Carnegie Mellon University
December 05, 2017

Physics Students Find Inspiration at Undergraduate Conference for Women

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy

Mellon College of Science students Olivia Zhiyao Li and Aileen Zhai attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Princeton University last winter, supported by the Department of Physics’ Undergraduate Enrichment Fund. The trip was the then first-year students’ first experience at a large professional conference.
 
“I feel like I’ve never been with so many female physics majors. It was a great bonding experience,” said Li.
 
As a program of the American Physical Society, multiple institutions across the United States host a three-day regional CUWiP each January. The goal of CUWiP is to support undergraduate women in physics by providing them with an opportunity to experience a professional conference, receive information about graduate school and professions and meet other women in physics with whom they can share experiences, advice and ideas.

“I realized there is so much out there in physics and that I would be lucky to be a part of it."

The conferences bring together women in physics of all ages. Li said hearing the advice and experiences of junior and senior undergraduates — from their research experiences to things they wish they had done earlier in their studies — was one of the most helpful aspects.
 
“As a first-year student, I just thought, I can do all these things that they are talking about,” said Li.
 
The conference was an eye-opening experience for both Li and Zhai, though in different ways.
 
For Li, the conference ignited a passion for supporting women in science, which led to her joining Carnegie Mellon’s Women in Science club after the conference.
 
“I learned more about the actual existence of inequality issues in math and science,” she said. “Women feel less supported because of a lack of female peers and mentors, and [Women in Science] is a way to offer that support and a place for women to go.”
 
At the time of the conference, Zhai admits to having a hard time in some of her classes and wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue studying physics. Enticed by a tour of the national Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Zhai decided to go despite her worries.
 
She attended workshops on topics ranging from astrophysics to geophysics, toured labs and sat in on talks from university professors that recharged her desire to pursue physics.    
 
“I realized there is so much out there in physics and that I would be lucky to be a part of it. And that’s how I decided to stick to my major,” she said.
 
The conference introduced the young physicists to a number of fields and specializations that piqued their interest. Zhai has long wanted to be an astrophysicist, but she also discovered new topics, such as cold atom physics through a tour of an ultra-cold atom lab, that sparked her interest in branching out to learn about other areas of physics.
 
At the Career and Research Expo, Li said an unexpected encounter with a fellow MCS alumnus, Charles Swanson (S’2011), gave her more confidence in exploring the professional world before heading to graduate school. Swanson, who previously worked at SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturing company, is a second-year student in Princeton’s plasma physics Ph.D. program.
 
“I generally advise that industry can be a fun, profitable and non-binding way of finding whether you really want to go to grad school,” Swanson said of speaking with Li.
 
Now sophomores, Zhai and Li are thankful to have had the opportunity to meet and network with a number of peers and professionals in physics from across the country — so much so that Zhai will attend her second CUWiP at the University of Toledo in January 2018.