First person: "We were all physicists, and we were all women"

Earlier this month, Emma Ideal, a Yale physics graduate student, had the opportunity to travel as part of the U.S. delegation to South Africa for the International Conference on Women in Physics, a meeting organized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics that brings together teams of women from all over the world

The conference, which is now in its fourth year, was created to both improve the current conditions for women physicists globally and to celebrate their accomplishments. Ideal shared with the Yale Daily Bulletin some of her experiences in South Africa, where she connected with others who, despite first appearances, she quickly realized had a lot in common.

After a beautiful evening of wining, dining and dancing at a local restaurant in Stellenbosch, South Africa, I rushed to make it onto the bus back to the hotel. I quickly climbed onto a gigantic white “coach” and, as I looked around to find what happened to be the last seat on the bus, my eyes met with people of all colors, some wearing beautifully-beaded saris and bindis, others in formal suits, a couple with hijabs, and others in blue jeans and t-shirts. Although we appeared to be different, something brought us together on this bus.

We all had two definite traits in common: We were all physicists, and we were all women.

It was certainly a rare and unique circumstance in which to find myself. It is not often that one will find this many female physicists together in one location. To my right was Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, British astrophysicist and co-discoverer of the relatively small, extremely dense spinning stars known as pulsars. Next to me sat the only female physics graduate student in Ecuador. A couple of rows ahead of me was Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s second mission in 1992. What an honor it was to be within arm’s reach of so many unique success stories.

A total of 250 delegates, male and female, representing nearly 60 countries from around the globe converged on the Western Cape for the fourth International Conference on Women in Physics, including 26 delegates on the U.S. team, which made up the largest country delegation. This international gathering of physicists, from all ranks on the academic ladder, engendered fruitful discussions on the readily observed imbalance between the numbers of men and women pursuing careers in physics, the unique hurdles females face on the track from bachelor degrees to doctorates to professorships in physics, and the challenges of attracting young girls to the field while retaining those women who are already actively engaged. It was essential to incorporate male physicists in discussions about ways to address such issues as they bring unique perspectives and ideas to the table. Women and men in the field should be aware of any inequity between the genders as both can actively work to equalize the playing field.

This conference also afforded us the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with physicists at all levels and with varying research interests. As one of the youngest delegates at the conference, I had an outstanding opportunity to acquire mentors from whose experiences I could learn. I acquainted myself with Ram Ramaswamy, a member of the Indian Academy of Sciences and co-editor of “Lilavati’s Daughters,” a book comprising roughly 90 short essays composed by female Indian physicists who beautifully recounted their years in the field — how and where they found motivation and what it took to succeed in their country. Created to provide inspiration to those young students in India interested in the sciences, the book had another member of the U.S. delegation and me pondering the possibility of compiling an analogous collection for the United States. I have hope that this book will come to fruition in the not-too-distant future, and I would be indebted to Ram for graciously sharing his ideas with me.

A center point of the conference was acknowledging the outstanding achievements and extraordinary contributions of women to the field, which in the past have too frequently gone unnoticed and unappreciated. One member from the South African local organizing committee taught us how to sing a Zulu song, which joyfully praises the deeds of women.

The first day we learned the song we were quite the reticent bunch — an assembly of over 250 people hardly producing a whisper in the large, yet fully occupied, plenary room. At the closing banquet just two days later, the improvement in our singing was striking. With such pride and vivacity, all our voices sang beautifully in harmony. I felt an overwhelming sense of community.

Though we are now scattered over the globe again, I know that the contacts I made and the inspiration, knowledge, and enthusiasm I came home with will serve me well in my physics career.

Note: Meg Urry, chair of the physics department and a U.S. team leader, attended the conference along with me. Meg and I were working very closely with physics and astronomy undergraduate student Michele Dufault, in the weeks leading up to the conference to figure out how to broadcast the plenary sessions so that others around the world could more actively participate despite not being able to attend. We recently lost Michele — an indispensable contributor to the webcasting project, but much more importantly, a promising young physicist, loving friend and beloved daughter. She endeared herself to all those fortunate enough to have known her. Our webcasting effort, though incomplete, can be viewed at http://physics.yale.edu/4th-international-conference-women-physics.

The opening ceremonies have been uploaded, and we hope to make the rest of the conference video available in the near future.

— By Emma Ideal

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