APS News

January 2004 (Volume 13, Number 1)

Quinn Ponders Long-Range Goals for APS in 2004

Editor's Note: On January 1, 2004, Helen Quinn of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, became APS president, succeeding Myriam Sarachik of the City College of New York. Quinn is only the fourth woman to be elected to the presidential line in the Society's 104 year history. Born in Australia, she completed her PhD in physics in 1967 at Stanford University and is now a faculty member at SLAC. She has made significant contributions to particle physics theory, for which she has received numerous honors, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In the interview below, Quinn discusses her priorities for the APS during her presidential year.

Helen R. Quinn
Helen R. Quinn

Q: What are your priorities for the APS during your presidential year? What do you feel are the most important issues currently facing the Society, and what can the APS do to address them?
A: My major goal for the coming year is to take a long range look at the Society. Where do we want to be five and ten years from now, and what do we need to do to get there? As an example, over the past ten years we have much increased our activity in Washington and our public outreach efforts. I expect the need for such activities will continue to grow, and we need to plan in order to have the capacity to staff this work adequately.

More immediate issues that I already know will claim my attention include ameliorating the visa situation for foreign scientists and students, and improving funding for the physical sciences. I will also continue the task force initiated by my predecessor, Myriam Sarachik, to explore how the APS can help bridge partnerships that improve the contacts for practicing scientists in Africa with scientists in the US with similar research interests. [see APS News Online, August/September 2000]

What the APS can do towards improving the representation of women and minorities in physical science, and the (not unrelated) task of improving science education will certainly be part of the long range plan discussion. As President I will do what I can to advance the effectiveness of the Society in addressing these issues.

Q: The APS journals several years ago were challenged by the revolution in electronic publishing. How has the APS adapted to this challenge? What can it do to further keep its publications strong and healthy as the trend continues?
A: APS journals have made a giant step into the electronic world, with electronic access to all our journals now available back to the first issue. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We must continue to work to be at the forefront in both efficiency and technology in the production of our journals. We must also be always looking ahead to see how scientific publishing can and should evolve to better serve science and scientists, and to be leading rather than trailing developments in this area.

Q: The APS, along with scientific societies around the world, is gearing up for the upcoming World Year of Physics in 2005, celebrating the seminal contributions of Albert Einstein to physics in 1905. What is the Society's role in the grand scheme of things? What do you hope this major event will do to foster an international spirit of cooperation and collaboration among scientists in every country, at a time when international relations with the US government are particularly strained?
A: The World Year of Physics provides an opportunity for public outreach that will be the major focus of APS efforts for this year. We will work with our neighboring countries in this outreach effort, but it is not about relationships between scientists, but rather, about enhancing public awareness of the role of physics and interest in the ideas of physics. Physics is already international, and we do not need a world year of physics to get scientists of all countries to cooperate and collaborate.

The international nature of the science community is something scientists know and value. We know that the US will pay a terrible price if it becomes isolated, by its visa policies, from full participation in the flow of scientific information and scientific activity. We need to educate others to the possible costs of such isolation, and to work to achieve paths that keep open the flow of foreign scientists into and out of this country, both for meetings and for collaborative work. As an immigrant scientist who arrived here as a student, I know very well that the flow of foreign students is also important. That too needs attention in order to maintain the vitality of our science community.

Q: Much attention is being paid of late to fostering the "future workforce" for the science and technology sector, which has a direct bearing on science. What do you see as the primary challenges in this area, and what can the Society do to help?
A: I guess the future workforce issue is the issue of getting good students into our grad schools in physics. That has two parts, the first is doing a better job of educating and attracting US students to these careers, and the second is the issue of allowing foreign students accepted as grad students to come to this country, and indeed to stay if offered jobs here. Both parts need attention.

Education has long been a concern of mine. I am the founding president of the nonprofit Contemporary Physics Education Project, which produces materials for high school and college physics teachers, and I manage SLAC's outreach programs. We all know the necessity of building on one another's research, but too often we go it alone when it comes to changes within our departments, or outreach to K-12 education. The Society's education activities help promulgate successful innovations and prevent replication of failures.

Q: You are only the fourth woman in APS history to serve as president of the Society. What are the changes you've witnessed over your career in the representation and overall treatment of women in science? What have been the gains? Any perceived losses?
A: The changes in the acceptance of women in physics, as well as in other professional careers, that Myriam [Sarachik] and I have seen during our careers, are huge. The proportion of women in high school physics classes is getting close to 50%, and that change should with time move up through the profession, but we are still a long way from that. There is still much to be done. For minorities we are still further from achieving participation proportional to population, which I think should be a goal.

Q: On a more personal note, when did you first become interested in physics, and what made you decide to make it your career? What advice would you give to young women today with similar aspirations?
A: I started at the University in Australia with a cadetship (student internship/scholarship) from the weather bureau. So if my father had not decided to move to the US to join the parent company of his Australian company, I would have been a meteorologist. When I arrived in the US, it turned out that I was closest to completing a physics degree, so I chose that major, and settled in for one year and one quarter as an undergrad at Stanford. That was about the time SLAC was being completed. I guess I got caught up in the excitement this new facility was generating and decided to stay on for grad school.

I cannot remember any moment when I decided that physics was my career. When I applied to grad school I thought I'd quit after a Masters degree and become a high school physics teacher, but applied to a PhD program because I knew that Stanford and other leading schools would not accept me if I told them that. By the end of my first year of grad school I knew I did not want to quit.

I think a major factor that affects young women entering physics careers is that they tend to question their own competence more than do young men with similar qualifications.

So my advice to young women is to believe in yourself and your capabilities, and go for whatever you want, you will be surprised what happens—I was!


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette