From My Frame of Reference

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 16, 2015 to January 18, 2015

New Brunswick, New Jersey

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Ashley Zebro

SPS Chapter:

Ashley Zebro, Samantha Scibelli and #flatlisemeitner. Photo courtesy of Claire Weaver.

A CUWiP walked into a female physicist…oops, wrong frame of reference! In January of 2015, over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, hundreds of female undergraduate scientists assembled at eight conference sites across the United States. My motivation for attending a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics was a mixture of my anxieties about the future, my interest in becoming a stronger leader, and my desire to be surrounded by more female energy in a male dominant field. As president of the Society of Physics Students at Stony Brook University and one of the very few women involved in our club, I was craving to learn something that could benefit my colleagues back at Stony Brook. Voilà! My expectations were met, if not exceeded.

On Friday, January 16th, I ventured from my home in Long Island, New York on what would be my first solo journey out-of-state. Though I was nervous about driving on a bridge for the first time, I was excited for what awaited me at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), where the conference started. I had no prior knowledge about the field of plasma physics or its importance. However, I was delightfully awakened by all of its glory. Andrew Zwicker welcomed conference attendees to the facilities and taught us about the future of fusion energy. At PPPL they develop “the scientific understanding and key innovations needed to realize fusion as an energy source for the world.” Among other things, fusion energy does not emit greenhouse gases, making it a better alternative to fossil fuels.

From PPPL we headed to Rutgers for dinner and to listen to a panel of graduate students that included Lisa Fishenfeld, Julia Gonski, Kathryne Sparks-Woodle, and Brittany Taylor. The key points I learned from these women: first, one must enjoy the ride through graduate school and focus on having a life as well as concentrating on academics. Each of the panelists make time for fun by taking art classes, going out with colleagues, or finding time to communicate with their families. Secondly, your relationship with your advisor is crucial, maybe even more important than a significant other. You must discover what kind of advisor suits your needs. For example, do you need someone that is always present or someone that lets you do you own thing? What is his or her availability like? And can you bond on a personal level, outside of the realm of physics? This panel taught me that I should consult current graduate students to learn about the climate of the physics community at potential graduate institutions.

On Saturday I attended a workshop, “How to be an Active Role Model in the Physics Community.” Premi Chandra taught us about the Imposter Syndrome. This phenomenon is when someone who is fully qualified for a position or reaches an achievement feels like she does not deserve it. She believes that other people think she is an imposter, so she tries to stay under the radar hoping colleagues won’t notice. It is important to recognize these feelings in your friends and help them realize their worth, as well as in yourself. I could relate to this because I felt a bit like an imposter on entering the conference. All of the women I was surrounded by had such prestigious accomplishments, I had failed to notice my own. I’m glad this was brought to my attention because it tends to occur more in women and minority groups than any other demographic!

Later I attended a panel about balancing work and life, where we learned about prioritizing your responsibilites as a working professional. What I took away from this session was that it is still very possible to raise a family while pursuing a career in physics, despite the rigor of the coursework and competitive industry.

The highlight of Saturday was getting to see my friend, Claire Weaver, present the research she had conducted over the summer at my home laboratory. Our goal is to grow and understand high-temperature superconducting crystals and I was delighted to see Claire’s hard work come to life in poster form. 

I almost headed back to the hotel after dinner on Saturday, but instead I went to the Faraday Lecture. This turned out to be a rewarding decision! The Faraday Lecture, presented by David Maiullo and Mark Croft, is a physics demonstration show that they perform for the public. We got to see audience members lay on a bed of nails, as well as glass shatter from the sound of a certain frequency, and a Ruben’s standing wave flame tube. Not only did we learn about the physics behind these demonstrations, but the show was full of humor and excitement! David and Mark have an inspiring energy and really engage the crowd.

Following our jam-packed Saturday, a Sunday funday was the perfect ending to the weekend. Dr. Suzanne Brahmia spoke about her non-traditional path “From Papergirl to Physicist.” I was particularly interested in hearing about her time spent in the Peace Corp. While serving in Gabon, Africa she developed a passion for teaching. Her story reminds me to take whichever path feels right at that moment. I was under the impression that I had to go straight from college to a graduate program to a postdoctoral appointment, but we must remember that it is okay to take an alternative route if it feels right at the time.

The closing address made me emotional when Professor Jolie Cizewski, the CUWiP organizer, reflected on the weekend she had set up for us. I am grateful for her hospitality and everything I learned. I took with me many memories of reuniting with old friends, making new female physicist colleagues, and relaxing my anxieties about the future. While I walked in the CUWiP, the CUWiP also walked into me. Take that relativity!

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Claire Weaver presenting her research on Synthesizing New, High Temperature Superconductors

SPS Reporter Ashley Zebro.