Rutgers hosts physics conference for underrepresented students
Alexandra DeMaio believes there are many stereotypes that prevent women from being as active in the field of physics as men.
From Jan. 16 to the 18, Rutgers hosted a physics conference geared specifically towards underrepresented groups.
About 140 women studying physics participated in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics hosted at the University, said Jaclyn Bradli, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences. During the conference, they would have the opportunity to meet with their peers and discuss relevant issues.
“[Students] have the opportunity to present the work that they’ve done through a poster or a talk,” said Bradli, one of the planners for the conference. “But they also address some common women’s issues not addressed through taking physics classes.”
These issues need to be hashed out and the conference acts as a productive way of doing this, said DeMaio, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and one of the student speakers.
Although the name suggests only women were invited to the conference, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community were also encouraged to attend, said Bradli. The conference was meant to empower undergraduates who were unsure of their post-college lives.
For many students, Bradli said, this would be their first opportunity to participate in a large academic conference. Undergraduates would be able to network with physicists and faculty members from various institutions.
Margaret Morris, who planned the icebreaker activity, said the conference was a fun, relaxing environment for her.
“It’s been a lot of fun because I’ve never been around this many female physicists and I think it’s a lot more relaxing in a way,” said Morris, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. “They’re women [and] they’re physicists so I feel I can talk to them more easily.”
The conference took place at multiple universities nationwide, Bradli said. The American Physical Society, the world’s second largest physics society, helped to sponsor and plan the conferences. Faculty and students planned the local events.
Gabriela Gonzalez, the keynote speaker, was simulcast to every conference via Skype, Bradli said. Apart from this speech, all panelists and speakers addressed only the participants at their local conference.
The conference included a poster session and student talks, she said. These events allowed students to present their research in an academic setting, often for the first time.
“It’s important that the poster get across the motivation for the project and to have the results presented in an accessible way… a way that makes sense and makes the results very clear,” she said. “So not just random plots [but] a concise conclusion and a direction for future work.”
Judges evaluated the presentations on various criteria, she said. These include the appearance of the poster and whether the results from the research are clear.
The oral presentations would be judged based on conciseness and whether the speakers engaged with the audience, she said. Presenters were expected to know their audience’s level of expertise and speak to that level of understanding.
DeMaio said having the conference at Rutgers this year was beneficial for the participants due to the faculty and resources available at the University.
Creating an environment where women can specifically interact with other researchers and academics could help encourage them to excel in their chosen field, DeMaio said.
Morris said it was important for undergraduate students to not feel isolated or that they’re in the wrong field. Students new to physics may need reassuring that they are in the correct field.
Meeting around 150 women in various physics-related fields should help with that, she said.
“I just think it’s really exciting to be [in an] inclusive space where women can bring up any kind of issues that they’re worried about,” Bradli said. “We have a lot of young women here, so it’s really nice to give them a chance to work on their communication skills.”
DeMaio said it was important for students to not be discouraged from pursuing physics for any reason, and that students who work hard should be able to succeed in their field.
The American Physical Society setting aside a time for women to come together was important, she said.
“I had a lot of fun planning this,” Bradli said. “I would really encourage more women to join their planning committees if they have the opportunity to plan this.”