CUNY Professor Myriam Sarachik overcomes family tragedy to win top physics honor

New York Post 3 weeks ago

Myriam Sarachik escaped Nazi terror as a child in Belgium, and went on to break barriers in the male-dominated world of physics as a New York City college professor and researcher. It was the classic story of triumph over tragedy.

Then tragedy struck again.

On a September day in 1970, Sarachik’s housekeeper kidnapped her 5-year-old daughter Leah, taking off in the family’s Dodge station wagon.

Suddenly, everything was on hold, including her life’s work at City College.

“It all seems so irrelevant now,” a distraught Sarachik told The Post at the time. Her husband, Philip, an NYU engineering professor, described the feeling as “living in midair.”

The city held its breath, too, hoping for the girl’s safe return. Headlines blared, “350-lb. Governess Does Vanishing Act With Girl.”

Housekeeper Anna Meier Frolich’s body turned up in Vermont 12 days later. She had apparently overdosed, but Leah was not with her. The Sarachiks, joined by City College colleagues, searched the state for the curly-haired little girl.

The tragic end came on Oct. 23, 1970, when Leah’s body was discovered in the trash can of a Vermont summer home. Frolich had killed her soon after the kidnapping

It would take Sarachik more than a decade to fully regain her footing as a scientist.

“The thing is when you do research, you ask questions to which you go looking for an answer,” the physicist, now 86, told The Post recently. “At that time, I didn’t really care what the answer was to any of those questions . . . Gradually, little by little, I began to care again.”

Sarachik eventually embarked on the most productive 25 years of her career.

In January, that work will be rewarded with the 2020 Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research from the American Physical Society, one of the highest honors in the field.

Sarachik researched materials at very low temperature to probe how electrons move through solids. She examined magnetism on a molecular scale, work that could have implications in quantum computing.

“She’s made many really remarkable contributions,” said Tony Liss, the City College provost.

Her achievements are even more remarkable because Sarachik, who dreamed of being a pianist, struggled in her first physics class at Barnard College.

“I did very poorly in it in the beginning,” she said. “I decided I was just going to conquer it. I loved it.”

She also found love, meeting her future husband in the class.

Despite earning a doctorate from Columbia and a stint at prestigious Bell Labs, she was without job prospects. Employers wondered why she didn’t stay home with her daughter Karen.

City College, she said, was the only school to offer her a job — but she was pregnant with Leah and not allowed in the faculty dining room.

“City College was not really up there in terms of being progressive, but they were better than some others and they gave me a job,” she said. “That was amazing.”

Sarachik retired a year ago, but still lectures and is working on data from her research. She said she was stunned to be awarded the physics prize.

“I never dreamed that I would get that award,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d be anywhere close to it.”

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