Women in Physics group holds 40-year reunion

By: Linda B. Glaser,  AS Communications
Wed, 10/05/2016

Forty years ago, Cornell’s physics department had no female faculty or postdocs. Of the 150 or so graduate students, six were women, five of them only in their second year. The women formed the Women in Physics (WIP) group, still going strong four decades later. The changes—and similarities--since WIP began will be reflected upon in an anniversary celebration, the Cornell Women in Physics and Related Fields All-Class Reunion, to be held Sat., Oct. 15. The keynote speaker will be Laura Greene MS ’80, PhD ‘84, chief scientist of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, president-elect of the American Physical Society and a founding member of WIP.

Greene says WIP was “really magical. I’m not sure I would have gotten through graduate school without this group. Grad school is really trying and it’s important to have people you can trust and rely on.”

Patti Sparks, MS ’78, PhD ’83, a WIP founder, recalls that at every meeting of WIP one person would practice giving a talk while the others practiced asking questions and offering feedback. These meetings helped the women develop important skills, says Sparks. “Even now, a small fraction of the questions at physics meetings are asked by women.”

Although some of the faculty didn’t quite understand why the women needed their own groups, says Sparks, the department was extremely supportive of WIP. “They gave us some money, but we never got a chance to spend it,” she says with a laugh. “Every time we came up with something the chair [Douglas Fitchen] would say, ‘save your money, we’ll pay for it.’”

Professor of Physics Ritchie Patterson ‘81 applied to Cornell in 1979 partly, she says, because of the physics department’s reputation for being good for women, to which WIP contributed. At the time, about 5% of physics graduate students in the U.S. were female; by 2008, that percentage had climbed to 20%.

“WIP organizations can make an enormous difference in inspiring young women to continue in physics, and science obviously benefits enormously from realizing that potential,” says Patterson. “Society continues to give messages to girls that they’re not as capable and brains are not their thing, so being in a group that’s encouraging can make a difference.”

When Patterson was chair of the physics department, she established a system of faculty mentors for female and minority students, appointing Teaching Support Specialist Jenny Wurster and Associate Professor of Physics Julia Thom-Levy as work-life mentors. “Students need someone they can turn to for advice, or just someone to listen,” she explains. As advocates for women students and resources for help and conversation, it was a natural extension of Wurster and Thom-Levy’s duties to support WIP by taking over its organizing functions.

Today’s much larger group of WIP participants has grown beyond graduate students to include female faculty, students, and staff from physics, astronomy, applied engineering physics, biophysics, as well as other related fields.

“We do networking outside the department, because it’s important for students to be exposed to people in other fields; each person’s experience is so limited,” says Thom-Levy. This cross-department outreach was more essential when WIP first started, because of the lack of female physics faculty and postdocs, “but it still has an important function.”

The current incarnation of WIP still hosts lunches during the semester and when there’s a female physics speaker on campus, she’s invited to speak to WIP. Though topics like work-life balance are often discussed, Thom-Levy says that the WIP conversation is about science in general, and also addresses practical questions like how to find a research group.

A few years ago, undergraduate students felt a need for their own group, says Thom-Levy, so they could be mentored by other undergraduates who had made it through four years and who could answer questions about courses. The initiative was led by Brenna Mockler ’16.

Kaiwen Zheng ’18, current president of the undergraduate WIP, says encountering the group as a sophomore was one of the factors that convinced her to major in physics. It enabled her to meet other women students in physics and gave her a sense of community, and “made me feel more comfortable with the major,” she says.

"We have a lot of work to do to raise awareness around inclusivity, but I really think there’s good will,” says Thom-Levy, adding that many men at Cornell have been important allies, such as Jeevak Parpia, professor of physics and former chair. “I believe that we are on a trajectory to more diverse STEM departments at Cornell.”

Other groups at Cornell also support women in STEM fields, such as the Graduate Women in Science Ithaca Chapter and the Society of Women Engineers @ Cornell.

For more information about the WIP reunion, see http://cornellwip.com/.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences