Candace Partridge: Women in Physics at USC

Rather than just sit around and wring our hands about the severe underrepresentation of women and minorities in science and engineering, it’s worth getting out there and trying to do things to help make a change. Here at Asymptotia, I describe things of that nature from time to time. At other times, I like to just shut up and listen, since (for example) it is also important to hear about the opinions and experiences of a range of different people who are trying to make their way in some aspect of these fields.

candace partridgeToday we have a guest post from Asymptotia regular commenter Candace Partridge (clickable image on right). Candace is doing an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of London (Birkbeck College), having come to study the subject at this level rather later than is traditional, and having studied other subjects, and worked professionally in another career. This gives her an unusual perspective, and one that is of considerable value. Candace attended the Women in Physics conference that was held at USC in January, and of which I spoke earlier. She tells us a bit about it below, along with some thoughts about her own path in Physics. There is some overlap with an article she wrote for Inkling, but Candace has expanded on several aspects for her post here.

-cvj

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candace tripAhhh…what’s better than a trip to LA? How about a travel grant to get to LA to attend the 2nd annual Undergraduate Women in Physics conference held at USC? Most students view MLK Day as a sort of bonus extension the to holidays, a way to ease back into the usual routine. However, for 50-odd physics students, this long weekend was a chance to make the journey to USC to meet other female (and a few male) physics students.

Of course, where I’m now from (London), we don’t get MLK day off. In fact, I was only on native soil because I had cleverly timed a three-week trip to visit my parents in Mississippi to coincide with this conference. After all, once I’ve flown 5000 miles, what’s a couple of thousand more? No problem! I landed in LAX to bright and sunny weather but with a cold wind blowing out of the north, heralding the arrival of that cold wave that destroyed the citrus crops and brought snow flurries to Malibu. It was far colder in LA than in London that weekend.

candace tripThis was my first trip to a physics-related conference, and I was a wee bit out of the target demographic. See, I am still a lowly undergrad — I say ‘still’ because here I am a woman pushing thirty who is barely halfway through her BSc as opposed to the young striplings a full decade younger than myself. Also, I was the only attendee from overseas…kind of. But I am happy to mix with people of all sorts, especially other women like me who are studying physics because, let’s face it, some of us are still feeling a little alone over here.

So I’m a female mature student, which in undergrad physics makes me a bit of an oddity indeed. People ask me all the time why I am studying physics, why I am putting myself through the hell of working a full-time career in IT while studying physics in the evenings, why I’m not happy with the idea of shoe shopping and 2.5 kids. The truth is that I’ve always wanted to study physics, but despite a still-raging curiosity about the universe, for the first half of my earthly existence I believed that a) I was crap at math and b) anything really worth doing should come effortlessly and not require any pesky studying. This, honestly, is why I ended up with an English degree. In my dotage, however, I have gradually come to have a great respect for hard work and have found that there is no shame in studying. And even that, horror of horrors, I’m not actually bad at math at all, I was just allergic to, you know, trying.

Now I spend 9 months out of the year trying very hard indeed and barely seeing the light of day even on the weekends. Q: What am I doing this weekend? A: Studying. Every term or so I hit a low point where I do have that come-to-Jesus moment when I sit down and wonder why I am inflicting such agonies of the spirit upon myself, and that surely it would be easier to quit and just be happy with my nice stable project management job with a nice stable income. At these times where I hit the wall, having some inspiration stored up from somewhere is crucial. And that’s why I applied to go to the USC WiPhys conference.

candace tripThis conference was held to help us attendees to see that firstly, we aren’t alone, and secondly, there is no reason for us not to be able to go as far as completing our Ph.Ds if we just stick to it. It was organised by a dedicated group of people in the USC physics department, from undergrads to post-docs, male and female. Their efforts were much appreciated since our room and board needs were taken all care of and we had a packed schedule of talks to look forward to.

While the proceedings were liberally sprinkled with various technical talks covering topics from neutrino physics to spin electronics, the real focus was on life advice from women who are currently in the trenches or have years of experience digging them. A particular highlight was a talk on Advancing Women in Physics by straight-shooting Beverly Hartline, a dean from Delaware State University. candace trip Following her talk, I asked her what the best response would be to men who claim that encouraging women to enter the field of physics would be lowering the bar and allowing too much competition. She scoffed, “Lowering the bar? We’re *raising* the bar by expanding the pool of talent!” We were also lucky to have science writer KC Cole come out to give a passionate talk about how much she enjoyed learning about physics and being a science writer. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and several people asked her how to get started in science writing. Her advice? “Just do it!”

There were inspirational women present from all fields of physics, but almost more inspirational (or intimidating!) were the student presentations that a few of the conference attendees gave to talk about their research work. I sat in the audience awed by their knowledge and dismayed at my own lack of research experience, and again left inspired to try and do something about that.

Speaking from personal experience, to sit in a room full of physics students and see a vast majority of women was a strange experience. Even more unusual were the bathroom lines during the breaks — the typical female physics student is used to having the entire restroom to themselves, not having to sneakily commandeer the men’s loo!

It was also strange to sit in a physics gathering and feel…how do I say this?…socially comfortable. It seems that female physics students, while destroying a lot of stereotypes about women and physics majors, do tend towards a new generalisation: they are definitely a very cool and very funny bunch of people to hang out with, and not that nerdy at all, even if we did gush over xkcd comics and even if I was guilty of carrying my maths homework everywhere.

In the car on the way home from the airport, my mom was asking me about the conference. In particular, she wondered, “So what was this conference for?” I explained that the point was to sort of boost the morale of undergraduate women physics students so that we would have some momentum to carry us through graduate school or whatever life throws at us. “Yes, but why just for women? Who cares?”

I paused, a bit puzzled, “Er, because there aren’t that many of us? We’re underrepresented.” She oohhhed a bit knowingly, then started her spiel.

“Well, you know, men’s and women’s brains are just different. It’s just genetics you know. Women are naturally better at things like English. You’re just a special one,” she laughed.

I cringed. “Mom, this is exactly the sort of crap that we’re fighting against, and it’s even worse that women themselves buy into it. Thinking like that is made me get an English degree, because I thought I wasn’t good enough to do math — and you can see that’s not true at all.”

I thought about that roomful of engaging and intelligent women, and I am so glad to know I’m definitely not all that special and I’m certainly not the only one. That, in essence, was really what the conference was all about.

candace tripBut it was also about meeting other people with all sorts of life experiences. Since Professor Clifford, protagonist of this here blog, is a denizen of USC, I wasn’t terribly surprised to turn around after one talk and spot him sitting behind me. Not being the shy or silent type, I immediately went and introduced myself during a break. And so I must guiltily confess to ducking out of the lab tours and sneaking off to go for a walk, talk, and cup of tea with Clifford. It was another cold sunny afternoon and we spent a little time chatting about LA, London, life, the universe, and everything. I was really glad to catch up with him in person, and we later met up for drinks at the swanky Standard bar. I also spent of bit of the weekend doing some sightseeing, including a trip up to Griffith Observatory to watch a glorious sunset and to see a fuzzy Comet McNaught.

My weekend trip to LA was fantastic and I was grateful to have the chance to go to the conference. It gave me a desperately-needed infusion of willpower. I have two years left until I finish this BSc, and after that I definitely would like to go on to graduate school, whether I’m ‘old’ or not. In the past few weeks I’ve taken some of the ‘seize the day’ advice I’ve heard quite literally: I gave notice at my job last week and I’m trying to set up sort of research project type work over the summer. I won’t be making any money, but at least I’ll be happy.

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