Carnegie Mellon University
August 25, 2020

IDEAs for Change

Department of Physics joins APS network to strengthen its equity, diversity and inclusion

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Mellon College of Science
  • 412-268-9982
Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Physics has been selected to join the American Physical Society's Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA). The effort to join the alliance was led by Professor of Physics Rachel Mandelbaum.

APS-IDEA aims to create a collaborative network working to improve equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) across the physics community. Supported by the APS Innovation Fund, representatives from physics departments, laboratories and research collaborations were selected to participate in APS-IDEA.

Broadly, APS-IDEA asks members to establish a community to transform "the culture of physics." By creating this network, departments can work together and learn from each other to identify effective, research-based practices to improve their EDI efforts.

The network offers a platform from which institutions can build strong, structural change by involving people whose identities are marginalized and by sharing leadership at every level, from students all the way up to faculty and senior leadership.

"Improving the inclusiveness of the environment, equity of resources and opportunities and diversity requires effort and engagement at all levels in a department," said Mandelbaum.

The platform also recognizes that effecting long-lasting change takes time. Another one of the main goals, said Mandelbaum, is to help departments develop an actionable and strategic 10-year plan for EDI.

Mandelbaum wanted to be involved in APS-IDEA because she sees improving the inclusiveness of the department and the field as a way of fixing something that shouldn't be happening. "It makes me particularly sad that I'm still supporting young women who face obstacles just because they are women," she said of her own experience as a senior woman in the field. "A more inclusive culture would be to all of our benefit."

A Long-Standing Problem

Physics has long had problems in diversity, noted the APS. Women, people of color and people with disabilities are vastly underrepresented. And a lack of data prevents physics organizations from understanding the representation among the LGBT+ community and other ethnic groups such as Arab Americans, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians.

Members of underrepresented groups can face serious issues such as marginalization, harassment and discrimination because of their identities, further keeping them out of the field. Representation is a first important step in making sure people are not only a part of a community but welcome in that community. "People need to feel like they belong," said Mandelbaum.

Ready for Change

Over the last few years, the Department of Physics has dedicated a lot of energy to improving its own culture. In May, the department formed an internal EDI committee, comprising faculty, including Mandelbaum, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates. The committee will be heavily involved in disseminating resources and enacting practices from APS-IDEA within the department. The group Constructive Interference, started in 2016, supports women and minorities, providing opportunities for connection and discussion and advocating for inclusive practices. In January 2020, the department co-hosted a regional APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. And faculty and students have long been dedicated to STEM outreach through programs like Breakthrough Pittsburgh and Physics Concepts Outreach.

Additionally, when Department Head Scott Dodelson arrived at CMU in 2017, he opened faculty meetings to graduate students, postdocs and staff, giving them a stake in departmental discussions, committees and decision making. And he listened when CMU's Women in Science organization advocated for female physics professors to teach introductory physics courses - previously students weren't taught by a female physics professor until the second semester of their sophomore year.

But there are areas where the department struggles. The numbers of underrepresented minorities are low. And like many physics departments, the fraction of women decreases as you go up in seniority, said Mandelbaum. Identifying strategies to improve undergraduate and graduate representation and support of people of color and women in the department will be an important goal for the committee.

"The unfortunate reality is that Rachel and so many others have run into impediments when simply trying to do physics. The good news is that she and others on the committee are motivated to help us change," said Dodelson. "Simply put: We recognize that we need to change, and I am optimistic that we will."

On a wider scale, participating in the network is of value not only to the Physics Department but to the Mellon College of Science as a whole. The basic foundations and resources of APS-IDEA will likely be relevant to the college's own EDI efforts. "We're really eager to coordinate effectively with MCS and the other science departments," said Mandelbaum. "Once we start developing plans, we'll be looking for good connections we can make across the university."