"If the profession of physics is to thrive, we must make it our goal to achieve a scientifically literate society, a population that understands and values the contributions that science makes to our national well-being," said
"Women are half that population. Only when women see that women are participating fully in the scientific endeavor - as researchers in the laboratory, as scientific leaders, and as policy-makers - will they feel themselves to be equal partners," she said.
That goal is especially important for young women pursuing careers in physics. Some may get the dispiriting sense that physics is a "boys club." Others may receive insufficient support from faculty, their departments, and even their peers. Relatively few feel that they are part of a group with similar problems and concerns. Perhaps this is because women - who earn 60 % of bachelor's degrees in biology, and half in chemistry - account for only about 20 % of bachelor's and PhD degrees in physics.
To address that situation, NIST and the
The annual conference program, one of eight held regionally nationwide under the auspices of the
The Mid-Atlantic conference - the only one to feature two Nobel laureates in the program - began on
On Saturday morning, three concurrent panels (Careers in Physics, Research Opportunities, and
APS Executive Officer
Rounding out the day were two workshops (on presentations and policy), a student poster session, and a banquet at which astrophysicist and Physics Nobelist John Mather of
At Sunday's continental breakfast, participants heard a talk by
"Over 40 physicists energized the conference participants during Worlds of Physics by expanding the idea of what it means to be a physicist," said
"Physics can take you in any direction," including biology, engineering, finance, and
In addition, the students benefited from interacting with each other. "I think we appreciate the solidarity of it all," said
"Physics can be discouraging and difficult and sometimes too overwhelming," said one participant. "But this conference reassured me that I'm on the right path, and that it's not always easy for anyone, female or male." Said another: "I feel much less alone."
Such experiences are essential, said
"Along the way you're going to make a lot of friends. And the friends that you pick up along the way will become your colleagues to whom you refer for help and advice for the rest of your life"
The undergraduates ranged from those who had committed early to the physical sciences to those only very recently interested.
Smith, who intends to go on to graduate school, was already seriously interested in physics by the eighth grade, and eventually skipped her senior prom in order to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She has long been drawn to astrophysics, but was excited to hear scientists talk about "changing channels" as needed. "I like to learn about a lot of alternatives in case I might want to move in a new direction."
On the other side of the early-motivation spectrum are
Wilcomb started at Towson as a dance major, but was considering a change. While looking at options, she remembered a ninth-grade science course that had captured her interest. With that in mind, she approached the physics department, although it seemed a bit formidable. "But I found myself saying, 'This is a real alternative. The faculty members are real people. They're not going to ignore you. They're going to help.' Now I'm in it for the long term."
Scores of participants expressed similarly positive responses, to the satisfaction of the organizers.
"If the profession of physics is to maintain excellence, it must draw upon the widest possible spectrum of talented individuals from all segments of society," Gebbie said. "We are therefore committed to making available to women the same career choices traditionally open to men. Women have the right, the need, and the talent to compete for these opportunities."
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