AAPT: The Gift of Perspective

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American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meeting, January 5–9, 2013, New Orleans

American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meeting

January 5, 2012 to January 9, 2012

Meeting host:

American Association of Physics Teachers


Amelia Plunk

SPS Chapter:

Amelia Plunk (right) poses with Barbara Wolff-Reichert in front of TeachSpin’s booth at the vendor fair. Photo by Jonathan Reichert.

When a former professor of mine reached out and asked if I would be willing to present at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Winter Meeting, I was honored by the request. When he mentioned that I would be speaking on a panel regarding the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement. While I was certainly pleased with the prospect of going to a conference I had never before attended, the idea of sharing with others the love I have for CUWiP was my true motivation for finding a way to get down to New Orleans. What I was not expecting, however, was to fall in love with AAPT in a way that was completely foreign to me.

I have attended several conferences in the past, but none quite like AAPT. Where the American Physical Society March Meeting is enormous and can be intimidating, AAPT is compact and intimate. Where the Optical Society of America’s Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) is specific, attended by members of one small sect of physics, AAPT draws a diverse cross section of the physics community. And where CUWiP is comprised of mostly strangers, it is hard to find anyone at AAPT who does not know a handful of other attendees, if not many, many more.

While I was one of those few who arrived knowing only two others, by the time I left I had crafted several friendships I will not soon forget. I found that many other young women attending AAPT had experienced feelings of being lost and alone at their home institutions as well as at other conferences. Renee Horton, an engineer at Samsung Rope Technology and an active member of several physics communities, described during her presentation the feeling of walking into a room of physicists and “being the only” as overwhelming and terrifying. Many women have found their community and base of support at AAPT. I was blessed not only to find a community of students to build my horizontal network, but also to meet numerous accomplished female physicists who were more than willing to share their experiences and advice.

The most valuable of my interactions was my introduction to Barbara Wolff-Reichert. On the second day of the conference I spotted her enthusiastically showing off her company’s merchandise to curious onlookers, and I knew
immediately that she and I would become fast friends. A graduate of Swarthmore College, she has long been an advocate for women in physics. After teaching at the high school level for many years, she joined her husband (whom she met at an AAPT meeting) in the development of TeachSpin, an advanced laboratory instrument development company. Barbara gifted me with an invitation to contact her at any time if I was in need of encouragement or advice.

Of all the trinkets and takeaways that I took home from AAPT, the most valuable gift was that of perspective. Previous to our meeting my sights had been set on a career in academia that would allow me to pass on my enthusiasm for physics to my students. I had long ago written off the idea of a career in industry as one in which I would be confined to an assembly line, trapped in a life of research and development. Barbara showed me, however, that through business one can affect the next generation of scientists in a completely different way. By making advanced laboratory equipment affordable and accessible, she is helping to open pathways to research careers that many students at smaller, less funded institutions might never have otherwise had access to.

Barbara’s involvement in developing the next big names in physics is nothing short of inspirational. I hope that many more of my peers will be able to make the trip to small, intimate conferences such as AAPT, so that they may have the same opportunity to connect with pioneers in physics. //

Beth Cunningham, president of AAPT, chats with a student during the meeting’s industry fair. Photo by Lily Udumukwu.

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