April Showers bring May flowers, the APS April meeting and hope for the future

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American Physical Society April Meeting

April 14, 2018

Columbus, Ohio

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Stephanie WIlliams

On the morning of April 14th, I woke up at 6:30 am and drove over to UMD’s campus, my car filled with bags of clothes, my school work, and snacks. I sat in a cramped room filled with anxious students, ready to take the physics GRE. After hours of stress and anxiety, I went back to my car and began the 7-hour long drive to Ohio from college park. I was on my way to the APS April meeting. 

My name is Stephanie Williams and I am a junior in astronomy and physics at the University of Maryland. I am currently the President of my SPS chapter, among other things, such as working to build the physics Makerspace on our campus, working extensively on outreach programs to local schools, Access Assembly Network, WiP, OSTEM, and research. Our SPS chapter feeds a large department, and as such we do a lot of different things. We have weekly seminar-style meetings, occasional movie nights, bi-monthly outreach events, monthly social events, and a research fair and showcase. Needless to say, I have a pretty busy schedule. However, when I say the advertisements for the APS April meeting, I knew I had to go. The tagline of “Quarks to Cosmos” intrigued me, and as I did more research I found that this was the main professional conference for those in the field I was working in. I even learned that a new doctor who used to work on my research team with Carter Hall and me, Jon Balajthy, was going to be there presenting his work, amount other in the field of dark matter detection. Not only that, but there were multiple sections discussion Physics Education research and outreach, which intrigued me more with my work at home. I wanted to experience this, this professional setting, with real doctoral physicists, earning about the newest research in the field I am working in, this snapshot of my future and what it could be. So I went searching for money and found the SPS reporter award.

There were many resources directed specifically at undergraduate students, making sure we knew we were wanted at this professional conference and that there were things we directly benefited from. 

And so I was off, to Columbus Ohio. I arrive late Saturday evening and slept in a hotel a few minutes away from the conference center. Sunday I got to the center and was expecting a wonderful day, and that is what I got. I met new people both undergrad and doctorate and learned about possible areas of research and jobs I had never considered before. The undergraduate talks with people in industry jobs were especially helpful, and removed a lot of anxiety about my personal future, as they affirmed and explained all of the different ways I could continue as a physicist even outside of academia. I went out to a local restaurant at the end of the night with some people to talk more and just relax and it was amazing. These people had been coming to this conference as friends for years and were catching up as well as advising me in making graduate school choices and explaining their research. It was a wonderful highlight of what my future in physics could be. We all got each other’s contact information and have kept in contact since.

I started the day going to see some of the PER talks and met people from the access assembly network. I work in this network and will be going to their conference in Boulder, Colorado soon. I spend a lot of time working in outreach in my daily work on campus and increasing accessibility and inclusion in STEM is a very important cause to me. So the talks throughout the rest of the day were, grossly disappointed. I went to go see Virginia Trimble speak, of which I had been a huge fan, as I go to the Trimble Lectures sponsored by AIP quite regularly. I had never seen her speak and made sure to make the talk she had about Feynman. However I do not know much about Feynman after Trimble’s talk, but I do know she is an explicit opponent of the Me too movement. She spoke of how she thought it was a ridiculous movement, and how she often times empathized with the “victims” referring to the men who have been outed for their sexual harassment of women in the workplace. She went on to talk of her liaisons with physicists, including Feynman and how he used to draw her saying, to paraphrase, “ that every woman had to do things to get by then. It’s just how it was. But we had a grand time."

What this fails to acknowledge is that Trimble does not know of anyone who did not have a good time back then because they have since left physics. The lack of responsibility in a position of power, which will influence the behavior of generations to come, was appalling. That room was filled with men from 4 separate decades being reaffirmed or told for the first time that have it an affair with a grad student was alright because they would enjoy it. This, lack of acknowledgment of thousands of women expressing their pain and trauma in such a public way from a position of power, and from another woman, felt invalidating and alienating in a room of men. 

I tried to not let the single talk affect me and instead went to a talk about women in the history of Astronomy, which was poorly planned as every one of the speakers talked about the same woman. After, I desired to go to a talk in the PER department which had a title along the lines of Privilege and Broadening Participation in Physics”, and the speaker was Lior Burko. Dr.Burko decided to use a public platform, at a nationally acclaimed conference, in a PER section, focused on diversity issues, to claim that there were none. Dr. Burko decided to respond to``Unveiling Privilege to Broaden Participation” an article that was published in “Race and Physics Teaching'' special collection of The Physics Teacher, by addressing the arguments made about why women are not in physics or drop out before continuing to graduate school. Dr. Burko’s talk consisted of complaining and purely bad science. The reasoning behind his rebuttal to women not leaving the field was 6 data points from the AIP website of how many women had received a bachelor's degree and a doctoral degree in that year. He argued that since the average over these years was the same, women aren’t leaving physics, and therefore we did not have a problem. 6 data points. Just 6. Not even enough to make a Gaussian approximation of the data but apparently it was argued to be conclusive. This data does not take into account how many women are leaving, how many are coming back, how many are international or went back to finish their doctorate degrees over time, how many of these women went into a physics workforce or simply left physics altogether. At this point in the talk, women began to leave the room. Dr. Burko then went on to explain how microaggressions were a fallacy, or at the very least not enough of a problem that we should care as physicists, as it was not a physics issue. He seemed aggravated by the idea that this was even being discussed in a physics-based forum, as it was real physics, as he talked in a panel on this subject at the APS April Meeting.  All I could think about was how even today at my own school, the women I know and I have had to create our own study space and chat away from the whole of the class due to the disrespect of the male students to our questions and invalidation of every answer that was given. We do not use the undergrad lounge as much as the culture of the males in the lounge. So we get together to study in the research building late at night after the professors have left in order to learn in peace. We hear of professors still, being fired all over the country for harassing students in exchange for grades. But, this isn’t a problem for physics. 

I was so uncomfortable that I ended up leaving the conference a day early and not staying for the closing remarks. I couldn't stomach being invalidated in my experiences, in the experiences of so many of my female peers, and feel comfortable and welcome. The positive feelings I had from the night before had all but washed away with the confusion of “ Is physics really still this bad? Is this a field I want to be in? Will I have to deal with this kind of rhetoric the rest of my life is I stay?” These are the things that cause people to leave. because fighting constantly to be even heard, let alone make a change, is draining, to say the least. 


Dr. Burko had other arguments, and if you would like you are more than welcome to explore his arguments online as his slides are posted, as well as Virginia Trimble. Though I want to use this avenue to hopefully change things for the better. To Dr. Burko and Dr. Trimble, I want to emphasize that just because you yourself have not experienced certain transgressions against you, does not mean they don’t exist. And in fact, the actions you are taking are furthering the alienation of people in the field of physics, which is a physics issue. I urge you to think critically about the things you choose to say in a position of power, and how you decide to spend your time on a public platform. 

To everyone else who may be reading this, or have experienced similar, or worse things: this is changing, and we are the change. People are talking against these things, including other wonderful people I met at the conference, people who stayed behind each lecture to further discuss and debate with the speakers, people in their everyday lives who participate and help plan inclusion events in physics. For the first time, the April meeting this year had a workshop focused on LGBT+ issues, and entire seminar sections dedicated to discussing minority issues. People care, and they give me the support and inspiration to stay in physics with a determination to make it better for the people who will come after me. So in 60 years, when another 20-year undergrad walks into a conference, they don’t leave thinking “ How are things still like this?” These things are changing because people are talking about hem and becoming more aware, and it is leading to quantifiable changes in the field. Do not give up, stand up when you can, and when you don’t have the strength, know you be here is more than support enough. Physics wants you, even if some physicists don’t.

If you are interested in becoming more involved in groups focused on minorities and increasing access to physics, here are some resources: 

  1. Women in Physics (WiP)
  2. Society for the advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)
  3. Out in STEM (oSTEM) for LGBT+ 
  4. National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP)
  5. Access Assembly Network

or feel free to contact me for more information at swillia7 [at] terpmail.umd.edu