Undergraduate Women Gather at Purdue University
by Mary Mills, SPS Reporter, Miami University
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The author, Mary Mills, participating in a graduate student panel. The author, Mary Mills, participating in a graduate student panel.
Photo courtesy of Mary Mills
Over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 4th Annual Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Purdue University. I’m not an undergraduate, but I am a woman in physics and I study undergraduate women in physics, so it was wonderful to attend. I am currently a graduate student at Miami University. We have very few women in SPS and we’ve been trying to put together a Woman in Physics group for some time now. My classmates and I were hoping that this conference would give us some ideas for encouraging more of the female undergraduates to participate.

This was the third Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics I’ve attended, the second as a graduate student. These conferences are always the highlight of my winter and, in my opinion, one of the best ways to start a semester. They are encouraging and make me want to get out and change the world of physics for women. This conference was no exception.

When I arrived with two other women from Miami University, we were greeted with really awesome bags full of fun stuff and brochures. The first night was a meet-and-greet with dinner and snacks. I caught up with a few friends I had met at other women in physics conferences and met some new ones from a variety of schools in the Midwest.

Saturday was full of talks and activities. Talks were given by Sima Setayeshgar and Florencia Canelli, who shared their stories. It was helpful to see how they became the great physicists they are today. There was also a networking activity where we worked in groups to create towers out of toilet paper, which resulted in some hilarious structures.

We also went on some lab tours. My favorite tour was of Purdue University’s PRIME Lab (Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Laboratory), where they do accelerator mass spectrometry. Coming from two smaller schools, it was fantastic for me to see that undergraduates have the ability to work on such seemingly complex and highly technical projects. During lunch there was a graduate school fair where a few Midwestern universities came to recruit.

The keynote speaker was the president of Purdue University, France A. Córdova, a physicist! She told us how she had become an astrophysicist, worked at NASA, and later became the president of a large research university. She is an outstanding woman and it was a pleasure to hear her talk. Her talk was broadcast to four other undergraduate women in physics conferences, and women at all four locations had the chance to ask her questions. It was a great way to bring us all together.

After Dr. Córdova spoke, there was a career panel that included women physicists who worked outside of academia. We don’t often hear about life outside of academia or what it’s like to do something other than be a professor. Even though I have different plans for my career, it opened my mind to the idea of trying something new and looking for jobs in industry.

On Sunday we had three more speakers (Laura Greene, Lisa Everett, and Evalyn Gates) as well as a graduate student panel. While Saturday’s speakers talked about their research and their journey as women in physics, Sunday’s speakers gave a lot of advice and talked more generally about the status of women in physics. This was really interesting to me, mostly because my research is on gender and science. I also participated in the grad student panel as the only Master’s student. It was nice to be able to share my experiences and show people that it’s okay to get a Master’s in Physics as a stepping-stone or as an end in itself.

Sunday was also the day for student presentations. The student talks were split into two groups—I went to the room with mostly astrophysics related talks. All of the students did a good job with their presentations and it was nice to see what undergraduates are doing at other schools. At lunchtime there was a poster session. One of the other women from Miami, Megan Marshall, had a poster on her summer research at Baylor University.

The Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics just keeps getting better every year. The conferences are a great opportunity for women to connect with others who share the same interests. For example, I met an undergraduate who shares my research and career interests and I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with her as we both progress in our careers. The conferences are also a good way for me to connect to women in my department that I don’t often spend time with. This year, Megan and I brought a first-year student and we had a good time getting to know her.

This is probably my last undergraduate women in physics conference, as I’ll be graduating this year, but I will always encourage the female undergraduates I meet to go to these conferences. They are a wonderful place that can open the mind to new possibilities in physics and help connect likeminded women.

About The Author

Mary Mills, Miami UniversityMary Mills graduated from the College of Wooster in 2009 with a BA in physics. She spent the summers of 2008 and 2009 as an SPS Intern in Washington, DC. She will graduate with an MS in physics in August 2011—her thesis is titled "The Effects of Single-Sex Education on the Self-Efficacy of College Students Taking Introductory Physics". This year she served as the Outreach Coordinator for SPS at Miami University. Next year, she'll be a doctoral student in science education at Indiana University.

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