In 1918, William & Mary welcomed its first female residential students. A century later, the university is preparing to host its first Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.
"When the American Physical Society selected us to host the conference, they specifically mentioned the 100th year of women students at William & Mary,” said Irina Novikova, associate professor of physics, who is spearheading planning efforts.
This is one of twelve three-day regional conferences across the U.S. and Canada that will take place Jan. 18-20, 2019, usually referred as CUWiP. The series of conferences was started in 2006 to support female undergraduate physicists through professional development, networking and navigating a physics career. Novikova says the agenda has yet to be finalized, but the organizers are firming up the schedule.
Highlights of the William & Mary CUWIP are scientific talks and a tour of Jefferson Lab, breakout sessions on topics ranging from application to graduate schools, undergraduate research experience, LGBT/inclusiveness issues and communication/negotiation skills.
William & Mary’s conference has an impressive set of speakers. Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of CERN, will deliver the keynote address via webcast to all CUWiP sites. Gianotti was project leader of CERN’s ATLAS experiment and presented the July 4, 2012 announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Michal Lipson of the electrical engineering faculty at Columbia University are the plenary speakers. In addition, there will be presentations by established women professionals on their own personal research and career paths.
There also will be a poster session featuring the research of the undergraduate attendees and EXPO, which will offer a graduate-school fair, a career fair and other information from physics-related societies.
A selection of workshops and panels will offer guidance on getting started in research, the grad school application process, transferring from a community college to a four-year institution and other topics.
Many campus offices and external organizations are supporting the William & Mary event, allowing the conference to provide lodging and meals for participants who have been selected to attend. Sponsors of the W&M conference include the Physics Department, the Arts & Sciences Annual Fund, Charles Center, Jefferson Lab, the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, Optical Society of America, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
Many of the organizers of the William & Mary event are familiar with CUWiP. Anne Blackwell ’19 is a physics major who has attended CUWiP events twice, and says having a speaker lineup of successful women physicists serves as inspiration for students like her.
The path to a career in physics isn’t always straight. Blackwell said she heard a speaker at 2016 CUWiP, hosted by the Old Dominion University, explain that she graduated with a liberal arts degree and wanted to be a NASCAR driver. The speaker is now a physicist and the director of a nuclear power plant.
“Even if they’ve stumbled, had a major setback, they’re still where they are today,” Blackwell said. “If they can do it and face that much adversity, then I can do it and I’ll hopefully have an easier time.”
Novikova is assembling a set of talks that highlight issues such as physics careers outside academia, the importance of science communication and the prevalence of imposter syndrome among women physicists.
“Imposter syndrome — when a person doesn’t feel qualified for what they are doing — is a known issue,” Novikova explained. “It can happen in both sexes, but it’s more common in women. That’s why one of the workshops we are planning will address imposter syndrome and how to prevent yourself from being caught in it.”
Novikova said that the idea of hosting a workshop to address imposter syndrome falls squarely within the goals of CUWiP. Small, issue-driven workshops serve as cornerstones for the event — and carry a larger social purpose by tackling subjects head-on, organizers say.
“Spreading best practices through workshops makes the environment better for everyone, not just women,” Patricia Rankin, professor of physics at University of Colorado Boulder, said in an APS Gender Equity report.
Blackwell stresses that although CUWiP has “women” in its title, it’s important for men to attend. She hopes men will feel welcome to participate in the events alongside their female colleagues.
“We talk about a lot of the issues women face in physics and we know the issues because we face them, but the guys don’t,” Blackwell explained. “I think that if they came to these conferences and heard ‘these are the issues we’re facing,’ then maybe they’ll be more conscientious.”