Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics
January 12, 2018
Ariel CregoSPS Chapter:
“If I do things other than physics, they won’t think I’m serious about it, and that’s not true.” These words, spoken by Dr. Ágnes Mócsy have never better reflected my attitude towards my studies in physics.
I am a physics and creative writing major at Coe College; two areas of study that elicit raised eyebrows regarding the overlap of the two. I was only able to combine them thanks to Coe College, a liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Exploration of various fields of study is encouraged heavily, and while I know many who pair science with mathematics, language, gender studies or cultural studies, there have only been a handful of science and writing majors before me.
Throughout the years I’ve had a back and forth with myself about the validity of my interests--and only recently have I been introduced to science communications as a career path. I’ve adopted it as my own, but there’s no clear-cut road to the career.
This lead me to apply for the 2018 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa: a conference created for the engagement and empowerment of women in all areas of physics provides numerous opportunities to learn from those around you, share your own experience, and maybe, find a new lead.
The Friday of the conference, after our physics department ritual of ice cream and a single minute of science news, the seven of us attending piled into vehicles and set out for Ames. We all have various levels of conference experience ranging from international meetings and presentations to the first ever attended conference; as was the case for our first-year participant. I can empathize: my first conference attended was also a CUWiP, back in 2015 at Purdue University.
I had no idea what to expect going in. As a freshman I was an easily intimidated individual who barely felt that I belonged in a science undergraduate program. But Purdue’s CUWiP changed my mind, and made me see that I could be a woman of science despite all my inhibitions and insecurities. And isn’t that the most important take-away from a conference of this nature?
As a young major I had come to a CUWiP and it had helped me gain the confidence to stay with physics. As a senior, I wanted to do anything, any small part I could, to help someone who may feel the same way I did.
Imagine the first full day of the conference. About 200 physics majors/minors from various colleges and universities and walks of life have piled into the Benton Auditorium, a wide spacious high-ceilinged room. Murmurs and snippets of conversation bounce off the walls and greet your ears. Lots of early morning chatter and people on their first cup of coffee for the day.
After a rousing the first plenary speaker took the stage. Her name is Dr. Ágnes Mócsy, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Pratt University, and there was no one more fit to start the morning. Dr. Mócsy works with the building blocks of the universe, those particles that existed at the time of the Big Bang, as well as the particles that still build everything around us. But the moment that I still hold on to from her talk is when she turned to other applications of science.
Around me I see people shifting forwards, eyes lighting up and mouths opening in exclamations of awe. Dr. Mócsy shows photos of art created with physics in mind, hats modeled after the explosion of particles after the Big Bang, earrings shaped like gluons holding together particles, beautiful paintings and sculpture modeled after cosmological structures studied around the world. Dresses with ‘red-shift blue-shift’ detailing that shimmer and sparkle in the light.
In this moment, it began to fall together for me, and many others around the room. A common thread any woman in science can tell is that one must not allow femininity to cloud people’s perceptions. Yet here in front of us is a woman who is highly respected in the community, has worked at Brookhaven, Yale, the Niels Bohr Institute; but she is also a fashion designer, a filmmaker. While art is not intrinsically a woman’s field, there is the perception that art and science do not mix. That is simply not true.
For the rest of the conference Dr. Mócsy had a cloud of others around her, sharing stories of their own desires for that ‘artistic-science’. I had the opportunity to speak with many of them throughout the conference, and the hope they give me for the future is immense. I met a fellow science communications peer who is just starting out, a student who uses computer modeling software to create artistic renditions of planet surfaces, and a pair of students from the same school both majoring in physics and art, who had no idea the other existed until this conference. My point being, no one should have to feel that they must be purely science-oriented to still be a successful physicist.
There was a greater emphasis on networking and connecting with individuals as well. It’s easy to forget about the hundreds of other women in the field sometimes if you’re the only girl in the class, but suddenly thrust into a room with a few hundred others is also daunting. The parallel sessions offered allowed us to make personal connections while also learning about combating bias, imposter syndrome, or taking on leadership positions. Imposter syndrome remains a heavily discussed topic in academia, as many professionals may feel as though their success is not their own, or that they cannot take credit for their own accomplishments, instead feeling like an ‘imposter’ in their own skin.
Why this happens is unclear, but ramifications can devastate any professional, young or old. Following this was the emphasis on mental and personal growth and care. Two of the major sections, one plenary talk and one panel, were devoted to the physicist’s life outside of the lab. Questions abounded following both sessions, some personal stories, some questions about various aspects of life outside of science. The message remains clear: studies are a difficult undertaking on the mind and body. Don’t let the pursuit of the degree make the rest of your life fall apart.
This experience has been extremely beneficial to myself and my peers. Our drive back to Cedar Rapids left us chattering about ways to introduce new ideas and concepts to our professors, as well as events, activities, and collaborations that our campus Women in STEM organization could host. I can only imagine that the departure for many other attendees was similar. With all the vigor left from the events of the conference, I hope that anyone who may have been unsure of their place in physics has a clearer idea of their own future.