Highlights from SCUWiP 2013

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 18, 2013 to January 20, 2013

Austin, TX

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Rikki Garner

SPS Chapter:

 The poster session at SCUWiP 2013. Photo by Rikki Garner

In August of 2009 I walked into my first physics class at the University of Texas at Austin and noticed what would continue to surprise me for the next four years: I was one of only two women in the class. I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out why the subject I love so much just doesn’t seem to resonate with groups I identify with.  I mentored and tutored for Women in the Natural Sciences, a freshman residential program designed to promote the success of women in science, served as president of the UT Austin chapter of the Society of Physics Students, and went to numerous Women in Physics (WIP) conferences. Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear that UT Austin would be hosting a WIP conference and immediately joined the undergraduate planning committee. One year later, I’m happy to say that the conference was a great success and made a difference in many young scientists’ lives.

The Students:

SCUWiP 2013 broke some records this year, with well over 100 applicants! Unfortunately we had to turn some people away, but we were thrilled to have such interest in the conference. Students came from all types of schools across the south-central U.S. The biggest differences in perspective appeared in large vs. small schools. From class sizes of five to class sizes of fifty, everyone had a different experience to bring to the conference. As a student at UT, it was difficult for me to imagine what it’s like to take a two-person class! Interestingly, it seemed that the smaller schools tended to have more equal gender fractions than larger schools. Many people at smaller schools told me that they didn’t feel outnumbered by men at all, and sometimes they felt like the majority (but these are low-“n” statistics, right?). Large or small, students from every university seemed to benefit from meeting so many prominent women physicists, and I certainly enjoyed meeting people from many different backgrounds.

The Speakers:

From Silvia Stern’s tango across the stage to Ann Nelson’s presentation Science Beyond the Standard Model, there was no shortage of interesting events at this conference. We heard from distinguished physicists leading the frontiers of science in high energy theory (Ann Nelson), biophysics (Erin Rericha), and cosmology (Risa Wechsler), as well as from keynote speaker Margaret Murnane, and the head of the experimental and theoretical physics project at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, Barbara Jones. In addition, we had Communication and Image Strategist Sylvia Stern and APS Education and Careers Program Manager Crystal Bailey give talks on careers in physics. It was an amazing experience for all of the undergraduates to meet so many successful, powerful women in physics from across the country. It’s surprising how little visibility there is of leading female physicists among undergraduates. The University of Texas at Austin is lucky to have five amazing female professors as role models, but many of the smaller schools don’t provide that experience. The science, of course, was fascinating, but the perspective that these leading women have on life is always the real goldmine of these conferences.

The Panels:

One very special aspect of this conference (and one of my favorites) was the Q&A panels, where students were able to interact and express themselves in a discussion with the presenters. There were three panels, one of graduate students, one of the fabulous UT Austin women physics faculty, and one of leading researchers in industry. We sought to capture perspectives from every age and experience level, and it really paid off well for the students. We discussed everything from research and career decisions to family planning to interpersonal relations in professional environments. The dialogue, the discussion, and even the disagreements were invaluable to me. It’s a unique opportunity to see such successful women share varying experiences and opinions on both being a scientist and being a woman, and I truly feel lucky to have been able to ask questions to so many very influential and wise scientists.

Looking Towards the Future:

Being in the last semester of my undergraduate career, travelling across the country for graduate school interviews, I can’t help but reflect on the progress made by undergraduate women in physics just over the last four years at UT Austin. I was incredibly lucky to have such great community organizations and female role models in my undergraduate career, and I can say with absolute certainty that conferences like this gave me the perspective and confidence to be successful as a scientist. I can only hope that opportunities like this continue to grow and become available for every student interested. Special thanks to Linda Reichl, Annie Harding, Laura Tseng, Alina Gitnik, Megan Chan, Reena Panketh, Florencia Salinas and many others at UT Austin for planning such a wonderful conference.

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

Members of the industry panel. Photo by Rikki Garner

Meeting attendees mingle between sessions. Photo by Rikki Garner

Speaker Erin Rericha giving a talk on searching for underlying physics principles in cancer. Photo by Rikki Garner

SPS Reporter Rikki Garner. Photo courtesy of Rikki Garner