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Breaking Down Barriers

Zhiyao Olivia Li wasn’t sure she was in the right place when she set foot on Carnegie Mellon’s campus three years ago.

“I had the impression that this school is a lot more rigid and career focused. I didn’t think it was a good match,” said Li, who sought the freedom to explore both scientific and creative pursuits.

Her mindset quickly changed at orientation when she received an invitation to attend a talk for potential physics majors. There she met Kunal Ghosh, assistant head for undergraduate affairs in the Department of Physics.

“He gave this amazing talk about how when we are kids, we are so curious, always asking why, but when we grow up, people stop being curious. They focus on their job, on money, on their life. But we are physicists. We refuse to grow up, because we are always asking why,” said Li, now a rising senior physics major and mathematical sciences and photography minor. It was at that moment that Li thought physics, and Carnegie Mellon, was the perfect place for her to explore and question and create things.

Pursuing physics hasn’t always been easy for Li. She’s encountered a few obstacles, including breaking down barriers that women in STEM often face. These obstacles come from a variety of sources — from society, from peers, from oneself and even from the institutions to which one belongs.

“I want to encourage people to be free in their way of thinking — not to worry about their ability or about technical things — and know they can make things happen. I hope the younger people will pass that spirit down and grow the club their own way.” — Olivia Li

According to data from the National Science Board, women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the United States; however, they only account for 29% of the science and engineering workforce. Broken down further, only 11% of physicists and astronomers are women. It is known that young girls often lose interest in STEM as they get older. This happens for a variety of reasons, such as peer pressure, lack of role models and misperceptions of STEM careers.

When asked about her own experience, Li said she was lucky to have grown up in a nontraditional household where her parents have strongly supported her interest in science. She didn’t really think about herexperience as a woman in science until she attended an American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Princeton University in her first year.

Meeting hundreds of female physicists from across the country at the conference was exciting, but it was hearing their stories and experiences of the biases and inequalities that women face in math and science that opened Li’s eyes. A spark ignited in Li to address these issues.

She joined Carnegie Mellon’s Women in Science (WiS) club, a new and relatively small club on campus founded to bring a strong community of support and resources to women studying the sciences. Her sophomore year, she earned a spot on the executive board as secretary and directed her energies to helping the organization flourish. 

For her first big project, she initiated an Underrepresented Figures in Science series, inviting Physics’ Danielle Leonard, Chemistry’s Gizelle Sherwood and Mathematical Sciences’ Daniela Mihai to speak about their lives and their career journeys.

In her junior year, Li became president of WiS and took the club to new heights. Through Li and the executive board’s efforts, the club has grown substantially, gaining roughly 20 active members. The club hosts networking events to connect undergraduate students with female faculty members at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. And they have branched out into the community, hosting outreach events at Spring Carnival, the Gelfand Center’s SciTech Festival, Bradford Woods Elementary School and the Carnegie Science Center.

Seeing younger students’ interest and excitement for science showed Li the importance of role models and mentors for women in science early on. She has learned this lesson personally as well.

This year, Li admitted to facing doubts about her place in physics. In particular, she was stressed about the GRE and the graduate school application process. When asked what she wants do, without missing a beat, Li smiles and responds, “I really want to be a professor.”

But, Li is worried about not having found her niche in physics yet. She currently conducts astrophysics research with Professor of Physics Rachel Mandelbaum but feels she hasn’t experienced enough to know what field to specialize in.

Mandelbaum, Li’s research and junior year advisor, reassured her that this is perfectly okay and to look at graduate programs where she can fully explore different areas of physics.

“She helped me realize that it’s a difference in what schools I should be choosing, not a difference in whether I should be doing physics or not,” Li said.

It dawned on Li that this was her first experience having a female role model in her studies. In fact, students aren’t taught by a female physics professor until the second semester of their sophomore year.

WiS relayed this to Department Head Scott Dodelson at the group’s physics networking event; and this fall, Assistant Professors Jyoti Katoch and Diana Parno will teach sections of the introductory experimental physics course. “It was cool to see how fast things improved. Professor Dodelson is very open to people’s advice and he hears what people think,” Li said.

Playing a part in making these changes happen means the world to Li. Knowing that she is making a difference has propelled her forward each step of the way, and she has no plans to stop any time soon.

She has quite a to-do list for her senior year, including expanding WiS’s outreach efforts, starting a mentor-mentee program between undergraduate and graduate students and attending her fourth CUWiP, which will take place on her home turf when Carnegie Mellon hosts a regional CUWiP in January 2020.

Mostly though, Li hopes to inspire students to continue the legacy of WiS for years to come.

♦ Emily Payne