A Weekend with Women in Physics

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 17, 2014 to January 19, 2014

College Park, Maryland

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Rebecca Bissell

SPS Chapter:

  Author Becca Bissell, Dr. Michelle Thaller, and Amy Chavis.

On Friday, January 17th, 2014, eight universities across the United States launched regional Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). I attended the Mid-Atlantic CUWiP along with Amy Chavis, SPS President of our chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University. We are both seniors getting ready for graduate school. We were so excited to be around fellow female physics students for an entire weekend, and to absorb information and advice from women who are already established in physics careers.

The conference began with a tour of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Amy and I were pleasantly surprised to see many deer within the gated campus when we arrived. During lunch, Dr. Katharine Gebbie and Dr. Joseph Dehmer from NIST spoke briefly about their careers and their excitement about CUWiP. Dr. Gebbie is such a sweet, intelligent, and influential woman. It was an honor to speak with her and listen to her words of encouragement.

We then filed into an auditorium for a presentation by Nobel laureate Dr. William Phillips. I honestly cannot remember a time that I have ever been more enthralled, entertained, and educated all at the same time. His demonstrations with liquid nitrogen were completely captivating. He explained how NIST is responsible for measurement standards and discussed his research in cold quantum matter.

From here, we split into groups and began our tour of several research facilities at NIST. We were able to see the reactors in the National Center for Neutron Research. Touring the reactors was a rare opportunity greatly appreciated by all. The highlight of the tour for me was seeing Dr. Angela Hight Walker’s nanomaterials lab. She spoke to us about the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in research and encouraged us to work with scientists in other fields. As someone interested in neuroscience and physics, this was great to hear.

On Saturday, I attended two panel sessions, Careers in Physics and Research Opportunities. Learning about the myriad options for physics careers from the Careers in Physics panel was extremely enlightening. Until then, the idea of pursuing a career other than research had never really occurred to me. We learned about industry jobs, management positions, academic careers, and so much more. While we were encouraged to pursue graduate degrees, we were also reassured that you do not need a PhD to be successful. The panelists informed us about the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center’s “Who is Hiring Physics Bachelor’s” resource, which has a partial listing of physics employers by state. This is certainly an invaluable tool for those ready to plan a career. As a member of the Society of Physics Students, it was also great to finally put a face to the emails we receive from SPS Director Toni Sauncy. I strongly encourage SPS members to utilize her as a valuable resource. She is a wonderful woman who is so approachable and eager to help.

The Research Opportunities panel offered very useful advice. Megan Marshall, a graduate student at the University of Maryland (UMD), expressed the importance of research interests in guiding your future and of getting involved within your department. The professionals in your department are the ones you will look to for advice and recommendation letters, so forming relationships with them is crucial to your success. Lynn Carter, a research space scientist at NASA, recommended summer research opportunities as a way to get started in research. The many options include NSF sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs), summer internships at NASA, and the SURF program at NIST. Furthermore, listening to Dr. Angela Hight Walker was an absolute inspiration.

Later in the day we connected with the other universities hosting the CUWiPs via a video conference. National Keynote Speaker Debra Fischer of the Department of Astronomy at Yale gave a fascinating talk on the universe. She encouraged us to “stand up as citizens of the world” to make the world a better place. Moreover, my childhood dreams became reality when we all learned that there is an actual two-sun system, appropriately named Tatooine after the home planet of Luke Skywalker. The Force was strong with all of us at that moment.

At the conference I also attended the workshop “Presenting Yourself and Your Data” with Kathy Reiffenstein, as public speaking is one of my greatest fears. This workshop was a lifesaver. Kathy really helped us understand how to carry ourselves when presenting research.  Her efforts proved valuable for those presenting in the poster session. While I could not present my own research this time, I enjoyed listening to fellow undergraduate women share their research stories. The session really reiterated the theme that we are the future and all have the capabilities for amazing accomplishments in science.

Finally, to say that we were all inspired and motivated by Dr. Michelle Thaller is an understatement. There was a sigh of relief heard throughout the ballroom when she shared her struggles with physics as an undergraduate. She reassured us that we are not alone if we feel like we just do not understand sometimes. Amy and I had a chance to speak with her personally later. I had a rather rough upbringing, so community outreach for underprivileged students is important to me. Dr. Thaller’s response to my question about finding time to get involved in outreach and where to start is the single-most comforting piece of advice I have ever received. She told me, “There is no need to start really much of anything as an undergrad, except concentrating on your studies and what you want to do, and your hobbies, too. I really didn’t start public outreach as an undergrad at all. I was busy failing physics.”  She went on to say, “You don’t need to set the world on fire yet.” It was such a relief to hear that just getting through undergrad and grad school is enough for right now.

Overall, the Mid-Atlantic CUWiP completely exceeded all of my expectations. Being surrounded by women with the same interests and goals was not only a first, but also an incredibly rewarding experience. It was also uplifting to be around men who support women in physics, like Nobel laureate Dr. John Mather. I strongly encourage all students to attend future CUWiPs and other conferences before graduating. The experience is unlike any other.

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

Dr. Katharine Gebbie, past director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory at NIST, with VCU SPS President Amy Chavis.

Author Becca Bissell, Dr. John C. Mather of NASA, and Amy Chavis following an inspiring talk by Dr. Mather.

Nobel laureate Dr. William Phillips’s presentation at NIST was an incredibly entertaining and insightful conference highlight.

SPS Reporter Rebecca Bissell.