At Yale, (future) female physicists to gather by the hundreds

Yale will host the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, a event designed to to encourage female college students to pursue science beyond the undergraduate level, Jan. 13-15.
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One of the earliest women in physics was Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her theory of radioactivity and isolation of isotopes.

As research scientists, Meg Urry, Bonnie Fleming, and Sarah Demers produce new knowledge. As professors, they also prepare future researchers — and they’d like to see more women among them.

That’s why the Yale faculty members have been working with a small group of ambitious undergraduates to bring nearly 200 aspiring female scientists to the University’s New Haven campus for a three-day conference starting Friday, Jan. 13.

Established female physicists will present their work on anti-lasers, string theory, and other hot topics in cutting-edge physics, and students will deliver talks on their own work. Conference participants will tour Yale laboratories and socialize in the halls of science, including at Yale’s observatory and planetarium. A “Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Social” is scheduled for the opening night.

“Women have the talent and the interest to excel at physics,” said Urry, chair of Yale’s physics department and its first tenured female faculty member. “What they need is encouragement and support and the opportunity to network with other women in physics. We’ve found the conference particularly useful for bringing women into physics and retaining them. At Yale, the percentage of physics majors who are women is roughly double the national average. In my view the conference is a big reason why.”

The Yale-hosted Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics is one of six related conferences taking place simultaneously in the United States. It aims, like the others, to encourage female college students to pursue science beyond the undergraduate level by fostering the connections, camaraderie, and sense of possibility that help enable success. The conferences end Sunday, Jan. 15.

Other venues are Stanford University, the University of Washington, Texas A&M University, Case Western Reserve, and the University of Tennessee. All the gatherings are part of the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics, founded at the University of Southern California in 2006. Attendance at the conferences the first year was 29; total attendance this year is expected to approach 800.

More than 180 students representing 52 institutions are registered for the event at Yale, which first hosted the conference in 2008. Participants are mostly (but not only) women, and come from throughout the Northeast, as far south as Florida and as far west the Rockies. Participants attend a wide variety of public and private schools, including major research universities, small liberal arts colleges, technological institutes, and military academics.

“We pay particular attention to recruiting students from colleges that are not associated with graduate programs,” said Demers, who will give a talk titled “Hunting for the Higgs and other pursuits at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider” and lead a demonstration on the physics of dance. “Part of the conference focuses on graduate school, both the application progress and what life is like once you get there. People at smaller colleges may lack access to information like this, which can put them at a real disadvantage.”

Participants in New Haven will get to know each other and mingle with some of the most accomplished women in professional physics. Urry, an expert in supermassive black holes, will deliver an opening keynote speech on Jan. 13.

Persis Drell, director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, will unite conferees at the six locations when she delivers a second keynote on Sat., Jan. 14, which will be simulcast from Stanford.

Ariel Ekblaw, a Yale sophomore and one of the main coordinators of the Yale conference, offers herself as an example of how early participation in the broader physics community can pay off. As a high school student, she twice attended the annual Yale Physics Olympics, a one-day event for teams from schools in Connecticut and nearby. Exposure to other young people interested in science and to professional physicists influenced her decision to apply to Yale and to pursue science, she said.

Now halfway through her sophomore year, she’s declared a physics major and has completed an eight-week research fellowship at CERN, the renowned laboratory for particle physics based in Switzerland. “This year I’ll get new ideas about what I can do with my physics degree,” she said.

Ellen Klein, a Yale junior from Minnesota and Ekblaw’s co-president in Women in Physics, the student group that organized this year’s conference, also knows first-hand the benefits of a strong relationship with an accomplished senior scientist. As one of Fleming’s protégés, she’s been able to spend two summers at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory working on neutrino detection.

“It’s not only meeting your colleagues that’s important, but meeting potential role models or mentors — people who have been in the field longer and succeeded,” says Klein. “It’s knowing that there are people similar to you in similar situations, people who have overcome obstacles you’re facing. Something I’ve realized in my research experiences is that everything is interconnected. If we can sort of foster a sense of community when they’re undergraduates, it’ll make them want to continue in physics.”

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