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By Leah Poffenberger
When looking around the room at an APS Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting, one might notice something out of the ordinary: A high concentration of young faces experiencing their first physics conference. This is no accident, as DNP makes a special effort to welcome undergraduate physics students and integrate them into division meetings through the Conference Experience for Undergraduates (CEUs) program.
Since its launch in 1998, the CEU program has brought hundreds of undergraduate physics students to DNP meetings and funded their entire conference experience from registration to travel, thanks in part to funds from the National Science Foundation and some of the many national labs in the US. This year, 148 students traveled to Crystal City, VA, to participate in the annual DNP meeting, receive mentoring, and present their research to the nuclear physics community.
The CEU program was created to fill two gaps at DNP meetings: a dearth of physics students and the absence of a poster session. Now, the CEU poster session, dedicated completely to undergraduate research, is a highlight of the DNP meeting, held jointly with the APS Meet the Editors event and drawing large crowds of conference attendees.
“As far as I know, we're the only division that makes a concentrated effort to solicit and support such a large number of undergraduate students, and I think we're the only division that has a dedicated undergraduate poster session,” says Shelly Lesher, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Director of the CEU program. “Then [the division] supports all the students that present at that poster session, which I think is pretty cool, and also says something about the commitment that our community has to undergraduates and undergraduate research.”
Aside from being undergraduate-only, the CEU poster session is also distinct in that it isn’t a poster competition: No awards are given out.
CEU poster session at the 2017 APS Division of Nuclear Physics conference in Pittsburgh. (L-R): Student Eli Temanson with CEU director Shelly Lesher.
“I think every year someone suggests we give an award. But [nuclear physics is] a very collaborative community, and if you have a poster award that breeds competition,” says Lesher. “We want our undergrads to see that our community is collaborative…they have plenty of opportunities to be competitive in the rest of their lives.”
In addition to creating a space to practice presenting research at the poster session, the CEU program provides other tools to students to help get themselves established within the physics community, from mentorship to advice about grad school. Students are encouraged to attend speaker sessions at the DNP meeting, but the CEU program seeks to make sure they know how to get the most out of a professional conference.
“Students have a meeting with me [in which we discuss] how a professional conference works, what they should get out of a professional conference, why we attend professional conferences,” says Lesher. “The students also each have a mentor that's assigned to them to help them navigate the conference or to answer questions about graduate school. It’s a whole experience that we’ve developed to help them during a professional conference.”
The CEU program has been hugely popular, blossoming from around 64 students in its inaugural year to 198 at the DNP meeting in 2017. Due to the large amount of interest, the CEU program has become more selective about what posters are accepted, but they have also been able to add new opportunities for students. For the first time this year, a selection of students spoke at a dedicated CEU speaker session during the DNP meeting.
According to Lesher, CEU students often pursue a variety of careers, with past students going on to become anything from researchers at national labs to professors to medical doctors—and one has gone on to be a professional poker player. However, many CEU alumni (including Lesher, who was a student during the first year of the CEU program) who stick to nuclear physics return to the DNP meeting each year to act as mentors for the next batch of undergraduate physicists.
“The CEU program has a history of populating all of physics: Many of our students will go on to earn PhDs in physics, not just in nuclear physics, but in all physics fields,” says Lesher. “We have students that have gone into [atomic, molecular, and optical physics]—you’ll see them everywhere in physics.”
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik