Faces of Physics: Campus Event Turned Virtual Speaker Series

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Faces of Physics: Campus Event Turned Virtual Speaker Series


Kendra Redmond, Editor

A flyer highlighting talks in Marshall University’s Faces of Physics speaker series. Image by Marshall University’s SPS chapter.Marshall University’s SPS chapter had well-laid plans for their 2020 Future Faces of Physics Award. Rooms were reserved and details were coming together for a campus visit, colloquium talk, and public talk by Natalia Lewandowska, a pulsar researcher then at West Virginia University, now at Haverford College. The goals of these activities were simple: promote astrophysics in the Appalachians, where Marshall is located, demonstrate that there is work for scientists―including female scientists―in West Virginia, and highlight the benefits of equal gender representation in physics.

Then COVID-19 hit the United States, and the April event was put on hold until the fall. When it became clear that a safe in-person event wouldn’t be possible in the fall either, Marshall’s SPS chapter leaders decided it was time to go virtual and go big.

“Since we still had resources granted to us by the Future Faces of Physics Award, we decided to expand our plans from one speaker to several,” explains Ellie White, the project co-organizer and SPS chapter vice president. “Groups like Black in Astro and ShutDownSTEM have done amazing work this year to bring much-needed discussions about equity and inclusivity to physics and STEM fields, and we wanted to support those goals.” To this end, the chapter put together a virtual Faces of Physics speaker series with a lineup of amazing physics and astronomy researchers from groups traditionally underrepresented in the field. With the Future Faces of Physics Award money, they were able to offer an honorarium to each speaker.

The series kicked off in November of 2020 with a livestream of Lewandowska’s talk, “The Case of the Perfect Clocks in the Sky,” followed by a live question-and-answer session. This successful event was followed by six more talks during the winter and spring, featuring topics ranging from the physics of cancer to the search for intelligent life near the galactic center. All of the talks were free and advertised on campus and to the public.

Transitioning from a single in-person event to a virtual speaker series was “an interesting experience,” White says, and one that paid off. “[O]ne of the greatest challenges with organizing the speaker series was the same challenge many of us have when organizing on-campus events—how do you attract an audience to come learn about physics, especially in this day and age with virtual events when everyone is ‘Zoomed out,’ so to speak?,” she explains. “A silver lining of having a virtual speaker series, though, is that even if people don’t catch the talks live, the recordings are on YouTube, and we’ve seen many instances where even if we had just 10 or 20 viewers on the livestream, the recordings will end up with hundreds of views—and this is a much bigger footprint than we could have hoped to make with in-person talks on Marshall’s campus.”

The Faces of Physics speaker series is the chapter’s largest community outreach program in recent history. “[The students] heard from some amazing presenters and learned about some fantastic physics projects along the way, all while getting the on-campus and off-campus communities involved,” says Marshall SPS advisor Sean McBride. “The skills they have learned, from setting up the meetings to working in a team environment, combined with some of the inspirational messages in the talks, will all stay with them long after they leave Marshall.”

A highlight of the experience for White has been interacting with “so many amazing, brilliant scientists” at different stages in their careers. “Each lecture has been unique, and I’ve learned so much through the course of this series, both from the speakers and from the process of organizing it,” she says. “As a club we have been incredibly lucky that these scientists have been willing to give of their time and share their expertise.”

To chapters interested in hosting speakers, Marshall chapter president Jacquelyn Sizemore offers this advice: “Be intentional with who your club invites. You of course want to have someone who is accomplished in their field, but . . . Is this someone you think has an exciting story to tell? Is this someone you or others may not have heard from otherwise? Is their work relevant to you, your club, department, school, or community?” And, she says, "if you’re hosting a virtual talk, be sure to have a test run well in advance!"

 Maria Ibarcena Woll, Jackie Sizemore, Jon Keaton, Luke Foster (guest), Dr. Sean McBride, Jeremy McCloud, Andy Prostor, and Ellie White. Photo courtesy of the chapter.

Get More Info

To view the Faces of Physics speaker lineup and get links to the talks on YouTube, visit marshall.edu/physics/society-physics-students.
For information on the SPS Future Faces of Physics Award and to apply for funding, visit spsnational.org/awards/future-faces.

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