Women in Physics Meet in Georgia Tech

Close to 200 physics college students converged at Georgia Tech for the Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) on Jan. 15-17, 2016. CUWIP is a program of the American Physical Society to support the professional growth of undergraduate women in physics. This year marks the first time Georgia Tech hosted the event. In welcoming conference attendees, Georgia Tech College of Sciences Dean Paul M. Goldbart, who is a physicist, expressed joy in being “with my people….People who understand that physics is much more than just another class. It’s a calling, a passion--something that thrills us and excites our hearts, as well as our minds.”

Goldbart acknowledged that women are still underrepresented in physics, as in many other fields. Yet, he said, the physics community has much to celebrate “in the progress that has been achieved” by women in physics “despite the people who have willfully stood in the way or who have failed to acknowledge the serious challenges that remain.”

Participants, including 15 high school students, feasted on scientific talks, poster sessions, and tours of Georgia Tech research facilities. Also on the menu were one-hour workshops covering topics from soft matter physics to dealing with depression. Panel discussions addressed questions such as: Is graduate school right for me? What can I do with a physics degree outside of academia?

Among renowned women physicists who gave plenary talks were

Among the conference highlights was the dinner talk by Sue Payne, recently retired executive from Exxon Mobil Corporation, where she last served as manager of global geoscience. Payne, who earned a B.S. Physics from Georgia Tech, is also a member of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences Advisory Board. She urged participants to

  • Let go of the fear of failing.
  • Feed your curiosity.
  • Act with Integrity.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

Payne also gave a shout-out to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) teachers, saying “we need many more teachers with math and science degrees, who are then paid much more competitively.”

CUWIP also showcased the strength of physics, collaborative research, and interdisciplinary fields at Georgia Tech. The School of Physics has “well-recognized groups in the areas of physics we study,” said Flavio H. Fenton, a Georgia Tech associate professor of physics. “We are unique,” he added, “in having a Physics of Living Systems program, which studies dynamics at all length scales, from subcellular to ecological sizes.” Fenton noted that the idea to host CUWIP came from graduate student Andrea J. Welsh, now in her fourth year of Ph.D. studies. Chair of the CUWIP organizing committee, she works in the CHAOS Lab (CHAOS = Complex Heart Arrhythmias and Other Oscillating Systems), helping to understand the collective behavior or groups of organisms. “I came to Georgia Tech not only for the research,” Welsh said, but also “because the school is very friendly and accommodating.”

Welsh recalled that the first CUWIP she attended, at Yale University in 2009, was where she found the most women scientist together in one room. It was an experience she wanted to share with other young women aspiring for careers in science. “Even at Georgia Tech, a decent-sized institute, I am often the only woman in my physics classes,” she said. “I wanted students who had never seen parts of themselves in their peers and mentors to be able to, and I think in a small way this conference succeeded in achieving that.”

The path to equitable representation of women in many aspects of life is bumpy, and conferences such as CUWIP exist partly to make it smooth. “I find myself asking if our goal as a community should be to render meetings like this unnecessary,” Goldbart told the attendees. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Even when we reach equality of status, perhaps there will remain distinct needs that such meetings can be helpful with.” More importantly, he concluded, it’s really up to women themselves to decide: “It matters what you think. And it matters that you are heard".

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