AAPT: Not Just for Teachers

I wrote this piece for the Society of Physics Students as a Conference Reporter. It has also been featured on the AAPT Conference Highlights page.

AAPT: Not Just for Teachers

Giving my talk entitled "Women's College Meets Women's Conference"

Giving my talk entitled “Women’s College Meets Women’s Conference”

When a former professor of mine asked if I would be willing to present at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Winter Meeting I was honored by the request. When he mentioned that I would be speaking on a panel regarding the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) I nearly jumped out of my skin with excitement. While I was certainly pleased with the prospect of attending a new conference, the idea of sharing with others the love I have for CUWiP was my true motivation for finding a way to get down to New Orleans. What I was not expecting, however, was to fall in love with AAPT in a way that was completely foreign to me.

I have attended several conferences in the past, but none quite like AAPT. Where the APS March Meeting is enormous, and can be overwhelming and consuming, AAPT is compact. Where CLEO is specific, with members attending from one small sect of physics, AAPT is attended by a diverse cross-section of the physics community. Where CUWiP is comprised of mostly strangers, it is hard to find anyone at AAPT who does not know a handful of other attendees, if not many, many more.

I admit that I took a slightly unconventional path towards immersing myself in the culture of AAPT’s Winter Meeting. While the standard talks, award sessions, and social events did not officially begin until Monday, I dropped in on the Meetings Committee early Sunday morning. Once I explained to the committee members that no, I did not teach physics at the high school or college level, no I was not interested just yet in joining the committee, and no, I was not even a member of AAPT, I endured several seconds of silence as the looks of surprise settled onto their faces. So why did I wake up at 6am on a Sunday to attend a meeting that in no way affected me? Because I wanted to see what made AAPT tick.

The answer is, as I repeatedly discovered throughout my time at AAPT, community. As the committee was discussing potential locations for the meetings in 2015 and beyond, I witnessed first-hand the power of networking. A member would point out that DC-area conferences were often well attended and three others would start throwing out potential contacts at various universities in the area. In an effort to reduce the costs for a bay-area conference it was suggested that the official conference hotel be further from campus than is typical. When someone brought up the issue of transportation, another was quick to suggest an email to the administration of an engineering department that frequently rents out campus transportation for the use of visiting students. There was no problem posed to the committee that didn’t result in some suggested resolution by the end of the meeting through the use of the collective network.

It was 7am the next morning when I attended the First Timers’ Gathering lead by members of the AAPT executive board, and my first AAPT meeting officially began. Along with fifty other newcomers I slunk bleary-eyed from door to breakfast buffet to empty seat, and sat staring at the swirls of cream in my first cup of coffee. Thankfully the members of the board had thought to strategically distribute themselves around the room so that they might stimulate introductions and inspire conversations. By the time Past President David Sokolov took the podium to greet the room, I had introduced myself to high school teachers from California, community college professors from Virginia, and graduate students in physics pedagogy from the Midwest.

After Sokolov’s warm welcome, John Hubisz, Jill Marshall, and Beth Cunningham each took the podium in turn to encourage us to reach out and make friends. An overwhelming emphasis was placed on the recommendation to get as involved in the AAPT community as possible — attend committee meetings, get involved in area chapters, and network, network, network.

“AAPT is an organization based on connections,” Cunningham informed us with a smile growing across her face, “and we need you, who are new to this world and have fresh ideas, to inspire us just as you need those of us who know the ropes to guide and assist you.”

Once the gathering ended I found myself meandering through morning sessions which touched on topics ranging from cultural (“History and Strengthening of Physics Departments at Historically Black Colleges and Universities”) to pedagogical (“Investigation and Assessment of Physics by Inquiry”) and contemplating strategies for getting the most out of the conference.

As I perused many of the marvelous vendor stands in the exhibition hall I stopped for a moment, examining a Chinese spouting resonance bowl alongside several AAPT veterans. All were staring with rapt attention at a demonstration of the bowl’s use for visualizing nodes. When the exhibitor finished and the last ringing notes of the resonance bowl had faded, eager chatter immediately surfaced with attendees throwing out questions regarding maintenance, ideas of other concepts that might be demonstrated, and shortcomings that other techniques don’t have. Remembering my favorite activity in high school physics I dove into the conversation, excitedly giving my two cents about wave tank labs. I found myself bombarded with questions about my high school physics experience; “What topics most inspired you?” “Why did you choose to study physics in college?” “What kinds of classroom activities are most inspiring and exciting?” They were almost as eager to learn from me as I was from them!

In the heat of our discussion one of the gentlemen announced that it was almost time for an award session and hurriedly left our circle. Slowly each member followed and I next found myself in an immense ballroom attending the presentation of the Oersted Medal, AAPT’s oldest continuous award, to Professor Joe Redish of the University of Maryland.

During his invigorating address Professor Redish discussed the theoretical framework in which physics education research should be viewed so that effective techniques can be developed. As I sat on the edge of my seat he asked me (for when Professor Redish is speaking to a room of people it truly feels as though he is having a conversation with you and you alone), “Why are our interactions with learners such a mess? Why are teachers as a whole so quick to put the word ‘wrong’ on an answer that may simply be framed differently than theirs?” And whether he knew it or not, his words framed my own experience at AAPT and inspired me to examine not only the flaws in my physics experience, but why I perceived them as such and how I could work towards enhancing my own continuing education.

Walking out of the award session with a spring in my step and inspirational words echoing in my mind, I directed my toes towards what will remain in my mind the most rewarding event of the conference: Speed Networking. Yes, it was exactly as you are imagining it: a room of tables, each with two chairs, and a five minute per conversation time limit. Whereas many of those in attendance were seeking cross-country connections and tips on how to propel their careers, my motivation was simply to gather more data in my ever-growing pool of information about what paths people took to land in the positions they hold today. I was far from disappointed. If I was allowed one wish for the progression of AAPT’s Winter Meeting it would be that this event should be repeated on a larger scale; the twelve-or-so “veterans” who were placed around the outer perimeter of the room represented an excellent cross-section of AAPT attendees, but I can envision nothing more exciting than a room packed to bursting with physicists hoping to make just one meaningful connection that would not have otherwise occurred.

The author with Barbara Wollf-Reichert. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Reichert

With Barbara Wolff-Reichert

In fact the most valuable of all of my interactions was my introduction to Barbara Wolff-Reichert through David Maiullo, Rutger Physics’ “demonstrations guy,” at whose speed networking table I found myself first. When I saw Barbara enthusiastically showing off her company’s merchandise to curious onlookers I knew immediately that she and I would become fast friends. Having graduated from Swarthmore College in the early 70’s, she has long been an advocate for women in physics. After teaching at the high school level for many years she joined her husband (whom she met at an AAPT meeting) in the development of TeachSpin, an advanced laboratory instrument development company. Through my conversations with Barbara I gained a great deal of perspective regarding careers in industry. She was able to show me that through business one can affect the next generation of scientists in a completely different way than through academia. By making advanced laboratory equipment affordable and accessible she is helping to open pathways to a career in research that many students at smaller, less funded institutions might never have had access to.

It is my intense desire to inspire through this article students of physics to pursue conferences such as AAPT’s winter meeting. I know better than most that attending a conference with little to contribute can be intimidating at best and terrifying at worst, but you must remember that your most valuable assets may not lie in vast data sets, extensive research, or stacks of published articles. We are important in this community because we have all the time in the world ahead of us. In attending a conference and creating a network we allow the ideas of those who came before us to be developed and molded to fit into the framework of our generation, thus subtly strengthening the physics community from the bottom up.

Women’s College Meets Women’s Conference

I was invited to give a talk during the ‘Reports from the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics’ session at the American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meeting. Below is the transcript. I would love to hear feedback, questions about the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics or about my experience as a physics major at a women’s college. Thank you all!



Good morning, I am Amelia Plunk. I have no facts or figures to present regarding the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, instead I want to talk about how the conference truly shaped my understanding of the needs of young female physicists.

Mount Holyoke College, my alma mater, is the oldest institution of higher learning for women in the United States. The first of the Seven Sisters, ‘Moho,’ as we affectionately call it, is continually ranked by the NSF among the top colleges in the nation for the achievements of our faculty, students, and graduates. In 2004 NSF placed Mount Holyoke in the top two percent of institutions who produced graduates that later went on to obtain PhDs in the hard sciences. However the true value of a science education at Mount Holyoke lies in its rigorous distribution requirements which give students the tools to further understand their field within social, political, and historical frameworks.

As it is women’s college, it is nigh impossible to graduate from Mount Holyoke without having taken a class that addresses issues in gender discrimination in some form. Recently the physics department introduced a course on women in science, and the introduction to gender studies class is a popular choice among non-majors for fulfilling the social science distribution requirement.

Thus by the time I was a junior (and well into my physics major) I had taken multiple courses in gender and feminist theory and my social circle contained a large contingent of gender studies majors. Therefore in my mind I was an expert on issues of women in the hard sciences. I was always ready to discuss faults in explanations for the existence of the gender pay gap. I could easily compare the belittling or abraisive language used to describe women in positions of power to the uplifting and commending terms used for men in similar roles. However it wasn’t until I attended the Northeast Conference for Undergrduate Women in Physics that a glaring hole in my feminist education became apparent to me; not only was my understanding of discrimination against women purely theoretical, but also focused on the professional world. I had no concept of what discrimination in the classroom looked like.

For the classroom experience in the Mount Holyoke physics major is one that fosters intense collaboration between students and that results in the formation of a tight-knit group that is nothing if not supportive of all its members. In fact my first experience with being a gender minority in the classroom was not until I took electromangetism at the University of Massachusetts. Even then I never felt stifled or discriminated against and, in hindsight it is astounding that I never questioned why.

When, in 2011, I attended for the first time the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics it was held at MIT; in 2012 I returned to the conference, then held at Yale. While my experience during the MIT event was indeed exciting and eye-opening, it was the Yale conference that truly changed my outlook on women in physics. Those three days in the bitter cold of a New England January were spent among ambitious women and men committed to improving the climate for women in physics. I was able to attend a round table discussion about networking, to poke and prod a panel of graduate students about the application process, and to trade information with other women in physics from around New England.

The most valuable experience of the conference, however, was not the career panel which included women in academia, industry, and science media. It was not the keynote speech by the inspiring Dr. Persis Drell acknowledging what she called the “physicist’s dilemma” and discussing the growing number of exciting opportunities for physicists. It wasn’t even Dr. Meg Urry’s incredible opening address encouraging us to do interesting, high impact work and to own our ambitions. No, in fact, it was the conversations that I had with the countless women at this conference, most of whom were in their first or second years of a coeducational college, who felt like they didn’t belong in this field.

It had never occurred to me that an introductory physics course could be not only uncomfortable for a gender minority, but a downright toxic environment. Over and over again I heard accounts from my peers of group work sessions where one of two situations occurred. In the first, women would show up to these study sessions confident in their work thus far and prepared with questions about how to proceed. Any suggestion they put forward however would be quickly dismissed, and any question posed to the group was treated as elementary and the responses they received were framed as obvious. It is no surprise that these women quickly lost what confidence they had in their choice of academic path.

The second pattern I noticed was of women who were less confident to begin with and hoped that by attending group sessions they could form bonds with their classmates. Most expressed that they were nervous going into the group, generally because they were the only, or one of very few, women in attendence. Their nervousness resulted in a withdrawal of their ideas and a reluctance to speak up. After several group sessions peers began accusing them of “leeching;” of applying the ideas of others to their homework without producing their own contributions. Such hurtful accusations could drive anyone to work in solitude.

After hearing these women’s stories my own experience was finally put into perspective. I then understood why, even when I was in the distinct minority, I consistently had positive classroom experiences. In fact very rarely has anyone at Mount Holyoke expressed discomfort in, much less fear of the physics classroom environment.

For example, a particularly enlightening episode involved a Hampshire College student who took electronics at Mount Holyoke. He was a student of music industry and was interested in the electronic creation of sound. He had very little physics background, which became quickly apparent during late-night group homework gatherings. Of course he pursued extra help from the professor, but he also found it from us, his classmates. We made every attempt to coordinate group work with the bus schedule so that he could participate, and any questions he posed regarding mathematical techniques or physical concepts spurred a mini-discussion that not only aided his understanding of the material, but honed our skills in teaching.

This mutually beneficial relationship between those students in the top of the class and those in the bottom is not only common, but expected in physics courses at Mount Holyoke, regardless of the gender makeup of the class. And thus, by the time I made it to that UMass class I had no fear of speaking up, and no tolerance for scorn at my ignorance of certain subjects. Without the support and encouragement of the community I had become a part of early on I can easily imagine how different my college physics experience could have been.

I am happy to report that I have maintained connections with several of those women who expressed concern about their ability to pursue physics and that all of them felt a renewed vigor after the conference and have found a confidence in themselves that they were able to bring back to their institutions. Even though they continue to lack a cohesive community in their home physics departments, they now have a network of support that is always open and ready to help.

Another of my misconceptions about the experience of women in physics that was thoroughly shattered by the conference was that the vast majority of the supression of women in this field is instigated by men. When Dr. Sarah Demers stepped up to the podium on the final day of the conference we were all expecting an envigorating talk about her work at CERN. While that is indeed what we received, the true treat was that she also provided us with an in-depth, very personal exploration of her life as a wife and a mother. She pointed out to us that too often as a community women in the hard sciences are so focused on breaking the gender stereotypes by excelling in our field that we look down upon professional women who choose to take a step back to pursue more “traditionally feminine” roles.

Recently Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” that I encourage all of you to read. In this article she tells of her step-down from a high-profile political policy position because of a desire to spend more time with her family. When she explained her decision to female peers she was met with a range of reactions from disappointed to condescending. How can we ever hope to correct the misconceptions about women in the sciences and to enlighten men about how to respect their female peers if we cannot even respect the autonomy of our own gender?

For these reasons communities such as that formed through the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics are integral in creating the foundation of equality for women in the hard sciences. As Dr. Meg Urry so aptly stated at the 2012 opening ceremony, we must not only mentor down, to the next generation of women physicists, but sideways and up as well. For without the encouragement from your peers and the fresh perspective from younger minds than your own would any of you have made it to where you are today? I certainly would not have.

Thank you.

APS/ORCiD Partnership

In October of this year the American Physical Society announced their partnership with ORCiD, a digital identifier database that allows you to create an ID-number that will follow you throughout your career, even if your name does not. In their own words,

ORCID provides a persistent digital identifier that distinguishes you from every other researcher and, through integration in key research workflows such as manuscript and grant submission, supports automated linkages between you and your professional activities ensuring that your work is recognized.


While APS cites that this connection will lead to easier tracking of impact factors, differentiation between authors with similar names, and connection between different variations of the same name, I predict that the largest impact that this connection with ORCiD will have will be for women. The conversation about what to do with maiden and married names has long been visible in women in science blogs. While it may at first seem a frivolous thing to worry about, the truth is that if you get married and take your partner’s last name after you have published, complications will arise. It is a long and arduous process to retroactively change the name which appears on the piece and, therefore, is rarely done. Women then find themselves in a position where many of the high-impact papers they wrote in graduate school or in their early careers get lost in the ether. While some solutions exist, such as indicating a name-change on a CV, this quick fix only works if people actually have access to this information. If, for instance, a graduate student or a postdoc is conducting a literature search for a specific author, they may never know about a paper that was written under a different last name.

ORCiD is therefore an incredibly simple solution which helps scientists across the board keep track of their work through the years. Women especially will benefit from taking three minutes to register for their own ID so that nothing that they produce ever gets lost. At present, your ORCiD can be used with several publications, including APS, Elsevier, and Nature. This list of partners is fast expanding, however, so jump on the bandwagon as soon as you can!

For curiosities sake, I would also like to extend the invitation to any of my readers to, in the comment section, let us know about your name situation. Whether or not you are a member of the scientific community I would be interested to hear if a) you changed your name when you got married (why or why not?) and b) how did this decision affect your professional life?


I could browse through FEI’s photostream on Flickr for hours. They have posted hundreds of photos taken by their electron microscopes, all of which are interesting and breathtaking. I strongly urge you to browse their entire gallery sometime, it is chock full of scanning electron microscope (SEM) and transmission electron microscope (TEM) images!

Spider Skin

Courtesy of CARBAJO MARI

This image shows the incredible complexity found on the surface of a spider. We are getting an up-close and personal look at the root of a hair, along with what appear to be brochosomes; particles found on leafhoppers, a common prey of many spiders.

Geckofuss 120x

Courtesy of Oliver Meckes

This image shows the tip of a gecko’s leg. The white filaments are tacky and allow the gecko to cling to surfaces and climb vertically as well as upside-down.



Courtesy of Oliver Meckes

While I do not know the breed of our cuddly little friend here, I do know that you should also check out the Science Photo Library gallery of Oliver Mecke’s work. He has some incredible shots in there of synapses and killer cells attacking cancer.

Hot snowflake cuts through the tin ball

Courtesy of Lolita Rotkina

These tin balls are magnified 12,000 times in this photo. Ion beam milling, the technique being demonstrated here, is used to carve out patterns in metals. Applications of ion beam milling include the etching of nanocircuits and the preparation of samples for transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

Scientist Spotlight: Professor Mark Peterson

Dr. Mark Peterson is a professor of math and physics at Mount Holyoke College, and is truly one of the smartest men I have ever met. I was fortunate enough to have him as my Analytical Mechanics professor during my junior year, and I worked very closely with him solving the 1-dimensional heat equation for organic LEDs for my thesis. Historians and scientists alike rejoiced when his first book, Galileo’s Muse, hit the bookshelves in late 2011.

Galileo’s Muse is currently sitting atop my “to read” pile of books, and once I am settled into my summer residence I will dive right in and post a review here. In the meantime, however, I heartily recommend that you all watch this short interview of Professor Peterson with Sarah Luehrman Axelrod of Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

This interview is particularly interesting because the questions asked come from a standpoint of someone whose background is in the arts as opposed to the sciences, resulting in an incredible cross-disciplinary atmosphere that Peterson argues should be standard when discussing Galileo. I hope that you all will pick up Galileo’s Muse, as there really should be more people who examine science and scientists with an interdisciplinary eye, and there is no better person to do so than Mark Peterson. As he says in this interview, “The easiest way [to be original] is to import some body of knowledge from one place into another place where it looks new.”

Galileo’s Muse can be picked up from Barnes and Noble for $18.81

The World is Getting Stupider

Neil deGrasse Tyson delivered a spitfire speech at Mount Holyoke College’s 175th Commencement Ceremony this Sunday, and I was proud to be one of the graduating seniors to which he gave his plea for help. Below is a transcript of the speech, choice quotes are bolded for your pleasure.

“I’m not unmindful that I am in the shade and you are not, so we’ll keep this short, plus you have a commencement speeker to follow. A real commencement speaker.

You should know, I think, that black cloth absorbs 98% of all incident sunlight upon it, which makes graduation robes good for cold, dank, British boarding schools and bad for outdoor graduations, I just want to tell you that.

That’s a tweet, right there, isn’t that? Just a moment, excuse me. I feel compelled to textify. Hold on. Black cloth, absorbs 98%… graduation robes good for cold dank British prep schools, bad for outdoor graduations.

I just want to make this quick because, I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to fix the world. I need the rest of you to help me fix the world. The world is getting stupider. It is not good when the world starts getting stupid. So yes, even on John Stewart, the opening credits, rotating globe is turning the wrong direction. I told him this.

And in tall buildings, you realize 80% of them don’t have a 13th floor. This, the 21st century America, there are people afraid of the number 13, I need help!

I need help when a member of congress said “I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” I need help!

I need help when I see newspaper headlines lamenting the state of the school system and they complain half the schools are below average. I’m thinking, that’s kind of what an average is, sort of, you kind of need half below! I can’t keep doing this!

Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?! What’s that about? And why do people think the world is going to end this year? They study the Mayan calendar and they believe that the Mayans somehow knew more about Astrophysics than I do! What they didn’t tell you is that the Mayans somehow actually, in their ability to predict the future, didn’t see the end of their own civilization coming.

And then the people who don’t like high-tech, or space… you’re having a conversation with them, and they’re like “Oh, wait a minute, I have a call on my cell phone to get the GPS coordinates of where the sattellite photos are going to be so that we can hold a party when it’s not raining.” These are the people who don’t like technology. Who are these people?! And why do they even exist with that going on in their mind? You have to fix these people!

Cause you know what we need here? I want to make the world smart again, and I need you to be a part of the community of people who help make this happen, because, only then can you invent the future. You don’t discover a preexisting future, you create the future. I want you to create the future that you would be proud to bequeath and honored to inherit.”

Things to Think About Thursday

Each Thursday I post the most interesting science-related tidbits I run across on the internet for your enjoyment! I will gladly take recommendations or requests at whatisaplunk[at]gmail[dot]com!

This week we talked a little about introversion, so here are some links for further reading! Don’t worry, there’s information tucked in there about extroverts as well!

  • Let’s start off with a Scientific American interview of Susan Cain (of the TED talk) about her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts.
  • Ash of The Curious Wave Function examines the same question as I: is the modern scientific climate more suited for introverts than others?
  • At In the Pipeline, Derek discusses his want for a more comprehensive system of classifying people’s interaction styles. Are the terms “extrovert” and “introvert” not enough?
Of course, I also have several interesting reads for you to check out that are not related to any sort of personality qualities at all!
  • Dr. Ferric Fang made a startling discovery as the chief editor of a well-known scientific journal. It’s interesting and horrifying to hear what people will do – and how much they will compromise – to get published.
  • This week io9 gave us a very simple and easy-to-understand description of the Tyndall effect!
  • The “electric flame scallop” or Ctenoides ales is an amazing sea critter with a flashy side.

Keep your eye out for my next piece, which will explore free ways to get your hands on scientific papers!

Happy Thursday, folks!

Introversion: Does it Flourish or Flounder in Scientific Environments?

Susan Cain recently gave a TED talk about introversion and the societal shift towards favoring extroverts. My initial reaction was empathy – while I consistently fall right into the middle of the introversion/extroversion spectrum (and am thus known as an “ambivert”), I identify very strongly with introverts. As I thought further about the subject, however, my feelings shifted from empathetic to grateful; grateful that the path that I have chosen is a path which has a place for introverts.

Much of Ms. Cain’s emphasis in her talk is on the proliferation of schools and teachers not only encouraging group work, but forcing it on students. Personally I remember having enormous anxiety attacks when assigned to do group work in Calculus class, because, since when is math collaborative?! Well, that’s at least how 16 year-old me felt. It took a few years to realize that group work can be incredibly rewarding when done right. In fact, it wasn’t until I started taking upper-level physics classes that I really learned to appreciate the input of other minds.

Why did this sudden shift of perspective about group work happen when it did? My latest epiphany is that it is because, contrary to the way the rest of the world seems to be operating lately, the world of science leaves room for extroverts while still celebrating introverts.

Think about it: how does your P.I. structure your weekly meetings? While there’s no such thing as a “normal” lab group meeting, I can guarantee that one of the most common methods is to have one or more member of the group give an in-depth presentation about their recent work, while the rest of the group gives brief check-ins regarding their progress. A discussion then begins, and ideas start to fly around the conference room (or lab or office space, etc.). Just as Susan Cain points out, it is…

…better to all go off and think on your own and come back and all discuss ideas as a team.

Even before I began research, I started to recognize the pattern that professors would ask us to turn in original work, but encouraged us to collaborate with other students – to bounce ideas off each other and to help influence each other’s way of thinking. That being said, the students who chose to work on their own flourished, just as those of us who could be found at all hours of the night working together in the physics lounge did.

Even in the upper echelons of scientific research there is a pattern of both introverts and extroverts being recognized. Of course you have the extroverted scientists (or the ones that present as such), such as Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who dominate the media, but in this game the media does not have the final word on who’s who. While being able to speak in front of an audience or a video camera has it’s merits, it is truly the scientists who understand introversion that go far. Google founder Larry Page, as an example, identifies as introverted, he lets his work speak for itself!

Now none of this is to say that scientists as a community have personalities skewed one way or the other, but I would like to claim that the scientific community is one that welcomes introverts far more warmly than, say, business or economics.

So why don’t you try it? If you identify as extroverted, why don’t you try some introversion? Many people shy away from experimenting with introversion because they don’t like being alone, or they feel like they’re being anti-social. But here’s where I tell you that there are so many ways to get inside your own head without leaving society behind!

Try going to your favorite coffee shop or tea house. I find that I can think and work best with the hum of the world as my background noise. I can look at the people around me and gain inspiration from their lives (or, the lives I perceive them to have). You can create breaks in your introversion by chatting with the baristas, who are always looking for more conversation than just “I’ll have the French Roast, please.” Some of the best scientific conversations I’ve had have been with people at the coffee shop who asked about the Feynman book I was reading or knew that the sticker on my computer was the spectrum of the sun.

One of my favorite places to work is the local beer hole! Sometimes all you need to get the creative juices flowing is a good beer and some salty snacks.

Get a group of friends to go with you to a book store or library! Spend a few minutes browsing, and grab the first five books to catch your eye. Don’t even read the back cover. If you pick it up and you think it looks interesting, tuck it under your arm. Go sit in a chair, flip through those five books, and try to figure out why they were the ones which grabbed you. I know my interests change daily, so I love to really analyze why I’m focusing on what I’m focusing on at the moment. In the car ride home, share information about the books you picked up with your friends, talk about why they were interesting, and ask them to do the same. Listen to their thoughts carefully – you might learn something about your friend!

If you truly do prefer to think and work while alone, make sure that you find some way to funnel the fruits of your introversion into the world! Coordinate coffee breaks with your friends and try and drop something that you thought about today into the conversation. While being introverted and expanding your own mind is a wonderful prospect, the even more wonderful thing you can do with that newly found knowledge is to share it!

What about you, dear readers? What is your experience with introversion and extroversion in science? Have you ever felt, like Susan Cain, that just because you aren’t the most enthusiastic presenter in the world your ideas are being glazed over? I hope not because I bet they are the most wonderful ideas!

Happy Wednesday, friends!

Remembering Zach Brunt

Zach Brunt, courtesy of Yale Daily News

EDIT: Zach’s mother has informed me that there will be a memorial service held for Zach this Saturday at Fort Hunt Park in Alexandria, VA. Please click through this link to view the invitation and to RSVP.

The physics community lost an amazing member this week, as Zach Brunt, a freshmen in the Davenport College at Yale, took his life on Wednesday afternoon. See these two articles at the Yale Daily News which give  information about Zach and his passing.

I just wanted to take a moment to remember this amazing young man. I’ve known Zach since he was in the 3rd grade and one of my younger brother’s best friends. From reading several memorials of Zach, as well as statements from his friends and family, it is clear that we all think of Zach as one of the most vibrant human beings we have ever met. His enthusiasm was as infectious as his smile, and his wisdom and compassion far exceeded his years.

The most common reaction to situations as devastating as this is to mourn; to wear black, to cry, and to wail “what if’s,” lamenting time lost. Instead, the communities that knew Zach are rallying around his memory. We are wearing vibrant colors (Zach was known for many years for sporting fluorescent orange constantly) and we are singing praise for one of the most wonderful people to have touched our lives.

I would like to ask you, dear readers, to keep Zach’s family and friends in your thoughts, prayers, meditations, or however else you choose to send energy towards others.

With all the love in the world,

Amelia Plunk

Zach and his friend Daniella were voted “Life of the Party” for senior superlatives. In the background see Mr. Curtis, the wonderful man who taught 6th grade at the elementary school we both attended. On the right you can see my father and his fiancée.

Students at our high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), rally around Zach’s memory by wearing vibrant colors and gathering around the flagpole.

Zach had friends around the country, and probably around the world. William and Mary students celebrate the life of their good friend.

Things to Think About Thursday

Each Thursday I post the most interesting science-related tidbits I run across on the internet for your enjoyment! I will gladly take recommendations or requests at whatisaplunk[at]gmail[dot]com!

So sorry for my extended absence! I’ve been very busy making graduate school decisions, and I’ve fallen behind on other obligations. Have no fear, however, I have some wonderful upcoming posts! For now, I’ll start you off with my new favorite desktop wallpaper, and some interesting reads from the past week!

The constellation Monocerous (the unicorn!). Click through for the original, larger image.

  • George Musser of Scientific American does a fantastic job explaining the Vasiliev Theory of higher-spin fields, a baffling theory that could be the next step in the unification of physics.
  • The first results from ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) are in! Their first published data reveals an interesting planetary system orbiting around Fomalhaut.
  • If anyone has the desire to buy me something, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles will do quite nicely.
  • Lifehacker provides some excellent advice for students dealing with debt.
  • This may be slightly off the topic of science, but since the personality statistics within science are so dramatically skewed towards introverted, I think it’s relevant. Matador Network writer Carlo Alcos explains his revelation that being introverted is OK too.
  • Another book to put on your “To Read” list, Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women might not be celebrated by Athene Donald, but it sounds like an interesting read.
  • Athene Donald hit it out of the park last week, and examined an RSE report of the position of women in STEM fields in Scotland. Her analysis is impecible, and you should read her explanation of why we need to start focusing our efforts on young girls.
Even most practicing female scientists, myself included, still find an unconscious tendency to associate words associated with science more with men than women.

Until we next meet again, happy Thursday!


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