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By Abigail Eisenstadt
To reach new physicists, the physics community must expand its understanding of who physicists are, what they do, and why they do it, according to a session called “Broadening Our Community” at the 2022 APS Annual Leadership Meeting on January 27.
Matthew Thompson, Chair of the APS Forum on Industrial & Applied Physics, began the session by acknowledging the need to honor all voices and all disciplines across physics. Moderator Ben Zwickl (Rochester Institute of Technology) then gave a brief presentation on how scientists can do so, introducing a two-part framework predicated on expanding the community and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field. Then, he asked the panelists to share how they defined themselves and whether they felt like they belonged in the physics community—and to contextualize those answers based on their diverse experiences in academia and industry.
When industrial physicist Larry Woolf (General Atomics), an active member of APS’s EP3 Task Force, left academia over 30 years ago, he stopped publishing papers and attending scientific conferences. Since papers and conferences are some of the main ways scientists connect in the physics community, Woolf said this transition came with some sense of loss.
Lack of connection with the physics community also stems from the biased belief that academic physics is the only “true” type of physics, said Meghan Anzelc (Spencer Stuart), a data and analytics industry expert. Echoing Anzelc, Zahra Hussaini (Waymo), a software reliability engineer, described how she felt that her choice to pursue an industry career was judged as choosing a less prestigious path.
Biases in the physical sciences, like those against industry careers, can be used to make a clean separation between those who belong and those who do not, Zwickl said. He then asked panelists for ideas on how the community can fight those biases by deliberately broadening the definition of what physicists do.
Offering examples of the conversations she has had with students as they enter college, Director of the Fimbel Maker & Innovation Lab and founder of SciTech Cafe, Katherine Aidala, (Mt. Holyoke College) shared that most early students define physics as cosmology and quantum mechanics. Tabbetha Dobbins (Rowan University), a committee member of the APS Forum on International Physics and the AIP TEAM-UP project, suggested that one way to change that preconception is through a deliberate and intentional effort to reach such students—by emphasizing physics’s adaptable skillset, for example.
But acquiring a skillset, while important, is not the reason most young scientists choose to enter physics in the first place, said Zwickl. He challenged panelists to think about how they might reach out to students who were curiosity-driven and how that outreach might look different for those who wanted to make a difference in the world.
Industry research tends to be geared towards making a difference because it centers around delivering applicable results, said Woolf, while academic research is often motivated by curiosity. Panelists across both industry and academia largely agreed.
Making a difference can mean many things and for academics, it involves “the matter of retention,” said Dobbins. She explained that keeping a student engaged in the field is one way to have an impact as an academic. Underscoring Dobbins’ point, Aidala gave a firsthand account of how the opportunity to major in applied physics encouraged her to pursue physics rather than engineering. Applied physics directly showed her that she could make a difference and that led her to find her place in the field, she said.
Research internships also facilitate retention because they help students see the connections between what they’ve learned and how it can be applied, said Anzelc, speaking from experience. Dobbins agreed, noting experiential learning is an important component of the physics curriculum.
Woolf noted that while academia relies on hierarchical status as a sign of worth, industry often values each player’s role regardless of their career stage. Academia also places more focus on the individual, Hussaini said, because the individual must get their name on papers. The panelists agreed that creating a sense of feeling valued as a team member can be an instrumental tool for retention.
Zwickl discussed the overlap between these ideas and the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the context of AIP’s TEAM-UP project. The initiative seeks to grow the number of African Americans in physics and astronomy. Task force member Dobbins stressed the importance of helping students from minority backgrounds embrace their titles as physicists at an early stage. Helping students identify as a physicist creates a sense of empowerment as those students then explore the many opportunities the community can offer, she said. Assisting students in owning their physics identities, Aidala agreed, is instrumental to helping minority students feel included.
As the session ended, the consensus seemed unanimous: broadening the physics community and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion could be achieved with the same approaches. Inclusive expansion requires challenging what it means to be—and who gets to call themselves—a physicist.
The full recording of this session is available on YouTube.
The author is a science writer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was previously an APS science communications intern.
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