The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has awarded Ramón S. Barthelemy the Doc Brown Futures Award, an honor that recognizes early career members who demonstrate excellence in their contributions to physics education and exhibit excellent leadership. Barthelemy, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah, is an early-career physicist with a record of groundbreaking scholarship and advocacy that has advanced the field of physics education research as it pertains to gender issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT)+ physicists.
“AAPT has been a critical part of my physics education research journey and I am very honored to have been nominated by my peers for this award. This community is full of amazing people who do forward-thinking work to support people of color, LGBT+, and other underrepresented physicists,” said Barthelemy, who has been a member of AAPT since 2011. The organization will present the award during the 2021 summer meeting.
The field of physics struggles to support students and faculty from historically excluded groups. Barthelemy has long worked to make the field more inclusive—he has served on AAPT’s Committee on Women in Physics and on the Committee on Diversity, and was an early advocate for LGBT+ voices in the AAPT. He co-authored “LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community,” an influential report for the American Physical Society, and the first edition of the “LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy Best Practices Guide,” which offers actionable strategies for physicists to improve their departments and workplaces for LGBT+ colleagues and students. He recently published research on the topic in the European Journal of Physics.
“Barthelemy is a valued collaborator and can be relied on to challenge biases and inequities. He has been a leader in pushing forward physics education researchers’ understanding of gender and LGBT issues in physics,” said the AAPT in a statement.
In 2019, Barthelemy joined the U’s College of Science as its first tenure-track faculty focusing on physics education research (PER), a field that explores how people learn the content and culture of physics. Since arriving, he has built a new program that gives students rigorous training in physics concepts and in education research, qualities that prepare students for jobs in academia, education policy, or general science policy. He founded the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Utah (PERU), where he and a team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate and undergraduates students explore how graduate programs policies impact students’ experience, long-term studies of the experience of women in physics and astronomy and of students of color in STEM programs, and understanding the impacts of a sense of belonging on student’s performance in introductory STEM courses.
“We talk about inclusivity and diversity in the classroom, but there needs to be more research about what that means. We look at various aspects of interactive classrooms and how it impacts their content learning outcomes,” said Barthelemy. “If you feel like you belong in the classroom, if you feel comfortable raising your hand, you can participate in groups, teaching and learning from peers—that’s an example of inclusivity, looking at people’s sense of belonging.”
The research has implications beyond the classroom—Barthelemy uses the findings to inform and develop policies and best practices to support people from historically excluded groups in physics. “It helps us teach better, but also understanding the culture of physics has implications in the quality of research done in national labs, for example, that inevitably impacts people across the country,” he said.
Barthelemy has an untraditional journey to academia. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics at Michigan State University and received his Master’s of Science and doctorate degrees in PER at Western Michigan University. “Originally I went to graduate school for nuclear physics, but I discovered I was more interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Unfortunately, there were very few women, People of Color, LGBT or first-generation physicists in my program,” said Barthelemy, who looked outside of physics to understand why. “This was curious to me.”
In 2014, he completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland where he completed research looking at student motivations to study physics in Finland. In 2015, he received an American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy Fellowship in the United States Department of Education and worked on science education initiatives in the Obama administration. After acting as a consultant for university administrations and research offices, he began to miss doing his own research. To the U’s great fortune, he brought his talents to Utah.
“There’s so much opportunity for growth there, and we’re already doing so much good to address these issues in physics. We actually have one of the most progressive set of graduate policies in how we interview and emphasize mentorship,” said Barthelemy. “I always had an interest in social justice and physics, and now I’m able to combine them.”
Barthelemy’s work has also been recognized with external funding to complete his projects. In January 2020 he and his U colleagues Jordan Gerton and Pearl Sandick were awarded $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to complete a case study exploring the graduate program changes in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. This research is supported by PERU post-doctoral scholar MacKenzie Lenz, who is the lead researcher in this effort. In August 2020, Barthelemy received a $350,000 Building Capacity in Science Education Research award to continue his longitudinal study on women in physics and astronomy and created a new study on People of Color in U.S. graduate STEM programs. This work has been supported by PERU post-doctoral scholar Miguel Rodriguez and master’s student Mirna Mohammed, who are taking lead on data collection and analysis. Lastly, Barthelemy was selected to conduct a literature review on LGBT+ scientists as a virtual visiting scholar by the ARC Network, an organization dedicated to improving STEM equity in academia.
Adapted from a release from the AAPT.
About the award
Robert William Brown, Distinguished University and Institute Professor in the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, had a rewarding five-decade career in teaching, research, and entrepreneurship. An Inaugural Fellow of the AAPT, Doc Brown contributed to educational innovations, including an early use of a fiberoptics electronic educational environment (1980s), an early use of undergraduate teaching assistants (1990s), published PER work on both “post-exam syndrome” and its treatment, and structured revisiting of classroom material. His teaching led to the writing of a thousand-page MRI textbook, which has been called the “daily companion of the MRI scientist.” Doc Brown has received five regional national teaching honors on his innovations in undergraduate and graduate teaching, and in 2004 received the AAPT Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Teaching National Award. A partnership with his wife, Janet Gans Brown has taken them to highlight the importance of AAPT in a shared life and their gratitude by this endowment.
AAPT is the premier international organization for physics educators, physicists, and industrial scientists—with members worldwide. Dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching, AAPT provides awards, publications, and programs that encourage practical application of physics principles, support continuing professional development, and reward excellence in physics education. AAPT was founded in 1930 and is headquartered in the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland.