SPS Zone 4 Meeting

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SPS Zone Meeting

March 29, 2024 to March 30, 2024

Blacksburg, VA

Meeting host:

Society of Physics Students


Sacha Mintz

SPS Chapter:


The 2024 SPS Zone 4 Meeting

Virginia Tech

March 29-30th, 2024

     In May of 2023, Virginia Tech (VT) decided to be the next university to host the annual regional meeting of Zone 4 of the Society of Physics Students (SPS). This meeting was held March 29th and 30th of 2024 in Blacksburg, Virginia on VT’s campus in the Newman Library, Data & Decision Sciences Building, Davidson Hall, and New Classroom Building. This meeting was hosted by VT’s chapter of SPS. A total of 26 officers, Zone 4 committee members, VT faculty, and staff assisted with the hosting and planning. The following is a breakdown of all who registered for the meeting:


Pre-Meeting Planning: In May of 2023, Dr. Tatsu Takeuchi of Virginia Tech emailed VT SPS advisor Alma Robinson and incoming VT SPS President Sasha Mintz in regards to potentially hosting the 2024 Zone 4 Meeting on VT’s campus. Soon after, Sasha Mintz polled the incoming SPS officers and they agreed to the idea, and Dr. Takeuchi began contact with our Zone 4 counselors. Soon after, Sasha, Dr. Takeuchi, and Alma Robinson got in contact with VT’s Physics Department Chair Dr. Mark Pitt and began discussions about financial logistics.

Over the summer of 2023, Sasha Mintz began working on the meeting, creating a tentative schedule, brainstorming ideas for workshops, and looking for locations on campus to host the event. Additionally,  Sasha Mintz appointed Ishan Sobti as VT SPS Zone 4 Chair in order to assist with planning, as well as began advertising for a “Zone 4 Meeting Committee” for students to join to help with the meeting. In July of 2023, Sasha met with Dr. Mark Pitt and Alma Robinson to share her ideas of the potential meeting layout, locations, schedule, and began bouncing ideas off of them for workshops, speakers, and panels. Dr. Pitt and Alma provided wonderful insight and Dr. Pitt suggested the possibility of departmental financial support. Sasha then began contacting VT’s Department of Physics Director of Business Operations Jackie Woodyard.

Beginning in August of 2023, Sasha worked closely with Jackie and booked a block of 25 rooms in a nearby hotel, reserved the Virginia Tech Inn for the closing reception, and reserved the atrium of the newest building on campus: The Data and Decision Sciences (D&DS) Building [Figure 1]. Furthermore, Jackie reserved two VT Fleet Service vans so that VT SPS officers could transport the attendees to and from campus and the hotel.

In December 2023, Sasha Mintz created a Google group of all of the Zone 4 SPS advisors that had contact information listed on the SPS National website. On January 1st, 2024, Sasha sent out a registration Google form to this group with a deadline of February 1st, 2024. Over the course of the next month, Sasha continued advertising the event, including advertising the event at the 243rd American Astronomical Society Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana at the undergraduate reception. In addition, the VT Zone 4 Committee began meeting weekly on Fridays at 2PM in the undergraduate lounge to plan the meeting. During initial planning, the VT SPS officers predicted the meeting would have approximately 50 attendees. However, to everyone’s surprise, our Google form had over 130 registrants from 15 different schools! In addition, over 30 students had registered to give a poster presentation. Immediately, Sasha went to Jackie to reorganize the funds to cover the attendees’ hotels, food, and order more poster stands. Around this time as well, Sasha began reaching out to potential speakers, and secured Dr. Jim Braatz from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, VA for the afternoon plenary. In addition, VT Zone 4 Committee member Yannick Pleimling secured Dr. James M. Glownia from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California as our keynote speaker.

The unexpected increase in attendees was very exciting for VT SPS! However, we were heavily lacking in funding. Sasha worked closely with VT SPS Officer Andrew Johnson, who happened to be a member of VT’s Undergraduate Senate, in order to secure more funding. Sasha and Andrew secured more than $3,000 to support our speakers, visiting faculty, and the D&DS reservation payment. In addition, Sasha worked with Jackie to increase the hotel room reservation number from 25 to 38, and re-allocated the closing ceremony dinner funding to a smaller catered meal in the D&DS Atrium. Additionally, Alma Robinson spoke with Sasha about the possibility of paying for the Friday night pizza dinner with a DEI grant provided that her or undergraduate students Hampton Smith or Maria Carrillo could speak during the meeting about what the grant was used for: a DEI-focused curriculum. Thus, one of our workshops was finalized to be a DEI panel.  Sasha also applied for the Zone Meeting funding provided by SPS National in order to cover the lunch on Saturday. In addition to this, Dr. Giti Khodaparast, faculty advisor to VT’s women in physics group “Ladies of Robeson” provided financial support for breakfast on Saturday morning as well as for our keynote speaker.

As the meeting grew closer, VT Zone 4 Chair Ishan Sobti began working diligently on designs for the event. He created designs for our flier, pins, nametags, stickers, and even our trivia answer papers. His designs are included in Figures 2-5. Furthermore, Sasha and Ishan worked diligently alongside SPS Zone 4 Meeting Committee member Yannick Pleimling in order to create a conference booklet that included the schedule, maps of campus, all participants, keynote and plenary abstracts, poster titles and abstracts, and more. In addition, VT SPS Zone 4 Committee member Nishad Manohar created a website for the meeting [https://sites.google.com/vt.edu/spszone4-2024/home] as a more accessible way to distribute information to attendees. A screenshot of the home page is included in Figure 6. Finally, approximately a week before the meeting, VT SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer created a Discord for the 2024 VT SPS Zone 4 Meeting for attendees to join, ask questions, receive important updates, and chat before/after the meeting to keep in touch. Due to the increasing logistics, and the potential for last-minute plan alterations, VT SPS Zone 4 Committee member Nishad Manohar suggested, and VT SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer reserved, an extra room in the D&DS building as a field headquarters, or the ‘War Room,’ from which VT SPS Officers and VT Zone 4 committee members could coordinate resources, plan, and store items needed for workshops and events.

March 29th, 2024: VT SPS determined that the best way to begin the conference was with a fun trivia night and pizza! VT Zone 4 Committee members Nishad Manohar, Matthew Aguilar, Reagan Scherer, and Ishan Sobti created four categories of physics and general trivia questions that ranged in difficulty. Registration and nametag and lanyard distribution for the meeting began at 5PM in the Newman Library, and trivia and pizza began at 7PM. While waiting for trivia to start, attendees filed in and began entertaining themselves in a variety of ways: reading textbooks, chatting with students from other schools, and playing physics-themed hangman on the whiteboards. In addition, VT SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer and VT SPS advisor Alma Robinson ran a shuttle service to transport people directly from the hotel to Newman Library, where VT Zone 4 committee member Yannick Pleimling and VT SPS Vice President Canon Zeidan would escort them to the registration desk. Once pizza arrived, trivia began and there was fierce competition between universities. In between sections of trivia, while the answer sheets were being graded, the attendees continued to socialize. At the end of the fourth round, three winners were declared and were given their choice of Zone 4 pins, stickers, and SPS National merchandise from SPS National’s Zone 4 Kit. Approximately 35 students attended this event, but 15 boxes of pizza were devoured!

March 30th, 2024: The second day of our meeting was jam-packed with fun things to attend! Breakfast, registration, and poster set-up began at 7:30AM in D&DS. Breakfast included bagels and cream cheese as well as yogurt with granola. The majority of our registrants arrived Saturday morning and began chatting in the atrium of the building while waiting for the first event of the day. At 8:30AM, Sasha announced that VT SPS officers would be traveling to Davidson Hall for our keynote speaker Dr. James M. Glownia. VT SPS organized two officers to travel between buildings with visiting students and faculty (one at the front, one at the back) as VT’s campus is very large and most of our buildings look extremely similar with their famous “Hokie Stone” finish. Once students were seated, Sasha Mintz gave a quick announcement to everyone, giving a short explanation of the day and minor housekeeping issues. Then, VT Physics Department Chair Dr. Mark Pitt gave a welcome address to the students, describing VT’s history with SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma. Then, Dr. Giti Khodaparast introduced our keynote speaker Dr. James M. Glownia to the attendees. Dr. Glownia gave an extremely interesting talk on the 2023 Nobel Prize in attosecond physics within condensed matter physics, and received many intriguing questions from the attendees.

Students then traveled back to D&DS for a variety of workshops. VT SPS Officer Fir Takacs created a workshop selection Google form approximately a week before the meeting so that students could select their favorites. Our workshops were the following:

The Ask a Professor Panel included visiting faculty members Dr. Rhett Herman, Dr. Prabhakar Misra, Dr. Peter Sheldon, and VT faculty member Dr. Giti Khodaparast, moderated by VT SPS Officers Mya Shekitka and Abiagael Parks. This panel was aimed towards students who are interested in doing research, interested in becoming a professor, or have any questions about pursuing undergraduate research.

The DEI Panel included VT graduate students Sarah Healey, Gwen Walker, Andrew Gustafson, recent VT graduate Maria Carrillo, VT undergraduate Hampton Smith, and visiting faculty Dr. Gary White, moderated by VT SPS Officers Anthony Mays and Dominic Arseni. This panel was aimed towards students who were interested in creating more inclusive, diverse spaces within STEM, or who are interested in how they can support underrepresented students in the field. Furthermore, Maria Carillo and Hampton Smith highlighted recent work they have done with Alma Robinson in which they were curating a DEI-focused curriculum.

The Outreach Workshop was run by VT undergraduates Fir Takacs, Sarah Morrow, Clara McMullin, and SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer who have all taken our outreach course. This workshop focused on how to explain difficult topics to young students and utilized demos that VT has including a Van de Graaff generator,  magnetic ring launcher, various mechanics demos, and liquid nitrogen.

The Shark Tank Workshop was run by VT Zone 4 Committee Members Ishan Sobti, Nishad Manohar, VT SPS Officer Thomas Klein, and VT SPS Vice President Canon Zeidan. This workshop was inspired by a workshop that took place at the 2023 Zone 3 Meeting after Sasha met with Lycoming College’s SPS President Katie Sheriff and inquired about their zone meeting. Our Shark Tank workshop focused on the mysteries of physics. Each group was given a whiteboard, Expo markers, and a currently unsolved problem in physics. Students were given thirty minutes to come up with their unique and fun solution to the problem, and then all groups presented their solutions to Ishan, Nishad, Thomas, and Canon, the ‘Sharks’ funding their ideas with a whole (fictional) budget of $12. The best solution was given a prize and bragging rights for the remainder of the meeting.

Each workshop lasted for approximately one hour and each student attended two workshops. The Shark Tank Workshop had a maximum of 40 students per round, and all other workshops had approximately 30 each round.

Following the workshop, catered Jersey Mike’s sandwiches was served in the D&DS Atrium, along with waters and chips. VT SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer was able to secure a sponsorship from our local Insomnia Cookies, so a wide variety of cookies were available for each meal!

Following lunch, students gathered around the edges of the atrium for our poster session. 31 students registered to present a poster with topics varying from asteroids to material science to a recently completed study of Alaskan sea ice. The poster session lasted for one hour, and at 1:45PM Sasha announced that VT officers were again walking students over to Davidson Hall for the afternoon plenary.

At 2PM, Sasha Mintz introduced plenary speaker Dr. Jim Braatz from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  Dr. Braatz gave a fascinating talk on cosmology and his work with measuring the expansion of the universe using excited water vapor molecules orbiting around supermassive black holes. At the end of his talk, students asked a variety of questions before heading to the next event. VT SPS Officers walked students from Davidson Hall to the lecture room New Classroom Building for our final two panels of the day.

At 3PM, we hosted a Career & Graduate School Panel with visiting faculty Dr. Anna Binion, VT College of Science Dean Dr. Kevin Pitts, VT Physics graduate program director Betty Wilkins, and Caltech graduate student and previous VT SPS President Tim Proudkii, moderated by VT SPS Outreach Coordinator Reagan Scherer and VT SPS Officer Abiagael Parks. The panel began with each panelist introducing themselves and their backgrounds, and VT SPS officers moderated the panel. Students asked questions ranging from what schools look for in applications to what factors go into choosing between academia or industry.

Immediately following this panel, we hosted an REU & SULI Information Session with Dr. Jim Braatz and Dr. James M. Glownia, who are both heavily involved in their respective summer programs. This panel was moderated by VT SPS Officers Fir Takacs and Mya Shekitka. Dr. Braatz and Dr. Glownia gave descriptions of each of their programs and offered insights into what it’s like to work at each of their respective programs. Students asked a variety of questions, including questions about the main differences between REUs and SULI, the work-life balance for a student in each program, and what makes each program unique.

Following these panels, VT SPS officers walked the attendees back to D&DS Atrium for our dinner and closing reception. VT SPS secured a catered fajita and taco buffet from Moe’s for dinner and Alma Robinson and Sasha Mintz spoke briefly to the attendees, thanking them for coming.

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