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The Daily Tar Heel

This research symposium encouraged women in physics to stay in physics

Carolina Women in Physics held its second annual Women in Physics Research Symposium on Tuesday in Phillips Hall. The event gave undergraduate researchers the opportunity to share the projects they have been working on with faculty, in classes and through independent studies. 

The scope of the projects ranged from new methods for electrode synthesis for batteries to how the solar system would react after the entry of a hypothetical new planet. 

After the five featured projects were presented during a poster session, the event hosted a few guest speakers, including the two current advisers of WiP and a past president of the organization. The symposium also displayed artwork and quotes from the WiP participants about their journeys as female physicists. 

“I think most people’s experience in physics features doubt,” said Samantha Pagan, co-president of WiP. “I have certainly gone through periods where mine was extensive. In WiP, we often talk about imposter syndrome, but I found that did not always make my questioning disappear.” 

Aside from allowing undergraduate researchers to practice presenting and getting feedback on their work in a welcoming environment, the symposium also aimed to encourage women to stay in the physics major, participate in research and get involved with the Department of Physics and Astronomy. 

According to the American Physical Society, less than 20 percent of doctoral degrees in physics were awarded to women in 2017. The low retention rate of women in physics could be due to childbearing and feelings of being unwelcome or unappreciated, Pagan said. 

“It’s the systematic disparities between how we treat men and women that lead to the big discrepancies in numbers,” said Isabella Ford, the director of outreach for WiP. “It’s basically just society saying that physics isn’t a feminine career, or you can’t have a physics degree and also have a family, have kids and pursue a Ph.D.” 

The underrepresentation of women in physics during early education has manifested into dwindling percentages of women in the collegiate and graduate levels, Ford said. 

“It’s always hard to look around a room and see that you’re not represented in the room and to feel like you’re less or that you have to prove yourself because of your gender or your identity,” Ford said.

Nick Konz, a junior physics and mathematics major, noticed his physics classes at UNC do tend to have a male majority, although the ratio of women to men is not as significant as what he witnessed in high school. Konz said this is because media has made physics appear to be a male-dominated field, championing scientists like Albert Einstein over their female counterparts like Marie Curie. However, Konz observed that his female peers are not treated differently by his professors. 

“I think having more female role models who have been through all of this and seeing that everything worked out for them would be a way to encourage females to stay as a physics major,” said Rebecca Li, a presenter at the symposium.

WiP has not narrowed their scope to just women. In the future, the club hopes to branch out to become more inclusive of minorities, people of different sexual orientations and people who don’t identify with the female gender category, Ford said. Through acting as a support network for underrepresented groups in the physics major, WiP will help diversify the thoughts and perspectives of the field, Ford said. 

“Events like this help to bring together women who share the same interests and are looking to pursue the same things in their careers,” Ford said. “It creates a community where we can support each other and help each other through our day-to-day struggles and also the struggles of the major.”

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