The UMass Amherst physics department, in collaboration with Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst colleges, hosted an American Physical Society (APS) sponsored Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) over the January 18 - 20 weekend. The CUWiPs (pronounced cue-whip) are annual regional conferences that work to support and mentor women, LGBTQ+, and minority undergraduate physics students. UMass had the honor of being chosen to host and program one of only 12 conference sites in the U.S. and Canada. The UMass conference site was headed by Shubha Tewari, with faculty and student organizers from all five colleges. A snowstorm shortened the programming but did not dampen the spirits of the 190 students who did attend, along with speakers, panelists, and representatives from industry and local graduate schools.
Why is the conference important for supporting women in physics?
These conferences have played a very important role in the recruitment and retention of women and minorities in physics. In spite of the fact that high school physics classes have roughly equal representation of men and women, the numbers of women in the field drop off at every stage along the way: entering college, leaving college, entering grad school, getting faculty positions. These conferences provide career advice, mentorship, and professional development for students at various stages of their undergraduate degrees.
Most importantly of all, the conference provides a forum in which the undergraduates can form friendships and peer networks — the mere fact of seeing so many other women and minority physics enthusiasts is energizing for all attendees.
What kinds of programming did you create with those goals in mind?
We created a mix of physics talks, career advice, undergraduate research poster sessions, and general guidance for each to find their unique pathway through a physics bachelor's degree and beyond. Our idea was to give students the sense that there are many "right paths" in science, and our speakers had very different motivations and outcomes to demonstrate that range. Professor Nergis Mavalvala of MIT, an academic physicist, is a leader in her field, having designed the instrumentation that allowed the extremely sensitive measurement of the first recorded gravitational wave. She described the story of that discovery to a rapt audience, saying how when she heard the news, she was just glad the thing had worked! Dr. Moureen Kemei came from Nairobi, Kenya to Mount Holyoke College, then Caltech, and is now working at Intel. Hers is a story of someone from humble origins who has been successful outside of academia. Yari Golden-Castaño spoke about how as a young woman straddling the dual worlds and dual languages of Mexico and the U.S., she found refuge in the universal language of mathematics. Golden-Castaño, a Smith alumna, is one of the 100 people shortlisted for the Mars One project and is fully prepared to make the one-way trip to Mars because, as she told us, she has dedicated her life to science. All of them were very inspiring.
Since these are Physics students who love hands-on activities, we had a session on programming arduinos and looking at the CERN accelerator using virtual reality. We also had a lot of career-related workshops and panels tailored for students at different points in their undergraduate careers, with advice about writing a CV/resume, applying for summer internships and research opportunities, applying to grad schools, and effective communication.
We also had panels on more personal matters and advocating for oneself: Work-life balance, Navigating Identity: LGBTQ+, Diversity and Inclusion, Health and Self-Care. Many students also toured research labs in physics and facilities in the Institute of Applied Life Sciences.
What was it like to know the conference was happening at 11 other sister sites at the same time?
Our final event of the conference was a collective teleconference along with all the other conference sites. Using Zoom teleconferencing, each conference site in turn announced their presence with cheering and a wave, after which Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, Director General of CERN, spoke from Geneva for half an hour. She then took questions that students asked via email or Twitter. It was tremendously exciting to hear, for example, "Ghislaine from UMass Amherst asks ..." and know the question was coming to Dr. Gianotti in Geneva from our site. I could see that the attending students had a wonderful time, and most importantly, made connections with many fellow students.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UMass Amherst or the College of Natural Sciences.
Photos: Caroline O'Connor