College women find kindred spirits at Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
Feb. 8, 2023

For undergraduate women in physics and engineering, the American Physical Society’s Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) is a place where they can find a community of women who share their experiences of embarking in an often male-dominated field and who can offer advice, mentoring, and inspiration. 

Some 150 young women attended CUWiP at Princeton University Jan. 20 to 22. The event was hosted by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Princeton Department of Physics. It was one of several conferences held simultaneously nationwide. The program ranged from an opening plenary talk on black holes by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire, to a career panel and workshops on topics like science communication, negotiation skills, and LGBTQ+ alliances and inclusion. Students got to show off their own research at a poster fair, which took place along with a graduate school/career fair. 

“The purpose of this conference was to reiterate to these students that they have a right to science, they have a right to the joy of physics, and of discovering science,” said Shannon Swilley Greco, the senior science education program leader at PPPL who organized the conference. “I’m hopeful the conference gave them the language to confront systemic discrimination and the tools to identify it, to survive and to dismantle it.” ‘’

Photo of Shannon Swilley Greco, Science Education Senior Program Leader

Shannon Swilley Greco, a science education senior program leader at PPPL, organized the CUWiP conference. (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications) 

This is the second time PPPL organized the in-person conference, which was last held in 2017. PPPL participated in the online conference last year. The event is sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS) and takes place simultaneously at several locations around the country. It is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy (DE-SC0011076) and the National Science Foundation. 

A first-hand lesson in physics on a tour of PPPL 

More than 30 students toured PPPL on Jan. 20 where they learned how PPPL is working to develop fusion energy as a clean, green and abundant energy of the future, and visited PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade and other experiments. A small group of women returned after the conference on Jan. 23 for a day-long workshop on plasma physics in which they got to create a plasma. They also spoke to Princeton University graduate students at PPPL about their experiences. 

Students said they appreciated the opportunity to talk one-on-one with researchers and graduate students in a smaller group where they could ask questions. Julia Moylin, a senior physics major at Bryn Mawr, said she liked being able to learn about plasma physics, which is a topic her school doesn’t offer. 

Another student at the course, Grace Cha, of William and Mary, said she enjoyed doing the plasma experiments. “It was just very hands-on, like on the tour, you get to see it in action,” she said. 

Anjolie Tuazon of Howard Community College said she didn’t know that fusion energy could provide a carbonless, sustainable source of electricity until she took the workshop. “I didn’t know how environmentally friendly it is and how it would help the environment,” she said. “It sparked my interest!” 

Students attending the conference said they were inspired by the science talks by women in a variety of physics fields. Faith Stover, a freshman at James Madison University in Virginia, said she found inspiration in the plenary talk on dark matter by Prescod-Weinstein, of the University of New Hampshire. “It reminded me why I’m here, why I’m in physics,” she said. 

Jianna Fluellen, a senior at the University of Delaware, has a concentration in astrophysics and also enjoyed hearing from Prescod-Weinstein. “Sometimes you get scared. You think, ‘Am I going to be that big physicist?’” Tueller said. “It’s very inspiring to see women doing what we all dream of doing.” 

VIDEO: Attendees speak about their experiences at CUWiP

Being among 150 college women in physics, along with professionals in the field at the APS College and University Women in Physics conference at Princeton University was a powerful experience for the women attending. Hear about how several of the women attending experienced the conference in this video. (Videos by Elle Starkman and Jeanne Jackson DeVoe/PPPL Office of Communications) 

Meeting the challenges of women in STEM 

Other women said they appreciated getting advice about how to navigate their journey as scientists, including the importance of finding internships and dealing with sexist behavior. Some of that advice was: 

  • On communicating science: Frances Kraus, a physicist at PPPL, advised young women to tailor their communications to their audience. “This is basically a life skill for anyone,” she said. “It’s very important to listen and make the conversation a two-way street.. 
  • On the importance of internships and finding a mentor: Bandi Tolliver, a program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy, advised early-career women to explore internships like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI), offered at PPPL and other national laboratories. It’s important that women in STEM who are just starting out find a mentor who is willing to guide them. “Not all opportunities are equal,” she said. “Find someone who’s excited to teach you.” 
  • On negotiating for a promotion or raise: Find out the mean salary in your particular field, advised Roxanne Hughes, director of the Center for Integrative Research and Learning at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Gender bias is real and women may have to work harder to get ahead in their careers, she said. She added that her best approach with supervisors has been to focus on how she can benefit them. It also helps to be persistent and to find people who can advocate for you, she said. 
  • On dealing with sexist behavior by male colleagues: Kayla Hernandez of Brookhaven National Laboratory who was on the career panel, described a male colleague explaining what a screwdriver was to her when she was working with him as a technician. “You have to reflect their comments back to them,” she said. “You’ll put people in their place when you laugh.” Another panelist said women should “call them out on it,” and added that men may not be aware of their behavior if it’s not pointed out to them.
  • On the importance of turning to mentors and networks: Tabbetha Dobbins, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Rowan University, said behavior doesn’t have to be illegal in order to complain about it. Women should go to a trusted advisor or mentor for advice and support if they are not comfortable complaining, she said. Dealing with such behavior, sometimes on a daily basis, makes it even more vital for women to have a network of colleagues and friends who understand and can serve as a sounding board, she said.  

Sharing common experiences 

Such advice was very helpful to young women, like Grace Chamberlain of James Madison University, who was one of several women who said there are few female physicists in their classes. “The women in the physics community can feel isolated in their  own department,” she said. “When you can connect with people going through the same experiences, it’s very comforting.” 

Amanda Yo, a sophomore from the University of Virginia, also enjoyed talking to women in her field. “A lot of my friends don’t do physics and I can’t really talk to them about what I struggle with,” she said. “It makes me unsure of whether I can do it because I don’t have that community.” Yo said it helped her to talk to graduate students who experienced the same feelings of doubt. “They gave me a lot of advice about how to be more confident if people say no,” Yo said. “I don’t get that experience normally in my classes.” 

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