Monday, January 21, 2013

Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics

This weekend, nearly 1000 undergraduate women in physics gathered in 6 locations around the country for meetings to encourage and support young women advancing in physics (we were told that 987 undergraduate women were attending).  The AAS/CSWA was a co-sponsor, along with the APS CSWP, which provided superb organizational and logistic support to the conferences -- see the APS conference website.  I attended the Northeast Conference at Cornell; CSWA member Michelle Montgomery was a faculty lead for the Southeast Conference at the University of Central Florida, and Meg Urry was a speaker at the Colorado School of Mines.  They and others will agree that this was an inspiring event for everyone who attended.

To put the numbers in context: each year about 6300 physics bachelors degrees are awarded, about 1300 of which go to women.  Most of the student attendees were sophomores through seniors.  About 1/4 of all the women in the US who will earn bachelors degrees in the next three years attended the conferences!  Congratulations to all of the organizers and to the national organizing committee for this impressive outcome.

In addition to having a common format, the conferences held a single plenary session with Margaret Murnane in Colorado; her talk and the Q&A from all sites were webcast.  Dr. Murnane talked about her career path and how she had resolved the two-body problem; she gave great advice including the importance of persistence.  The plenary session also showed attendees just how large the numbers were as the cameras switched from school to school during the Q&A session.  There is strength in numbers!

This was my fifth NCUWP conference, and the best one yet.  Students from small and large colleges, from Maryland to Montreal and from Ohio to New Hampshire shared their enthusiasm and energy with each other and with the handful of faculty in attendance.  I was inspired by the student research presentations, by the realization of many students that their dreams of a career in physics are achievable following the examples set by many before them, and most of all by the one-on-one conversations with students.  To any faculty member who has struggled with the difficulties of increasing the numbers of women in physics, I say go -- next year apply as a recruiter or panelist.  It will be an inspiring, energizing way to begin your year.