Getting to Know the Community of Women in Physics

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 16, 2015 to January 18, 2015

University of Southern California Santa Cruz

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Kayla Mendel

SPS Chapter:

 Attendees touring the Thin Film and Solar Laboratory at the University of California Santa Cruz.

On Friday, January 16, 2015, undergraduate women interested in physics gathered at eight regional sites across the country to talk about careers in physics and opportunities in academia for the 10th annual Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP).  I attended CUWiP at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) site.  I am studying at the University of Southern California, and I was the only woman attending the conference from my university.  I was so excited to have the opportunity to meet other women with similar interests, and others who are coping with the challenges associated with pursuing a career in the male-dominated field of physics.  With plans to attend graduate school in medical physics this coming fall, I was especially interested in meeting other women going to graduate school in physics disciplines.

The UCSC conference kicked off with a welcome ceremony and networking event.  During the welcome ceremony, we heard from inspiring speakers including Deanna Ratnikova, programs administrator at the American Physical Society, Dr. Robert Johnson, chair of UCSC’s physics department, and Dr. Tesla Jeltema, assistant professor at UCSC.  Each of the speakers gave personal words of encouragement to women studying physics and pursuing higher education and careers in the field.  Following these opening comments, attendees networked with each other, as well as with a group of professors and professionals organized by physics discipline. I spent that time talking with Dr. Robert Johnson, who is working on a method of photon imaging for application in radiation oncology.  I was especially inspired to hear that he started out in astrophysics, working on a project for NASA, and then transitioned into a medical focus.  This demonstrated to me how interdisciplinary and flexible a degree in physics really is.

Saturday started with motivating talks about how to attract more women to physics, and how pivotal it is to establish a sense of belonging for women in this male-dominated field.  Next there was a series of research and career talks. Dr. Claire Max gave a talk titled “A Sharper Image in Black Holes in Colliding Galaxies” where she explained her research on ways of looking at black holes using gravity waves, and the use of adaptive optics to correct perturbations due to atmospheric turbulence.  Then, Dr. Kim Budil gave a talk titled “Science in the National Interest” where she spoke about her experiences as the vice president for laboratory management of the University of California.  She spoke about the unpredictable path a career may take, and said that unpredictability is okay as long as you do work that is meaningful. Finally, we heard from our keynote speaker, Dr. Gabriela Gonzalez.  Dr. Gonzales gave the talk “LIGO, Gravitational Waves and Me: A Wonderful Life in Physics with More to Come!”  This talk was video-cast from another CUWiP site to all of the sites across the country.  Dr. Gonzalez shared her incredible journey of moving from Argentina to the United States to work at LIGO.

Following the keynote speaker, we moved into workshops.  Participants could choose between attending workshops on applying to graduate school, physics in industry, undergraduate research, transferring to a university, and taking a tour of the labs at UCSC.  I attended the panel on physics in industry, where speakers shared their own career journeys and discussed decisions they made along the way.  They encouraged us to explore all of our options before committing to a graduate program or to a specific career.  

Following the panel, I toured several labs at UCSC.  We began at the Very High Energy Gamma Ray Astrophysics Lab, where we learned how different instruments are sent on airplanes through thunderstorms to take measurements.  Next, we visited an adaptive optics lab, where we saw how moveable mirrors can be used to correct light beam perturbations from atmospheric turbulence.  Finally, we toured the Thin Film and Solar Lab, where we learned about the creation of different films that can be used to filter light to maximize plant growth efficiency and to help increase the efficiency of solar panels.

That evening the conference hosted a poster session where students presented their research.  I presented a poster about my research in medical physics. Last summer I did a summer research project at Massachusetts General Hospital through the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) Summer Undergraduate Fellowship program.  I studied proton therapy treatment for ocular melanoma, and looked at the fidelity of dose for patients. I characterized the risk of imprecise treatment based on different parameters, including tumor location within the eye and fiducial marker configuration.  Presenting a research poster about medical physics was good practice, because I will be going to graduate school for medical physics (I just recently started receiving offers of admission!).

I really enjoyed sharing my work with other people and hearing their questions and ideas. Presenting to a group of my peers helped build up my confidence and made me feel more inclined to present my research at the next opportunity.

Following the poster session, we went to dinner at the Cocoanut Grove banquet hall and then enjoyed a round of physics trivia together.  One of the women on my trivia team was Tess Gallagher, a senior physics major at the University of Washington.  When asked what she was enjoying about the CUWiP conference, she responded that seeing a group of strong female role models in physics was very inspiring.  She said that she took away from the conference a sense of accomplishment and a renewed sense of purpose for her career in physics. 

On Sunday, we heard from inspiring women physicists including Dr. Stephanie Chasteen, who spoke on “The Quasi-Linear Dynamics of a Career in Science Education”; Dr. Sharon Gerbode, who spoke on “Winding and Wobbling – My Strange Path to Becoming a Physics Professor at an Undergraduate College”; and Dr. Jessica Kirkpatrick, who spoke on the “Status of Women in Physics”.  Hearing each of these women was incredibly empowering, and upon the closure of the day I felt extremely encouraged by the support of the community of women in physics.  Prior to the conference, I had felt that I was on my own navigating this male-dominated industry.  However, I feel better knowing that there is such a strong community of women in physics who care so much about supporting others.

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

Reporter Kayla Mendel with her research poster at the CUWiP poster session.

Cocoanut Grove welcomes conference attendees.