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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.

The Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Last weekend (January 13-15) I had the great fortune of attending the Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics for the second time. Yale University hosted NCUWP this year, while last year it was held at MIT. NCUWP is a part of a network of conferences that have been being held for 7 years, each year expanding in scope and attendance.

History of CUWiP

The first Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) was held at the University of Southern California in 2006. There were fewer than 50 attendees at this conference, but those few women were inspired by the gathering, and have since helped the conference grow by initiating various regional conferences around the country. Now, 6 years later, CUWiP is held at 6 different locations, this year including:

  • The Northeastern CUWiP: Yale University
  • The Midwest CUWiP: Case Western Reserve University
  • The Southeast CUWiP: North Carolina State University
  • The South-Central CUWiP: Texas A&M University
  • The Northwestern CUWiP: The University of Washington, Seattle
  • The Western CUWiP: Stanford University

Past conferences have been held at MIT, Purdue, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville as well.

Purpose of the NCUWP

All of the CUWiP conferences are NSF funded and are run with similar purposes in mind. From the NCUWP website, the purposes of the Northeast conference specifically are to:

  • Help female undergraduate physics majors transition successfully from undergraduate to graduate studies in physics
  • To foster and undergraduate culture in the Northeast, and specifically at Yale University in which women are encouraged and supported to pursue and succeed in higher education in physics
  • To strengthen the network of women in physics in the northeast and nationally.

They also provide a plan to meet these goals, which include:

  • Increasing awareness of current research and career opportunities in physics
  • Creating greater familiarity with the graduate school experience
  • Providing resources for applying to and being successful in graduate school, as well as general resources in physics
  • Providing access to a network of women in physics

Personal Experience

As I previously mentioned, this was the second time I have attended the NCUWP. In 2011 the conference was held at MIT, which, unknown to me at the time, provided the sparks to what would soon be my love for the school. While MIT was awe-inspiring in its vastness and complete devotion to the sciences, Yale took me by surprise.

An example of the architecture at Yale

I have been in New Haven a handful of times before, mostly because it contains the closest IKEA to Mount Holyoke, but I had never been to the Yale part of town. Believe me when I say that Yale might be the most beautiful college campus I have ever seen. When you hear that, realize that my school is consistently ranked in the top of the country’s prettiest campuses, and that I was in Cambridge this summer and spent much time on Harvard’s campus. The architecture at Yale is simply to die for, and if you ever have a chance to see the rare books and manuscripts library, you will be a fool not to take it.

While the outside of the rare books and manuscripts library at Yale is uninspiring, the interior is jaw-dropping

All of the spaces that we were used for the conference were beautiful, to say the least. Unfortunately, however, the lecture hall that was used for the main presentations had a capacity of around 200. Because of this the size of the conference was limited to 180 participants, and many women had to settle for waitlist status. MIT had much larger spaces than Yale, although there were far fewer participants when the conference was held there.

A planning meeting was held on the last morning of NCUWP, and women from all universities were encouraged to attend. I can only hope that this means that the conference is planning to move around each year, allowing students to view a different university each time.

The organizational staff was phenomenal; they were helpful, accessible, and consistently un-flustered. The only organizational problem that I noticed was that some dietary needs were not met. During the registration process, attendees were specifically asked what their allergies and food preferences were, however I know of at least one woman who is both gluten- and dairy-free, and was provided little-to-no alternatives at every meal. She was forced to skip one of the talks and find a market so that she might find food she could eat.

Highlights of the Weekend

While I will be going pretty far in-depth into some of the subjects that I learned about during NCUWP, I thought it might be fun to rehash some of my favorite talks, panels, and discussions that occurred over the course of the weekend.

Women in Physics: Why aren’t There More of Us? – Dr. Meg Urry

Dr. Meg Urry is a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale, and gave the opening talk of the conference. Her talk discussed several psychological studies that examined women in science and how their gender shouldn’t, but did, affect how people perceived them. The talk provided the audience far more questions than answers, but this is in no way a bad thing. I came out of her lecture having written down the names of several studies I want to read, as well as a deep sense of shock about how bad this problem truly is. Coming from a women’s institution I often forget that in the real world women are constantly seen differently from their male peers, and this can be extremely detrimental to their growth within their careers. She left us with a list of her top tips for women to succeed in physics:

  1. Work hard on what you love
  2. Do interesting, high-impact wovk
  3. Don’t get discouraged
  4. Reject “lower” standards
  5. Mentor up, down, and sideways
  6. Network network network
  7. Use your first and last name when introducing yourself
  8. Prepare a 3 sentence “elevator” speech
  9. Practice confidence with nightly affirmations in the mirror or to your partner
  10. Own your ambition

Hunting for the Higgs Boson and Other Results of CERN’s LHC – Dr. Sarah Demers

Dr. Sarah Demers is an assistant professor of physics at Yale as well as a researcher on the ATLAS project at CERN. Her talk was by far my favorite of the weekend, and have no doubt about it I will go into the details of her research in another post. What really did it for me about her talk though, was that she gave us an incredibly detailed look into her personal life, as well as discussed how her personal and professional lives intertwine. She showed us pictures of her children, provided us anecdotes about her husband, and discussed her journey from college through graduate school through her current career. It was so revealing to be able to see that there is no such thing as a “typical” career path in physics, and also that one can, with help and determination, maintain a healthy balance between work and play.

The Career Panel

I have nothing short of fabulous words about the career panel. Between this year’s and last year’s conferences, I had fairly similar experiences, with the exception that the career panel at Yale was far more enlightening than the one at MIT. The panel at MIT was made of strictly women in industry, who were all over the age of 40, and who left me feeling depressed because it seemed that there were no other options for me.

At Yale, however, the panel consisted of Dr. Bonnie Fleming of Yale, Dr. Lily Childress of Bates and Yale, Flora Lichtman of Science Friday, and Dr. Yvonne Akpalu of Why Science. Of the four women, three had held positions in academia, at least two were under the age of 30, and two had switched careers at least once.

It was incredible to see such a variety of successful women, and to hear their stories of success, failure, and love of their jobs.


The NCUWP continues to be the highlight of each year for me, and I encourage all undergraduate women of physics to attend. There are branches of the CUWiP around the country, and not only are they free, but transportation reimbursements and lodging is provided. It gives you a chance to network with other undergraduate women, as well as graduate students, professors, women in industry, and allies in the cause of improving women’s standing in physics. It is an empowering experience, to say the least, and I hope that everyone, no matter their involvement in physics, or even the sciences, can experience such a fulfilling conference at some point in their lives.


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