On Jan. 15 to Jan. 17, the University hosted the American Physical Society (APS) Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), bringing in more than 200 women undergraduates from all over the Northeast. It was co-organized by Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Professor of Integrative Sciences Christina Othon and Assistant Professor Astronomy and Assistant Professor of Integrative Sciences Meredith Hughes. The University is the first liberal arts college ever to host this event.
“The APS CUWiP goal is to help undergraduate women continue in physics by providing them with the opportunity to experience a professional conference, information about graduate school and professions in physics, and access to other women in physics of all ages with whom they can share experiences, advice, and ideas,” the APS CUWiP website reads.
According to their website, the APS is a non-profit organization that seeks to be a voice for physics information and create programs to support the physics community. It also seeks to collaborate with other scientific societies and to create a diverse membership.
In addition to being hosted at the University, the conference was hosted at nine other universities around the nation. To attend, students had to apply and pay a $25 application fee. Food and lodging expenses were covered by the conference.
Most of the other host schools were large research universities with larger faculties, including Syracuse University and the University of California, San Diego.
“Participants will have the opportunity to network and interact with over 200 fellow undergraduate women physicists as well as a variety of industrial and academic leaders,” the Wesleyan CUWiP website reads.
The conference was three days and included a showcase of career opportunities and served as an occasion to network and interact with industrial and academic leaders. Participants then had the opportunity to interact with other undergraduate women in physics and the physics community through a banquet.
The conference included laboratory tours, keynote speakers, a career fair, student talks, breakout sessions that included career opportunities for physicists, and skills workshops on themes such as how to apply for graduate school.
Organized over the course of a year and a half by Othon, Hughes, a graduate student, and three undergraduate students, the planning period started with an application to become a host site.
“Between all of us it was really an effort to plan sites on campus [and to] make sure we had enough space to host 200 people,” Othon said. “We provided lodging, food, and transportation support for all the attendees and put together a set of events and networking events and inspirational speakers and panels.”
In order to get speakers for the event, the organizers primarily targeted University alumni, as they believed it would be a great source of a diverse array of careers in physics.
“Especially at Wesleyan, people use their liberal arts degrees to do an amazing number of different types of jobs, and we wanted to give attendees a good feel of how applicable their degrees in physics could be to jobs that are nontraditional,” Othon said. “There were at least eight alumni that participated in panel discussions….They participated in career panels on how they used their physics backgrounds, as some were in science journalism, policy, working in information services, making projections for markets, and some went into health industries.”
The keynote speaker of the conference was Dr. Ginger Kerrick, a flight director who works for NASA. After graduating from Texas Tech University, she interned at NASA, then worked her way up to Flight Director, and he has supported numerous crews and shuttle operations. She is the first Hispanic woman to be a NASA flight director.
Other speakers included Dr. Sherry-Ann Brown, BA ’03 MA ’04, a computational neurobiologist who is a resident physician and cardiology fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
In addition to coordinating the event, Othon was a panelist at the event’s Work-Life Balance panel, as she has a spouse with a Ph.D. in physics and had two children during her postdoctorate and early career. At this panel, students discussed having a balance between life and career.
“[Having balance] is possible and quite enjoyable, and it doesn’t have to be an impediment,” Othon said. “You can have a social life and personal life outside of your career and this can be balanced very well.”
Hughes, the other co-organizer, noticed that there was a lot of energy in Exley throughout the duration of the conference.
“It was amazing to have so many bright, curious and ambitious young female physicists taking over Exley Science Center this weekend,” Hughes said in a Wesleyan Newsletter from Jan. 19. “When it came time to compile the scores and comments from the faculty judging the student posters and talks, it was clear that everyone was just floored by the quality of the research and the infectious enthusiasm of the student presenters. It was also amazing to see the wide range of careers showcased by the panelists, many of whom were Wes alumni, with women taking their physics degrees and using them to make robots, understand neurons through circuit diagrams, write comic books with scientific superheroes, and teach at every level.”
At the conference, Othon also noticed that people there were very excited to meet each other. The conference also served as an opportunity for the undergraduate women to learn about new career paths.
“Many were surprised at the variety of positions they could take on just with a bachelor’s degree and [you could see] how happy everyone appeared in their chosen career paths,” Othon said. “[They learned that] you aren’t limited, even if you don’t enjoy hardcore physics analysis research, there are many things you can do with your degree, lots of flexibility. They were empowered to take control of their future and network and make their career dreams come true.”