William & Mary’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students put together an impressive slate of fun and educational activities for 2019-2020, and when a pandemic hit, they went virtual, barely breaking stride.
The chapter’s activities were recently recognized by the national SPS organization, which bestowed William & Mary with its Outstanding Chapter Award.
“This is the highest level of distinction given to our chapters and is received by less than 15% of our top chapters annually,” wrote Brad Conrad, director of the Society of Physics Students, in a letter to W&M chapter advisor Irina Novikova announcing the honor.
Novikova, a professor in the university’s Department of Physics, said this year marks the first Outstanding Chapter designation William & Mary has received in several years. She credits the SPS officers and membership with creating and maintaining a culture that consistently merits at least a Distinguished Chapter recognition from the national office.
“In the last decade SPS leadership has been doing an outstanding job in creating a place for physics students and friends to connect and collaborate, without any need for nudging or pushing from my side,” Novikova said. “What is really exciting for me to see is the proliferation of other physics-related clubs and activities, possibly triggered by a more-active SPS. Not all of them are long-lived, but what's important is now there is a ‘water hole’ for the physics student community to gather and interact.”
Gabrielle Jawer ’21 is the current chapter president. She notes that the William & Mary SPS uses activities such as mentoring, peer tutoring and other activities to foster wellbeing and growth of its membership.
“Our weekly meetings provide an atmosphere that is quirky and genuine,” she said. “Students can forget the pressure of difficult classes for a time and simply enjoy themselves with friends.”
Jawer cites contributions of the SPS officers in making an outstanding year for the outstanding chapter. She led a slate that included Vice President Reehan Siraj ’22, Secretary Anthea Empson ’22, Treasurer Jude Bedessem ’23, Social Chair Caitlin Dolt ’22 and Mentoring Co-Chairs Noah Shanton ’22 and Josh Dunn ’21
Humor is a common thread in their activities. The William & Mary SPS chapter takes physics seriously — but they also understand that much of physics often occurs very near the junction of science and science fiction. Both Jawer and Novikova mentioned the popularity of the chapter’s annual Spooky Physics event held each fall around Halloween.
Jawer described Spooky Physics as a spoof research conference on the “science” of the supernatural. Students compete in a set of presentations, using equations and legitimate physics concepts to create fanciful explanations for paranormal phenomena. A panel of physics faculty awards a certificate to the best presentation.
“This year’s winner investigated the space-time anomalies of Halloweentown,” Jawer said. “Spooky Physics highlights the joys of creative and physics-based entertainment while building community between professors and students.”
The spring-semester counterpart to Spooky Physics is Silly Physics, traditionally held in conjunction with April Fool’s Day, featuring theories that range from half-baked to tongue-in-cheek to outright gags.
“Although the Covid-19 situation put a damper on things, we made this conference entirely virtual!” Jawer said.
She credited the previous SPS administration with laying much of the foundation of activities that resulted in the Outstanding Chapter Award. Jawer said the group led by Michael Cairo ’20 deserve recognition as well.
“Cairo and the rest of the gang planned and led all of these wonderful events,” Jawer said. “They were the ones who actually started the traditions of Spooky and Silly Physics, who helped build that community we've inherited.”
The SPS chapter also observed Valentine’s Day, converting a large stack of colored paper into individual greetings for the entire physics department, and distributing same, along with quantities of Hershey’s Kisses.
The chapter got involved in plenty of straight physics, too. They sent a delegation to the 2019 SPS PhysCon in Providence, Rhode Island. Chapter members had three presentations at a research poster session and helped with a William & Mary booth for the graduate school fair.
But Jawer said the “tour du force” of 2019 was PhysicsFest. The SPS chapter collaborated with the physics department and the Physics Graduate Student Association in this annual event under the year’s theme of Retro Physics. PhysicsFest was held in the pre-Covid period, so the university’s physicists invited the community into Small Hall to be dazzled by displays “of all things physics,” Jawer said.
“There are demo shows, faculty lectures, interactive demo exhibits, a toy room, research poster presentation, research exhibits and outdoor physics fun —involving chiefly a large vat of non-Newtonian fluid, aka ‘oobleck,’” she said.
The contributions of the SPS chapter go far beyond events, though. The member volunteer in a range of academic and professional development activities, most significantly tutoring and mentoring.
“Tutoring offers an accessible platform for the comprehension of physics concepts, and mentoring enables guidance through the undergraduate experience with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion,” Jawer explained. “Tutoring is open to all, not only SPS members, as is our mentoring program.”
The chapter described itself to the national office as the “versatile and community-centric gem of the physics department,” and noted that it’s one of the most engaged and enthusiastic clubs on the William & Mary campus. Jawer also points out that several activities were scaled back or even cancelled once the pandemic hit.
“But we hope that the fall will bring a time for reunion and celebration of all things physics,” she said. “We are optimistic that, whatever comes, the William & Mary SPS Chapter will meet it head on, ready to continue with our values of joyful curiosity, community and growth.”