Physicists Are Women Too

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 16, 2015 to January 18, 2015

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Lisa McDonald

SPS Chapter:

 The molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), a machine used for crystal growth at Birck Nanotechnology

The Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) began in 2006 with a grassroots meeting at the University of Southern California. Now sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS), eight simultaneous CUWiPs were held in 2015. The conference locations change year-to-year, but are scattered throughout the United States to allow the most availability for people to attend. While each specific program is designed by the host university, they work to provide an atmosphere that nurtures the continuation of women in physics through encouraging networking connections and providing information on graduate schools and career opportunities. This year marked the tenth anniversary of the CUWiP program and among the schools hosting this memorable event was Purdue University, the site of the conference I attended.

I am from Coe College, which has had an SPS chapter since 1973 and has won an SPS Outstanding Chapter Award more than 15 consecutive years for our research, tutoring, and public outreach. Our thriving physics department has been fortunate to have many women, and I was able to attend the Purdue conference with five other women. Before going we got together to decorate shirts to represent ourselves at the conference.

The conference began on Friday, January 16, and lasted until mid-afternoon on Sunday. Talks, panels, and tours, and a wonderful banquet speaker carried us through a fast-paced 48 hours. While the talks were very enjoyable, covering topics from research at CERN to work being done with geodynamic modeling, the panels gave attendees a more personal chance to speak to graduate students currently working toward their masters and Ph.D.s. During lunch on Sunday I had the opportunity to talk with one such grad student, Cassie Reuter, and find out about the research she's been conducting for her degree. She came to Purdue with the intention of working on the LHC, but after meeting Professor Rafael Lang turned her attention toward the study of dark matter, specifically investigating claims of found dark matter by analyzing systematic errors in dark matter detectors. Not only was talking to her about her work fascinating, but discovering that she had taken a year off before grad school to recuperate from her undergraduate experience highlighted the importance of giving yourself the time you need before launching into graduate studies. Once you begin graduate school, everyone—students and professors—recommended against taking any time off and instead plowing through it all in one shot. 

Only so much can be learned from talks and panels, that's where the tours came in on Saturday afternoon. After the speakers had finished for the day, attendees had the opportunity to travel to a variety of labs covering topics from accelerator mass spectrometry to astrophysics to geophysics. I only participated in one tour, of the Birck Nanotechnology Center, since it was the longest of the options, but it was well worth the time. Open since 2005, the BirckCenter has laboratories specializing in topics such as nanophotonics, bio-nanotechnology, scanning and transmission electron microscopes, and crystal growth. At the heart of the building is the Scifres Nanofabrication Laboratory, a cleanroom compromising 25,000 square feet. This cleanroom is essential for the nanotechnology work since dust particles are larger than most of the features of nanotechnology devices and any interference of this size is detrimental to the production of the devices. We weren't able to go in since entering requires a four-step preparation process, but we were able to view the interior through the many windows ringing the lab and get a glimpse into the inner room of science.

Out of all the talks, panels, and tours, the talk that struck me the most was not one given by a physics professional, but by Professor Tracey Jean Boisseau, director of women's studies at Purdue. She presented her talk "Confidential Matters: The Science and the Art of Becoming Confident" at the banquet Saturday night. She discussed the challenges women face not just from external forces, but also the struggles they face inside themselves from preconceived notions of gender inequalities. She told an inspiring story of how her mother, at forty years old and after losing her waitressing job, enrolled in a college programming class and today works at IBM. The story demonstrated beautifully the fact that we are usually our own worst enemy, and if we are to believe in our potential as successful, intelligent physicists, there is nothing stopping us from achieving our goals.

The end of the conference on Sunday left me and my fellow Coe students with enough time to explore the city of West Lafayette, an experience that really added to the adventure. The chance to tour a university gives great insight into campus life, but seeing the surrounding area is a factor that can make or break it for a lot of students when considering where to go to graduate school. In our explorations we came across Von's, the oldest bookstore in the area. The store stretched across three shop spaces on West State Street and the amount of hidden nooks and crannies jammed with books, jewelry, clothes, stuffed animals, and gifts from around the world made it obvious why it's a place Purdue students frequent. While we didn't get to explore extensively since we had a six-hour drive back to our own campus, what we did see of the area was a fun cultural excursion I'm glad we had the opportunity to experience.

This is my first CUWiP, and I found the experience to be very beneficial for letting me see outside of my own Coe-sphere and explore how physics programs are structured in different universities. One of the most surprising incidents for me was talking with another attendee who was shocked that Coe's whole program is run by three professors, hers consists of eleven. Although we might come from different places, CUWiPs provide attendees with a chance to connect on the aspect that really matters, we are all women who love doing physics and wish to pursue it as a career. If possible, I hope to attend a CUWiP next year as well, since each year will be at a new university with a new experience. I encourage all of the women in physics who might feel alone in their endeavors to attend. Physicists are women, too, and that's never been more clear than at a conference like this.

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

The Coe women's shirt design.

SPS Reporter Lisa McDonald