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By Michael Lucibella
Eight campuses across the country will host the ninth annual Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) in January of 2014. Over two days, more than a thousand female physics students will have the chance to network with other women in physics, a rare opportunity in a field that remains predominantly male.
"Just that experience of having 100 undergraduate women together is very empowering to them," said Mette Gaarde, a professor at Louisiana State University and organizer of their conference. "I think a lot of women come with the sense that they are very different because they have chosen to go into math and physics."
The conferences, organized by each of the individual schools with infrastructure support from APS, are designed to bring female physics students together to explore possible career options and help them network. They will feature career panels, science lectures, and talks from other female physics professionals, and will provide time to socialize. Many of the conferences are near a national lab and organizers have scheduled tours of the facilities.
"The aim that I see is to really attract and retain undergrad students in physics and related areas," said Abhay Deshpande of Stony Brook University. "We're trying to showcase some of the very successful women in physics and give a little bit about their background."
In addition, some talks will address the persistent gender inequity in physics. However, many of the organizers said that this issue was not their main concern.
"There is kind of a fine balance. Attendees have to be aware of some of the issues [and] potential biases…but not so much so that they feel like they are not treated well," said Young Kee-Kim of the University of Chicago. "I want to try and stay very positive."
The conferences have been growing dramatically in popularity since their inception. The first conference, held at the University of Southern California in 2006, had 29 attendees. After two years there, the conference expanded to three universities and has kept growing ever since. This year, 1,363 people applied for the slots at the eight campuses. That is roughly the same number of women who receive undergraduate degrees in physics every year.
As the conferences were growing in size and complexity, several of the organizers approached APS in 2010 to help raise money for the conferences. According to its bylaws, the Society can raise money only for its own conferences, so it took on the growing CUWiP under the auspices of its Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP). Since then, APS has helped organize the conference's websites, enrollment and grant applications.
"We're here to provide logistical support for these conferences," said Theodore Hodapp, APS Director of Education and Diversity. Although APS oversees the meetings, groups at the individual institutions run and plan the actual conferences. Many have undergraduate and graduate students as the main organizers.
"The students are doing the work," said Susan Blessing, a professor at Florida State University and current Chair of CSWP. "Part of the goal of the conference is for them to learn how to do these things."
Megan Matthews, a junior at FSU, has been in charge of finding and booking speakers from academia, industry and national labs. After attending this January's conference at Central Florida State, she said she came away knowing that she wanted to help bring one to her school.
"It's a way to tell people that there are a lot of careers in science and physics," Matthews said.
Other schools include students in different ways. The majority of the organizing committee for Chicago's conference is undergraduate students. At LSU, students and recent graduates are on the organizing committee as well.
The eight host institutions are: Florida State University, Louisiana State University, Pennsylvania State University, Stony Brook University/BNL, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago/ANL/FNAL, the University of Maryland/NIST and the University of Utah. The conferences run from January 17th to the 19th. More information can be found at the CUWiP web page.
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