Discovery and Surprises at APS: An undergraduate perspective

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American Physical Society March Meeting

March 2, 2015 to March 6, 2015

San Antonia, TX

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Emily Perkins-Harbin

SPS Chapter:

A view of the San Antonio River where it passes through the conference center. Fortunately, the clouds cleared on the last day I was there.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the APS 2015 March Meeting in San Antonio, Texas. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the conference, and, in fact, I very nearly didn’t go at all, as there was another student who was meant to attend, but backed out. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to take his place. I will be graduating in June from Kettering University with a bachelor’s degree in applied physics, and this was likely have been my last opportunity to go to a national conference for who knows how long. So I went with an open mind, eager to take in all I could.

Before the APS meeting, I’d only been to smaller, regional conferences like SPS Zone meetings. I was wholly unprepared for the size of the conference. Almost 10,000 people were in attendance, and I estimate that at least 5,000 talks were given. The topics covered a huge range of fields, from neutron scattering to nanomaterials to biophysics. There were 25 sessions alone on graphene, another 20 focusing on efforts “beyond graphene” (and each session contained 7-15 talks!).  A simple search of the abstracts for graphene returned over 700 results. I knew graphene was a hot topic of research, but this made tangible just how much research is happening on it right now. I found myself faced with a veritable buffet of topics and a need to narrow down my options.

The list of presentations being made during the conference was available in two forms: an app/website and a physical book. Both were really useful, but with the book being about the size of a large dictionary, I mostly left it in my room. Judging from the titles of the talks, I assumed that many of the topics discussed were beyond the capabilities of an undergraduate. Despite basically completing a degree in physics, some of the titles were basically unintelligible to me. But, not content to let an assumption like that lie unexamined, I set out to test my hypothesis. I chose a title that was confusing, but seemed like it could still possibly be within my reach to understand it. After sitting bewildered through a few talks on aerosols, I verified that there is still a lot left for me to learn. A discussion with some of my professors surprisingly revealed that this is far from an uncommon occurrence, even for people with PhDs! Of course, there were still plenty of talks that were accessible to undergraduates. In fact there were a few especially for undergraduates, including multiple sessions specifically for us to present our research.

Though I attended a variety of talks, particularly those related to magnetic nanoparticles, which is what I am writing my thesis on, I found myself drawn to topics centered on the current state of affairs. What I mean by this are topics like physics outreach, physics in popular culture, trends in physics education and methods of physics teaching. One thing that really stuck out was that it is important to help students grow their physics intuition. Instead of rejecting their intuition when they come to a wrong conclusion, it is better to point out their errors and help them to reconcile the differences. This approach should help foster a deeper understanding of the material over rote memorization.

I attended a few talks by people relaying their experiences teaching science and physics to a more general audience. Although the courses that they talked about were often and necessarily light on the math, they were all designed to help non-physicists gain an understanding of how science works. The approaches varied quite a bit. One speaker talked about a class on the physics of food, where students learned the physical principles behind various dishes, as well as how to apply the concepts to cooking. I think it would be fantastic if all physics labs involved preparing and eating food, though I’m curious how that would turn out for E&M labs.

I noticed a troubling trend among students, mostly but not wholly undergraduates, who expressed concern about job prospects after graduation. Being only a few months away myself, I’m quite familiar with that kind of anxiety. Applying to graduate school can be intimidating and the wait, nerve-wracking. But judging from statistics on the matter, many students will choose instead to pursue a career immediately. This of course has its own set of problems, of which I am well acquainted. Kettering requires all students to complete a number of co-op terms, which translates into a few years of work experience before graduation. However, how to prepare a resume, interview, or just know how to sell your skills effectively aren’t always covered in depth at many schools, and the process is still stressful, more so for those who haven’t done it before.

Fortunately, this topic seemed to be on the minds of a lot of people, and there were a number of sessions that dealt with it directly or indirectly. On the first night of the conference there was a panel discussion dedicated to undergraduate career options. It was a great opportunity for students to get an idea as to their available options. Whatever career choices everyone had in mind, it was obvious to me that being able to ask questions and learning about the processes involved was helpful.

I wasn’t expecting the conference to be as informal and congenial as it was. That’s not to underplay the value of the content being presented; rather, it’s a comment on the friendliness of the community itself. I witnessed friendly reunions among peers. I felt most of the questions asked during the talks were inquisitive rather than antagonistic. In general I thought the atmosphere was full of a sense of comradery and discovery. Interestingly, I thought the undergraduates there were the most serious. This was confirmed by Dr. Tackett, a professor at Kettering who also attended. He said you can tell who the undergraduate students and professors are by simply looking at how they dress; the former wear suits while some of the latter could be seen wearing jeans and t-shirts.

San Antonio itself provided a nice background for all the activities of the conference. The site of the conference, the Henry B. Gonzalez Conference Center, straddled the river and connected directly to the famed riverwalk that runs through the downtown. Despite being overcast most of the week and still a bit dormant from winter, the river was charming and pleasant. The hotel I stayed at was also on the river, so I got to enjoy the walk every day. The food was amazing. The first night we all walked to a nearby restaurant that had the most amazing roasted tomato salsa-- it was smoky, fresh and spicy. And just outside of our hotel was a hole-in-the-wall cafe with great breakfast tacos. The Alamo was worth the visit, and I would have been remiss to have skipped it especially considering how close it was to the venue. 

I found the entire trip to be quite rewarding. Although I thought I went to the conference with an open mind and no assumptions, I still found myself surprised at the breadth of topics and at the atmosphere.  But it’s rarely the assumptions we know we are making that end up surprising us. There’s still uncertainty about what lies ahead for me, but I can see many possible paths to a fulfilling career. As such, I feel confident that whatever happens, I will have made a choice that was well informed.

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

SPS Reporter Emily Perkins-Harbin.

Although photography isn't allowed in the chapel, the courtyard of The Alamo was quite charming.

San Antonio provided a surfeit of dining options. Here I try some excellent miso ramen.