Sigma Pi Sigma and the American Institute of Physics Step Up: AIP-SPS Emergency Scholarships

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Sigma Pi Sigma and the American Institute of Physics Step Up: AIP-SPS Emergency Scholarships


Brad R. Conrad PhD, Director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be removed from the department and university environments I grew into and loved as a junior or senior. Moving into the COVID reality, what many students are facing today is, frankly, daunting. These challenges must be even harder for those just starting their college education. The courses, extracurriculars, and living experiences for tens of thousands of physics majors have been affected in a myriad of ways, often putting students in situations where their safety nets are impaired or removed.1 Experimental physics looks a lot different when laboratory access is limited and lab partners are not allowed. I’ve asked myself, How would I have even finished my homework if I couldn’t spend late nights in the SPS lounge or the library, face to face with my classmates? Quantum was hard enough with only a handful of classmates (two, to be exact). In fact, very few aspects of what we often consider the college experience have not been impacted by this virus: on-campus housing, dining options, intramural sports, in-person lectures, summer research experiences, and even course availability have been altered or indefinitely postponed. These changes can place students, especially those who lack a strong external support network, in danger of not finishing their degree.

Even more poignant is the realization that the social and professional networks that help students establish their sense of what it means to be a physicist are vastly different from even just one year ago. Most national physics and astronomy conferences were virtual this year and likely will be for at least part of 2021. Physics club meetings for many SPS chapters across the country are set to be virtual-only events for many months to come. Even office hours, which for some of us were a lifeline in the sea of new terms, symbols, and math we had to navigate, are video-only for many. For most students, the sudden rise in campus food pantry use is well understood: times are tough and employment is hard to come by.2 Collectively, these changes can work to impede students from accessing resources, advice, and a community on which they can rely.

These educational stresses became quite apparent at the beginning of the pandemic. Each spring the Society of Physics Students, which shares governance with Sigma Pi Sigma, offers merit- and need-based scholarships to its members to support their educational progress. In 2020, the number of student applications almost doubled compared to the same time last year. In fact, the number of applications we have received has far outpaced our ability to fund every student in need.
Responding to this urgent need, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) partnered with the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma to establish a fund to support students in need of assistance to stay on track in completing their education. This temporary fund was named the AIP-SPS Emergency Scholarship Fund and was formed to extend emergency lifeline grants to students whose lives have been upended by the pandemic. Through the generous support of Sigma Pi Sigma donors, friends of SPS, and the American Institute of Physics, we have been able to award a total of $100,000 in the form of emergency scholarships to current undergraduate students in need of assistance.

Whereas traditional scholarships are limited to use for tuition, the Emergency Scholarship Fund was specifically designed in response to the pandemic. SPS was able to offer support in other ways, whether through underwriting unanticipated travel expenses, food and housing costs, or materials needed for distance learning. The versatility of our support allowed us to respond to the specific challenges of each student. For some this meant support for course materials and tuition because of lost on-campus employment. Other students whose classes migrated online needed help securing a new place to live and internet access as campus housing became unavailable. Many students reported needing help with essentials, including books, food, and course fees, because they lost summer jobs and the income that would ordinarily support them throughout the year.

In total, SPS provided support to 73 students who otherwise might not have been able to complete their degrees. Applications came from students at colleges and universities across North America, about a third of which were minority-serving institutions or historically Black institutions. The average funding amount per award was $1,370, and each student who received funding shared with us what the support meant to them. Here is a sample of what recipients said.

“I am driven to combine medical and research training to provide health care and conduct clinical research as a physician-scientist. I hope to forge a connection between nanoengineering and medicine, so I am pursuing an MD-PhD…I find research empowering…I would like to sincerely thank you for supporting my academics. I know that many of the SPS programs, such as the scholarship program, would not be possible without the generosity and dedication of donors like you.”

“Once again, your support in my academic endeavors means the world to me, and I can’t thank you enough for allowing me this opportunity.”

“I can sleep better knowing I can complete my degree.”

“I have been a part of the Society of Physics Students and the... Quidditch team since my first semester at school. (I got a concussion from one of those groups in my first semester, I’ll leave it up to you to guess which.) I was inducted into ΣΠΣ this past spring before we left school for remote learning. I hope to pursue a PhD in particle physics, quantum field theory, general relativity, or most of all a topic that is in the intersection of those such as quantum gravity or neutrino related cosmology. I’d like to reiterate my gratitude for your support. The programs that have been so beneficial to me in many ways would not be possible without the support of you and many others like you. I am particularly thankful for the help in finishing my undergraduate degree that your donation will provide this coming year.”

“Thanks to the generosity of your donations I will be able to submit a first author publication as an undergrad this year.”

“I always dreamed of being a scientist...Now, thanks to you, I can continue with this dream.”

These quotes illustrate the impact of what we must do as a society—help students realize their dreams through supporting their education. As advocates for the most vulnerable within our community and as stewards of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, it is up to us to do what we can to assist students at risk. Supporting the next generation speaks to the four pillars of Sigma Pi Sigma, which we agreed to uphold upon entering the society: honor excellence and scholarship in physics, encourage interest in physics, promote service to the community, and provide fellowship to our colleagues.

The pressures students face will likely remain for years to come, but Sigma Pi Sigma will continue to aid undergraduates in realizing their full potential. For example, we have begun planning for our centennial celebration, the 2022 Physics Congress, which will be hosted by Sigma Pi Sigma and sponsored by the American Institute of Physics. Over the next two years, we will be inviting you to consider a gift toward travel to this event, which will be used to underwrite student and chapter travel, as well as lodging expenses related to attending. While the meeting will not occur until October 6–8, 2022, most students have to conduct fundraising for years to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Fundraisers and departments can help, but many students are not able to come to this event without donor support. As COVID-19 will only further stress the means of students who hope to attend the meeting, our goal is to help every student who wants to attend be a part of our 100-year anniversary celebration.

Without support from our community, countless students simply will not have the resources needed to attend gatherings like the Physics Congress. These events are important not only for networking but also for developing support structures that help them throughout their professional careers. In 2019, Sigma Pi Sigma provided over 300 students with awards in support of their travel to the Physics Congress, and we anticipate even more will require assistance in 2022. Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do to bolster the next generation.

On behalf of the students who have benefited from the AIP-SPS Emergency Scholarship Fund, I thank the hundreds of Sigma Pi Sigma donors and friends of SPS who helped us meet our goal of raising emergency support for students in need. The pandemic brought with it displacement, upheaval, and loss, but the commitment of AIP and donors like you has allowed SPS to award $100,000 to students in need. I leave you with the words of one of our students:
“It is through SPS that I have found companionship and guidance in school...[This] would not be possible without the generosity and dedication of donors like you.”


1. 9,193 undergraduates earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in the 2018–19 academic year, Starr Nicholson and Patrick J. Mulvey, “Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data” (2019),
2. Eric Hoover, “Enrolling the Class of COVID-19,”, Accessed Oct. 10, 2020.
3. Seagondollar, Shugart, Strassenburg, and White, “The New Organization of Physics Students,” Physics Today 21, 9, 59 (1968);

Student recipients of  the Emergency Scholarship Fund.  Images courtesy of SPS National.