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Women in Physics Find Common Ground

03/26/07
The second annual conference hosted at USC encourages women to pursue graduate studies and inspires other universities to follow suit.
By Lauren Walser
Participants were able to present their research to peers.

Young female scientists from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom gathered at USC earlier this year for the second annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

Following the success of last year’s inaugural event, USC again played host to more than 70 female physics majors for a weekend of lectures, lab tours, career panels and networking with like-minded scholars.

With statistics showing an alarming underrepresentation of women in the field of physics 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 13 percent of Ph.D.s in physics are held by women in the United States, according to a 2005 report from AIP Women in Physics a team of USC students led by graduate students Amy Cassidy and Katie Mussack organized a conference to help young women make the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies.

“There are fewer and fewer women as you go up the academic ladder, and each transition is key when pursuing an academic career,” said Cassidy, a fourth-year graduate student with a research focus on atomic theory.

This year’s conference was larger both in numbers and scope. While last year’s event was entirely USC-funded, this year Cassidy and Mussack secured a generous grant from the National Science Foundation. They also targeted undergraduates beyond the Southern California region, offering partial travel grants and full accommodation to participants.

Several other universities, including Yale University and the University of Michigan, took notice after the success of last year’s conference and sent representatives to meet with the USC organizers with plans to duplicate the event on their own campuses.

“There aren’t as many opportunities for undergraduates to address their needs like this,” said Bruna de Oliveira, a second-year graduate student and member of the planning committee. “This is great preparation for graduate school.”

This year’s planning committee included de Oliveira, postdoctoral fellow Noah Bray-Ali, graduate student Adtiya Raghavan and three USC undergraduate students. Together, they recruited an impressive roster of deans, professors and physicists from across the country to speak at the event, including professors from UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, the University of Michigan and Yale; a dean from Delaware State University; an engineering manager from Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems; and a researcher from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Several USC scientists were there to offer their advice and discuss their research, including K.C. Cole, science writer and visiting professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication; Stephan Haas, professor of physics; Jia Grace Lu, professor of physics and electrical engineering; and conference organizer Bray-Ali.

Attracting the speakers, Cassidy said, was not difficult. “They saw that the conference addressed a need that wasn’t being met, and a lot of people were excited and enthusiastic about it,” she said.

The speakers addressed issues in their own lines of research and discussed the challenges faced by women in academia. The issue of raising a family while pursuing an academic career was a hot topic.

Beverly Hartline, dean of the College of Mathematics, Natural Science and Technology at Delaware State University, discussed these challenges in her lecture, “Careers: Maximizing Opportunities for Career and Family Success.” She made a point to the audience that any time is a good time to have children and detailed the experiences she and her husband faced in their own quest to balance their academic careers and family.

She also encouraged the young scholars to speak up and share their ideas, noting that women tend to remain quiet in academic settings, as opposed to men, who tend to be more vocal.

“I loved seeing powerful, successful women in science speak frankly about their lives and careers,” wrote one participant in her evaluation of the event.

Attendees also were given the opportunity to share their research, with eight young women opting to present talks to their peers. Fourteen others presented posters addressing topics in physics research.

“It was truly a team effort to pull this year’s conference off,” Cassidy said. “We had a great organizing committee, and everyone at USC was so supportive and helpful.”

For more information, go to http://physics.usc.edu/~wiphys/conference/.