SCUWiP: Making Space

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Southeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 18, 2013 to January 20, 2013

Orlando, Florida

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Lily Udumukwu

SPS Chapter:

Beth Cunningham, President of the American Association of Physics Teachers, chats with a student during the industry fair.

Perhaps it is fair to say that above all our goals and aspirations, however they may twist and turn and manifest into a new design, we all desire to be successful. An arbitrary term, subjective in definition, yet universally necessitous, success is a story. On January 18th, 2013, the University of Central Florida hosted the Southeastern Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (SCUWiP) and here I was privy to a weekend-long banquet of telling testimonials. On the same stage, professionals from academia, industry and government sectors participated in a series of panel discussions detailing women’s delicate platform in the realm of science.

Representing the southeast region were students from the University of Miami, University of Central Florida, Spelman College, Georgia Tech University, University of Florida, Florida State University, University of South Florida, Georgia College, University of Kentucky, Louisiana State University, the College of William and Mary, and many others comprising an audience of a little over one hundred participants. The excitement was contagious as students stood in a single file line waiting to receive their registration packets detailing the conference agenda.

In addition to the traditional Skype session with the other CUWiP meetings happening simultaneously, this year featuring a talk by Dr. Margaret Murnane from the Joint Institute of Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, undergraduates were in for an array of distinguished speakers such as Dr. Ellen Williams, Chief Scientist of British/Beyond Petroleum. Opportunities to present research were available through student talks and poster sessions, while opportunities to be informed came through a series of panel discussions on the status of women in physics, careers in physics, undergraduate research, and graduate school.

On the first full day, the conference commenced with stories of successful journeys and the obstacles encountered along the way by minorities and the minority’s minority: women of color in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Although not all women, the panelists had all experienced what it felt like to be underrepresented in STEM.

“I remember bubbling with nervous energy when the day came for university recruits to attend the grad fair. Maybe too thoughtful answers were delivered in response to questions on my research, and sweaty palms transferred my prized credentials to theirs, but all in all, I was well received.” said Peter Delfyett of the University of Central Florida.

A graduate of The City College of New York (CCNY), Delfyett felt the need to pursue his graduate studies elsewhere but later returned to CCNY after completing three years of graduate work and passing the PhD candidacy exam at a different institution. “At the time it was more important for me to be comfortable. I remember how enthusiastic I was, gaining acceptance into this prestigious school, and at the time of my application it seemed like they were happy too. But it was very different once I was there; there was a moment I remember walking down the hallways of my department after studying judiciously for a test, alone. I peered through a window and could see a bunch of guys in my class engaged in a group study meeting that I wasn’t invited to.”

Similar sentiments were shared by the other ‘Minorities in Physics’ panelists, including Marta McNeese, Professor of Physics at Spelman College,  Cecille Labuda, Professor of Physics at the University of Mississippi, and Idaykis Rodriguez, a PhD candidate at Florida International University. Seated before a sea of undergraduates, these esteemed panelists held no reservations as they divulged personal experiences from when they were budding minorities in their fields.

McNeese mentioned that she is often mistaken for a custodial employee at national conferences and pestered with questions about the whereabouts of bathroom facilities. Far too often we lose potential scientists, engineers, and pioneers in STEM fields because of biases operating at an unconscious level—petty, yet powerful predispositions.

“Throughout my studies it was like chipping away at an iceberg with a toothpick… as women we are already the minority, but as a foreign native there was additional pressure to prove myself.” said Labuda, originally from the island nation of Dominica. Reinforcing the idea of perseverance, she stated that if you want it bad enough you’ll make it happen and everything else, obstacles mental or otherwise, becomes background noise.

“It’s like Whistling Vivaldi,” she explained. In this book, which studies the negative effects of stereotypes, especially in education, an African American whistles classical music (composed by Vivaldi) to dispel any unease his counterparts anticipated in his presence.

This portion of the Southeastern Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics illuminated the progress women have made in the historically male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Undergraduates were also exposed to the discouraging bias often present in the collegiate environment and the lack of ethnic diversity among women in STEM fields. But more importantly, the attendees were also encouraged to succeed.

Despite changing schools, Delfyett holds 34 US patents, has published over 600 articles in refereed journals, and is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellow Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, awarded to the nation’s top 20 scientists each year. McNeese earned her PhD at MIT and in 2000 made the decision to join the faculty at Spelman College, a historically black college. Her desire is to champion the field of physics as a viable career option for African American women. Labuda earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in physics, and as a professor at the University of Mississippi, her research interests are supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Whether it is by completing your studies at a more fitting institution, purposefully ignoring biased profiling, or whistling a classical tune, the underrepresented must find a means to persevere, to make gains and earn prominence in a male dominated field. It is quite unfortunate that stereotypes are a challenge of living in a diverse society, and to combat them we must stake claim to our interests. You might even need to speak up. Said Delfyett, “In the presence of perceived prejudice, a well-tailored return quip can put people in their place.”

The minority panel at the meeting. Photo by Lily Udumukwu

Monica Pescitelli and Rujeko Chinomona of Georgia College showcase their research during the poster session.