By Lisa Potter, science writer, University Marketing and Communications
This weekend, five University of Utah physics majors flew to the Rockies to attend the American Physical Society (APS) Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). Their destination, the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of 10 institutions that hosted 1500 undergraduates in the regional conferences. The APS CUWiP offers workshops, lab tours, professional panels, and other resources to help female physics majors continue in physics careers. The goal is to give undergraduates access to a network of female physicists with whom they can share experiences, challenges and advice for succeeding in the male-dominated field.
“My hope is that they will really be inspired by their experiences at the CUWiPs to continue pursuing scientific careers, and that the conferences help to provide them with tools that will increase their success in those pursuits,” says Pearl Sandick, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the U and Chair Elect of the National Organizing Committee for the APS CUWiPs.
Sandick is a member of the APS Committee of the Status of Women in Physics, which was founded in 1972 to encourage more women to pursue physics careers. The field has come a long way since then, but men still dominate physics — only 16 percent of physics faculty are women in the United States, according to a fall 2015 analysis by the American Institute of Physics.
The committee hopes to change these statistics in part by increasing the number of female students who complete undergraduate physics degrees. The APS CUWiPs aim to give women in physics confidence in their scientific and professional skills so they stick with physics. The conferences cover topics as diverse as the panels Promoting Inclusion Through Student Activism and Graduate Student Life, to the workshops Communication and Negotiation and Mentorship, both of which are led by Sandick.
“I feel like it’s important for young people who don’t look like what people think of as the typical scientist, it’s important that I go out there and talk about science to show that this is something that anybody can do,” she says. “You don’t have to look like Einstein. You don’t have to be a 65-year-old white guy to do this.”
During her freshman year, Lexie Wilson wandered into the 2014 Rocky Mountain CUWiP that Sandick had organized at the U. Wilson had no idea what a conference was, but it made a lasting impression. Wilson marveled at the undergraduates presenting research and talking about career goals. She took workshops on networking, building a resume, applying to graduate school and heard something that resonated.
“There were lots of discussions about the problems with the physics world as it is now,” recalls Wilson. “Women are greatly outnumbered, and they talked about how to deal with being in a minority and still feel confident in our scientific skills.”
This year, she joined the four other U undergrads at the 2017 CUWiP as a senior physics major and three-time attendee, and presented her first research poster. Last summer, Wilson studied cloud microphysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. She presented an analysis of how liquid droplets and ice crystals within a cloud influence melt on the West Antarctic ice sheet.
Although Wilson loved touring the atmospheric science and physics facilities at CU Boulder, she says that the attendees are what make CUWiP special.
“The main benefit of the conference is that you get to go to this place where you’re surrounded by people who are just like you. There’s a huge sense of community there. You may be one of four girls in your physics class, but at this conference, there are like hundreds of girls who have been through that same thing,” Lexie says. “It’s just a really cool place to figure out that you’re not alone in the world.”
Teddy Anderson, who went to the conference for the first time, was there to take it all in.
“I loved hearing about what other people are doing. That’s what’s exciting about life for me,” she says. “That’s how the world unfolds and how you find those different paths you’re going to go on. The next thing you know, you’re on a path you didn’t even know existed.”
Arguably, Anderson is on that path right now. She transferred to the U from Salt Lake Community College last semester after guiding rafts down the Grand Canyon for two decades. She’s used to walking into a room and being 20 years older than any of her classmates, but still feels a strong connection to the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
“I kind of felt like, at my age, in the sciences, you would go to school just to learn about the science, but what I really learned last semester is that I love bringing people together, bringing groups together.”
Anderson is the outreach coordinator for the Society of Physics Students, an undergraduate club at the U that she sees as a way to bring the department together and increase the types of people, male and female, that participate.
“The more people you get to know, the more you get involved with, the better it will be for everybody. I think the club is an opportunity to make it easier for people to feel comfortable about being involved.”
Bringing the conference home
The abundance of women at the conference is starkly different from back at the U, where there are so few girls in each of the classes. We wanted to create something to help women physics majors find and support each other, says Wilson.
“It’s important to say that we’re not villainizing men. The things that influence women negatively are things that are not intentional,” she says.
Sandick, Wilson and other students founded the Undergraduate Women in Physics and Astronomy (UWomPA), a spin-off of an existing club for graduate students. The last meeting of Fall semester, a professor from the College of Social Work and a coordinator for the Women in Business club came to UWomPA to facilitate a discussion about what it means to be female in a male-dominated field. The group deconstructed the complex social-layered issues that influence how a woman feels safe to behave.
“It’s confusing because there really isn’t a solution to it, at least that I can see, other than finding community and friendship with each other and sharing those experiences and telling each other that you are intelligent and you are worthy of being here,” says Wilson. Then she laughs. “Those are important things to hear from your peers and not from like, just your mom.”