Women in Physics, Women in Power

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Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

January 18, 2013 to January 20, 2013

Urbana, IL

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Elizabeth Tennyson

SPS Chapter:

Attendees at the Midwest CUWiP.  Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois

The 6th annual Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This conference focused on encouraging women to stay in physics and gave us information on the types of careers available to physics graduates. There were more than 250 female students from 80 different schools across the Midwest region in attendance, along with 25 speakers and 3 different panels, each with five panelists. Five other conferences like this occurred simultaneously throughout the nation, but the Midwest conference was the largest conference of this type that has ever been held, which is a proud accomplishment for the University of Illinois. 

I attended this conference because I, myself, am a woman in physics.  I graduated with my undergraduate degree in physics in December 2012 from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and am currently in the process of applying to graduate school.  I thought this conference would help me learn more about the graduate school admissions process and graduate school life in general.  Others I talked to attended the meeting because they wanted to know more about industry jobs or undergraduate research, or they just wanted to meet more women in physics. 

The conference began with a welcome given by Jennifer Bernhard, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Associate Dean for the University of Illinois.  She gave us three pieces of advice as women in physics: 1. Consciously develop your mentoring network, 2. Pay attention to styles of communication (posturing), and 3. Practice thinking creatively.  Posturing was a relatively new idea for most of us undergraduates at the conference and many of the women attending found that they could really relate to this phenomenon.  After Dr. Bernhard's welcome, a career panel was interviewed for about an hour and a half, teaching us about the different careers that you can get with an undergraduate degree in physics.  After this we had liquid nitrogen ice cream and talked with one another.

Some highlights from the second day included the undergraduate research panel and talks by Laura H. Greene, a physics professor at Illinois, and Joannah Metz, an exploration geologist at Shell Exploration and Production Company.  After lunch the keynote speaker took the stage: Margaret Murnane.  This was quite an interesting experience because her talk was broadcast live to all of the Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference locations.  Margaret Murnane was physically at the Colorado School of Mines location but was speaking to undergraduates gathered at the University of Illinois, Cornell University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Central Florida, and California Institution of Technology. Murnane is originally from Midwest Ireland.  She attended the University College Cork in Ireland for her undergraduate degree and went to the University of California, Berkeley for a doctoral degree in ultrashort-pulse lasers.  After Murnane, Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, gave a great talk about being a women in physics that was very motivational.  Then we broke into groups for lab tours. We ended the night by going to a nice banquet dinner and listened to Fermilab’s Young-Kee Kim discuss her work in experimental physics.

The final day of the conference included three different particle physicist speakers: Sam Zeller (Fermilab), Kawtar Hafidi (Argonne National Laboratory), and Aida El-Khadra (University of Illinois). There was also a talk by Monica Plisch, Associate Director of Education and Diversity for the American Physical Society.  She gave us a lot of statistics about women in physics throughout history.  Overall, the number of women in physics is going up, just not as rapidly as we might have hoped. 

The last day of the conference also included a graduate panel.  This was what I was the most interested in and I was really excited to ask some questions. Unfortunately this panel was given the shortest amount of time and received the most questions, so I was unable to ask my questions.  The last event was a closing statement by particle physicist Danielle Bortoletto from Purdue Unviersity, who is chair of the national CUWiP committee and was on the team that discovered the Higgs Boson particle. She was very enthusiastic about sharing her experience with us and it was wonderful to see her passion for her work.

Overall, I think the conference did a good job of showing us a lot of career options and the steps involved in choosing and starting a career.  The conference was also a great opportunity for us to get to know other women in physics; I have already been e-mailing someone I met there about graduate schools and we have been helping each other out.  It is nice to meet other women who are in the midst of the same struggles, which is a big reason the conference was such a success. 

Areas of Alignment: Career Resources: Scientific Categories:

Banquet attendees pause for a photo. Photo courtesy of the Univ. of Illinois

Attendees engage in conference activities. Photos courtesy of the University of Illinois

SPS Reporter Elizabeth Tennyson