Supporting Women in Physics

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences

Supporting Women in Physics

The American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) 
January 13–15, 2016, at nine locations throughout the United States


Hannah Lewis Class of 2016, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Saint Mary's College of Maryland

The meet and greet event at the Old Dominion University  CUWiPs site.

In my physics department only eight of the more than 35 physics majors and minors are female. So when I signed up to attend the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), what intrigued me the most was the possibility of interacting with more women who get as excited about physics—and science in general—as I do.

The conference brings women together to discuss research, employment, and academic opportunities in physics, as well as to address some of the issues women in physics are confronted with throughout their careers. In the words of the American Physical Society, the most important aspect of CUWiP is to provide young women physicists with “access to other women in physics of all ages with whom they can share experiences, advice, and ideas.” I intend to continue on to graduate school this fall, so I was keen to meet women who might soon be my colleagues.

At a panel entitled “Careers in Physics,” we heard from four women: Rachel White, a high school teacher; Dr. Luminita Todor, a patent lawyer; Captain Austin DeLorme, an Air Force captain; and Dr. Sara Gamble, a government contractor. They spoke about careers in physics outside of academia. Each of the speakers explained their histories in science and gave words of encouragement to students seeking jobs beyond academia.

Two gave advice that truly stood out to me. When asked how she became the legal representative for

large research departments, Dr. Todor said she’d “found her call.”

“A job is something that pays the bills,” she explained. “I hope that you find a ‘call.’ That is the supreme level of happiness to find.”

A professional skill panel with Dr. Susan Blessing, Tania Schindler (pictured), and Dr. Serena Dalena. Photos courtesy of the author.

 Finding a career in physics is more than finding something to do to just get by. Captain DeLorme summed this point up nicely with: “I don’t want to look back on my life and wonder what I did with it.”

During a set of research and career talks, Dr. Christine Aidala, who is currently a professor at the University of Michigan, spoke about her physics timeline and about her current research into the strong force and the structure of the proton. In closing her talk, Dr. Aidala gave two pieces of advice. She told us that it is important to find a niche where you can make a meaningful scientific contribution. But in finding that niche, she stressed, it’s important to realize that you have an infinite number of options. “Don’t be afraid to change.”

Soon afterward Ginger Kerrick, the national keynote speaker, was being projected into a lecture hall at Jefferson Lab, where I was, from the University of Texas. Kerrick is NASA’s first female Hispanic flight director. She did not come upon the position easily. In my opinion, the most important thing that Kerrick said was, “Woman up.” You can’t let your background or your history keep you from pursuing what you want. It is your determination to succeed, as a woman, that will carry you throughout your life.

Following a poster session and dinner, Dr. Kathryn Flanagan, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, gave a talk appropriately named “Big Dreams – The James Webb Telescope and Beyond.” She spent most of her time discussing the astronomical discoveries that might come from the JWST, or from an even larger telescope. As a woman who is incredibly accomplished in her personal and professional life, she was definitely an inspiration for those of us at the meeting, and for women physicists in general.

Then Dr. Arti Sarma, a clinical psychologist at Phoenix Veteran’s Administration Hospital, talked to us about “CareerWISE,” a workshop to teach resiliency and to encourage women who are pursuing doctorate-level education. The most important part about being a woman in science, according to Dr. Sarma, is to realize that “we’ve all been there.” No matter what challenge you are facing, professional or personal, there is a community of other women scientists who are willing to help and support you when necessary.

Upon the close of the day, I felt that I had definitely bonded with the other physicists who had attended the conference. I already knew that I wasn’t the only female in the physics community, but it was fantastic to interact with others who share experiences like mine. I know now that there is a strong, powerful community of female physicists willing to support me throughout my career. //

Poster Sessions. Photos courtesy of the author.


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