Women in Physics Conference, Austin

Two undergraduate students majoring in physics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences attended the Undergraduate Women in Physics Conference in January in Austin. This trip was funded by the SMU Physics Department, and the conference was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Meeting women in physics

An update from Acacea, a sophomore physics major:

Acacea and Nicole at the conference in Austin

When I first heard about the South Central Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, I was rather unsure about attending. I felt I was unworthy to attend as a sophomore without an extensive knowledge of physics and a research background. Additionally, the round-trip flight I took from Dallas to Austin was the first time I have flown and the only time I have traveled to another city alone, which was very exciting.

However, when I arrived, I soon realized that the conference was for any woman in physics – from the freshman to graduate level – and it was meant to motivate women in physics, rather than “lecture at them” about topics over their heads.

When I arrived at the check-in dinner for SCUWiP, I met several young physics majors from many different walks of life, physics professors and industry leaders who all seemed excited to meet me and rather interested in my research. Later that night, Nicole, my SMU roommate for SCUWiP, arrived and joined us to listen and participate in the Cutting Edge Science lecture.

When one of the CES lecturers, Dr. Risa Wechsler, gave a talk on galaxy formation, a few undergraduates were given the opportunity to speak with her later at the networking dinner and were able to ask her questions and discuss astrophysics in depth, which was a real treat.

Of course, the schedule throughout the conference was quite rigorous, and if I hadn’t made a habit of waking up early, then the next morning around 7 a.m. I might not have been ready.

During the early breakfast at UT, Nicole and I met other physics majors from Baylor and UTSA, whom we would stick with throughout the conference.

After breakfast on the second day of the conference, several Cutting Edge Science lectures were given. I most enjoyed Dr. Ann Nelson’s “Topics in High Energy Physics,” considering the fact that I enjoy the notion of studying particle physics equally as much as astrophysics.

The conference’s undergrad student talks gave me an inside look at what other physics majors are doing in research and gave me some ideas of my own to explore.  For example, before a presentation on noise abatement inventions for Shell, I would have never thought about using physics to help marine life by regulating noise on drilling ships with specialized bubbles/balloons to dampen sound.

Visiting the Petawatt Laser

Ultimately, my favorite part of the conference was visiting the Texas Petawatt Laser and learning about atomic and optical physics from Dr. Todd Ditmire. Not only did I learn that the laser itself can produce light brighter than Gamma Ray bursts, but that it can reach temperatures hotter than the center of the Sun.

In addition to being an exciting conference, it was very useful. I feel like the career panel and Dr. Crystal Bailey’s talk on physics careers was by far the most helpful part of the conference. Personally, I was surprised that until I had attended the conference, I had no idea that grad school was virtually “free” and that business and industry jobs in physics have a higher starting salary than many jobs in academia.

After attending the conference, I think that Nicole and I can both agree that every woman in physics should attend at least one of these conferences because without them, we would fail to see that there are people out there struggling just like us, and that we can learn from their mistakes in order to better ourselves as female physicists and students.

A panel discussion

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