Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics explores laser physics

Started by the University of Southern California approximately eight years ago, the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, also known as CUWiP, was founded to give undergraduate women a chance to explore the realm of physics in a professional setting without going to a large national meeting. Since its inception, the series of CUWiP conferences has grown to include six simultaneous sites across the nation and has included institutions such as California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Stanford, Texas A&M and, this year, the Colorado School of Mines as the Rocky Mountain site for the 2013 CUWiP.

Now being organized under the American Physical Society (APS), CUWiP’s mission is to provide undergraduate women in physics opportunities to network with successful women in physics through dinners and faculty talks that describe their research and how they have handled being a woman in the field of physics.

In January 2012, four senior undergraduate physics majors (Nicole Johnson, Ariel Bridgeman, Jeanette Young and Linnea Jones) travelled to the Stanford University site of the seventh annual CUWiP. While there, Bridgeman noticed of the approximately 150 participants, maybe one or two were male. This was disconcerting to her and two of the other students because all the advice they learned regarding personal lives could be equally applied to men. Also disconcerting was the absence of a conference location in the Rocky Mountain region. Upon speaking to Dr. Pat Burchet, one of the senior organizers of the Stanford CUWiP, those students learned that over the past seven years there had not been a school in the Rocky Mountain area to host a CUWiP.

The four students returned to CSM on a mission to see what it would take to host a CUWiP. When they approached Dr. Thomas Furtak, head of the physics department, with the idea to host one of these conferences at CSM and he was more than supportive, arranging three faculty to join Johnson, Bridgeman, and Jones in planning the conference.

The planning took a little less than a year and the students headed up efforts for every aspect of the conference, including advertising, speaker and panel invitations, and fundraising. With attendance of the conference free for all admitted, the 150 person conference was estimated to cost in the area of $45,000 with a successful sponsorship drive that earned approximately $60,000.

Diversity in admitted applicants was important to the student planning committee. To avoid preferential treatment or bias, the applicants’ personal statements were read without names. Bridgeman noticed after the accepted applicants were compiled that a little over twenty percent of attendees were male. Johnson said, “It’s cool to see that some of the most thoughtful essays came from men who genuinely want to understand women in physics and help increase diversity through collaboration”.

The first Rocky Mountain CUWiP was held January 18-20, 2013. Through all of the participants and sponsor representatives, 16 states, 10 companies and 34 different institutions were represented. Tours of local laboratories kicked off the weekend’s festivities, which included the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NOAA and the United States Geological Survey building located on the CSM campus. Over the weekend, seven faculty talks were given, which ranged from physics education research given by CSM’s Dr. Patrick Kohl to ultracold molecules given by Dr. Deborah Jin from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Each talk was divided into part research and part personal journey of how they got to where they are today and ended with advice for the participating undergraduates. Several panels and workshops broke up the faculty talks, which included a workshop on the importance of physics in industry and the life of a graduate student to cover the two main career paths after graduation.

The conference at CSM was particularly special because the site hosted the keynote speaker, whose address is simulcast to all six conference locations on Saturday afternoon. This year’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Margaret Murnane from the University of Colorado at Boulder. On top of being a well-accomplished researcher in the field of laser physics for which she was appointed as chairman of the President’s Committee for the National Medal of Science in 2011, she is also an active mentor internationally for recruiting women into physics. During her talk, she emphasized the importance of all scientists working and collaborating across groups to meet the problems of the twenty-first century. She indicated as an example a project she and her husband collaborated with other groups on over the past twenty years and that “without that collaboration, it would not have been feasible to accomplish what they did as quickly as they did.” Murnane noted that with the younger generation growing up with the internet and having instantaneous access to all kinds of information, collaboration will not only be easier, but will become more prevalent. Murnane said “My grad students are able to analyze more data points in a single day than I did in my entire PhD.”

When asked what diversity means to them, several participants cited Murnane’s talk and argued that without collaboration, scientistic progress would be slow at best. Some male participants were a little anxious about applying to a conference for undergraduate women in physics but after listening to the numerous talks and networking with their peers and successful women in the field, many of the men attending began to understand some of adversity that women in physics face. For a lot of men, work and family balance is not an issue in their minds. Dr. Alex Flournoy said, “Where most men think getting a PhD is great and then a post-doc and then a job, women have to think ‘Ok I want to do all of this and have a family so how am I going to do this?'”

According to a post-conference survey, most conference attendees left with a better sense of what a physicist actually does as compared to when they arrived. Many also left with a better understanding of graduate school, industry and how men and women can contribute to physics and to science as a whole.

When asked what they were going to do once the conference was over, student organizers Johnson, Bridgeman, and Jones laughed and said, “Maybe sleep.”

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