Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Can I Do? Form a Women in Astronomy/Physics/Science Group

Today’s suggestion comes from Sonali Shukla. Sonali researches the formation of young stars, in particular, X-ray and infrared signatures of disks around these types of stars. She uses data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. After completing two years as a postdoc at the Pennsylvania State University studying properties of brown dwarfs and young stars, she is now in an education and outreach position in the physics department at the University of Maryland. 

Ever wonder what you could gain from joining or starting a local Women in Astronomy/Physics/ Science group? When I was an undergraduate, I was the only female student in the physics program until my junior year. With such small numbers, there was no such women’s group in my department. However, I got along well with all my fellow students, and was blissfully unaware of any unconscious bias against women.

In graduate school, I had several female friends, and one of my colleagues and I decided to start a Women in Physics group – something that didn’t exist at my university. Our first meeting was a tea, and was well-attended by faculty and students. I mostly expected the meetings to mainly be of a social nature, but our next tea meeting brought up some surprises: while chatting, many students discovered some common slightly negative interactions with certain faculty and staff. Most of them consisted of only mildly insensitive comments, but it wasn’t until we were together as a group that we were able to put the pieces together. Working as a team with faculty support and our department chair, we were able to positively address some of these issues and the group went from strength-to-strength afterwards. During my time in graduate school, the group became a fixture in the department. We held group lunches and social events, established a mentoring program, shared resources, and even managed to instigate and create a college-wide policy on parental leave policies for graduate students.

As a postdoc, I again joined an institute that did not have a dedicated women’s group, this time in a dedicated astronomy department (as opposed to being part of a physics department). One of my fellow postdocs and I got into the habit of visiting each other’s offices around pm during a lull in our work, and going for a walk around the building. Apart from valuable time away from our desks, our walks provided an incidental benefit - a chance to summarize our research and talk about our current roadblocks. Word got out about our walks, and we expanded to include other postdocs and graduate students. We met twice a week for these informal research meetings, and from this simple beginning, we formed a Women in Astronomy group, and connected with the Women in Physics group being formed in the physics department. 

In my current position at UMD, the department has a very strong graduate Women in Physics group, and the undergraduate students recently got together to start their own group. The two groups work together and have formed a mentorship program that partners undergraduate and graduate students. When one of my undergraduate students asked me how to go about starting such a group, I recalled my own experiences and gave her the following suggestions: 

-Start small – host an informal brown bag lunch or tea to gather together interested students, postdocs and faculty.
-Find a strong faculty or staff mentor. This is critical for the sustainability of the group as students and postdocs come and go.
-Share information. The first meeting of your new group is a great place to inform everyone about women groups in your university as well as national organizations (CSWA, CSWP, AWIS). Encourage all attendees to sign up for newsletters from these organizations.
-Discuss what outcomes you want from the group. These can range from building a community through social activities, doing homework or discussing research, outreach activities, mentoring, career planning and more!
-Form a leadership structure. For some groups, there is an informal leader who takes charge, for others, holding more formal elections may work better. Organize a leadership structure and rules that work well for the size and purpose of your group.
-Seek out funding. This can be as straightforward as approaching your department chair or another faculty member who has funding that can be used to support women in the sciences. Several universities also have funding for dedicated student groups, so it is worthwhile to see if formally registering your group with the university can provide a source of funding.