom, and I’m an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern.

Northwestern: Easy question off the top – when did you get married?

Brian and Teri: 1995, yeah.

Brian: We met in college. I was a sophomore, and she was a freshman.

But they almost met years earlier when they were both living in Houston.

Brian: We almost met when I was in seventh grade, and she was in sixth grade. We had gone to the same summer camp, it turns out.

They didn’t know each other, but Brian knew Teri’s name because…

Brian: My friend had a crush on her, but I didn’t meet her. Strange story.

Northwestern: When you met in college, did you remember this was the case, or how did it come up again?

Brian: We compared notes because we realized she had lived in the same part of Houston. We thought, ‘That’s strange.’

They realized they had attended the same summer camp and…

Brian: We started digging in more and realized we were there the same week.

Brian remembered that his friend was constantly talking about this girl named Teri, who also went to the camp. Then Brian and Teri found proof of their close encounter tucked away in an old photo album.

Teri: His mother is really great at keeping everything, so she found a photo.

Brian: We have, yeah, a group photo.

Both Teri and Brian in the same picture in middle school.

campphoto

By the time Brian and Teri really met in college, their interests had changed from backyard games to research labs. This is one of their early conversations.

Teri: He was telling me about the Young’s double slit experiment.

Brian: Yeah, imagine you have a wall with two holes in it, and you shoot a single ball at the wall. If it’s going to get through, you think it’s going to go through one or the other, but in fact, it goes through both.

Wait, what?

Teri: Yeah, so it doesn’t make sense because, in the big world, this doesn’t happen, but in the miniature or the small or quantum world, it can happen.

You know the science that’s so complicated, even other scientists get confused? Well, Brian has mastered it. He is an expert in quantum mechanics, and his early passion for the subject convinced Teri to also enroll in quantum physics classes.

Brian: I influenced her toward a career in science, as it turned out.

After that, Teri and Brian both finished their undergraduate degrees at Stanford. They got married and went to Harvard together for their master’s and Ph.D.s. Fast forward to 2002. Teri started working in Northwestern’s nanotechnology lab, while Brian pursued a post-doc at the University of Chicago. By 2008, Brian also earned a position at Northwestern. Now they both work in science but in slightly different areas.

Brian: I’m in atomic physics.

Teri: We spend a lot of time in the area of nanoscience.

Teri’s research focuses on tiny structural design. Her lab created some of the world’s smallest lasers.

Teri: Lasers about the size of a virus particle.

They’re also revolutionizing modern medicine with new processes for delivering drugs to tumors and diseased cells.

Teri: We can also turn seemingly ordinary materials into extraordinary ones by manipulating their structure.

Brian says, with his research, he’s not so much focused on the outcome as on the discovery process.

Brian: In science, the things that were most exciting in the last hundred years – they were never anyone’s goals. They were found by accident and then understood the implications of later.

One area Brian’s working to discover…

Brian: There may be new laws of physics that we have yet to understand.

For example, he says things we think about as constants – like the speed of light – might not actually be constant after all 

Brian: This is one of the things we can look for by watching a molecule – how it vibrates now, and then compare how it vibrates a year from now or a few years from now, see if it’s vibrating at exactly the same frequency. There are some ideas out there that maybe these constants do change.

In other words, Sir Isaac Newton might have gotten it wrong. Brian’s research has the potential to disprove Newton’s laws of motion, which have stood for more than three centuries.

Northwestern: So even things like Newton’s law of gravity? It might have been true then, but it’s changed now?

Brian: Exactly, things like that.

Brian and Teri’s fields don’t often overlap, but they are working on one project together right now. It’s the first time their research has ever collided.

Teri: The idea, which is risky and we’re taking baby steps toward, is the ability to take tiny nanostructured surfaces and to make surfaces that would be able to trap atoms in certain locations, such that new quantum states of matter could form.

Remember the science that makes even other scientists scream? Well, Teri and Brian both get it. They were actually both awarded prestigious Packard Fellowships for their independent work. Only 18 are awarded each year, and it was even fewer back when Brian was named in 2009 and when Teri was recognized in 2003. Brian and Teri say they love being able to share all these experiences and achievements.

Teri: We try to find opportunities to go celebrate successes.

Brian: Go have a good bottle of wine.

Teri: And a meal.

Brian: There’s always a good excuse.

Teri: And we like that.

brianterimountain

Teri and Brian also share a last name, and that can create some confusion on campus.

Northwestern: Tell me about the Odom group:

Teri: Mine is The Odom Group. His is Odom Group.

A simple three-letter distinction.

Teri: The Odom Group is a collection of my students and post-docs and undergraduates.

Brian: Same for Odom Group.

Naturally, with names so close….

Teri: They compete.

Northwestern: How so?

Teri: Annually we have a holiday gathering.

It’s really more of a cut-throat competition.

Brian: Before we had a son, it was a cooking competition, like a Top Chef sort of thing. You know, make something out of these ingredients.

Then their son Bren was born, and the themes changed a little bit.

Brian: Last year was playdough.

Northwestern: I sense the kid influence.

Odom Group and The Odom Group competed by sculpting items out of playdough. If Bren recognized it, that team got a point. Another year, Teri and Brian hosted a ginger bread competition.

Teri: This is where the differences in groups come out. My kids don’t break rules, but…

One year, they decided to leave and buy LEDs to light up their ginger bread houses, but at least they stuck to the prompt.

Teri: Brian’s group decided they weren’t going to make a ginger bread house. They were going to make a lasing cavity.

That’s a device used in physics research.

Teri: The physics groups are always just a little more focused…

Brian: Interesting.

Teri: …on the scientific topics and my group tends to be broader.

Teri and Brian have been hosting these parties for seven years now.

Teri: This was the first year Brian’s group won.

Brian: This is true, yes.

Northwestern: Was this a momentous source of pride?

Brian: I was very proud of them, yes.

Teri and Brian say outside of this holiday competition, they’re not competitive at all. They say they hardly ever even talk about work or science outside of campus.

Teri: We’re not geeks. We do talk about science, but it’s not like we talk about science at dinner.

But they must talk about science sometimes, or at least speak to each other in a scientific way, because…

Brian: We joke about some of the ways that our son… Some of the language he picks up is not normal.

Northwestern: Like what?

Brian: He might say a word like ‘commensurate.’

Remember, Bren is only 4, so ‘commensurate’ is a pretty big word.

Brian: I don’t know how it happens.

Teri: We’re just describing how the world works. We feel that we should give him real language to understand physical concepts, instead of just saying, ‘Oh it rained because it decided to rain.’ That’s not helpful for having him understand the natural world.

brengrid2

They say they choose not to focus conversations around science because…

Teri: I feel like there are a lot of other things about Brian that are not confined to his scientific interests.

Brian: We have so much in common and get along on so many levels that we’re not motivated to talk about science very often.

Instead…

Teri: We often talk about faith and how we’ve changed over the years and what that means as we’re trying to raise a son. We talk about how to make life meaningful. We talk about community building. How do we get people surrounding us and influencing us toward positive trajectories?

They say life has a purpose beyond science and discovery, and Northwestern supports them in both worlds.

This has been Kayla Stoner with a Northwestern Now podcast. Check out the rest of our couples podcast series on our website, Northwestern.edu.

Thanks to Kevin MacLeod and Incompetech for the music used in this story.

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