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Students Attend Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

Pittsburgh to Host Conference Next Year

Nine physics undergraduate students attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), Jan. 18-20, 2019. They traveled to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) to experience a professional conference, receive information about graduate school and professions in physics, and network with other women in physics of all ages.

Over the course of the conference, attendees were treated to plenary talks from women professionals, workshops on how to craft academic resumes and personal statements, panel discussions on careers from women in different areas of physics on how their degrees have supported them, and a tour of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. A handful of students were invited to give oral presentations to their fellow attendees, including physics senior and president of Carnegie Mellon’s Women in Science club Zhiyao (Olivia) Li.

Physics graduate student Rebecca Rapp also made the trek to TCNJ to promote Carnegie Mellon’s graduate program in physics to prospective students.

“It was incredibly rewarding to help moderate discussions at meals, answer questions about graduate school and offer my advice (or) input where appropriate, much like older graduate students did for me just a few years ago,” she said.

The Department of Physics is gearing up to host a CUWiP of its own next year. Partnering with the University of Pittsburgh, Washington & Jefferson College and Duquesne University, the department will bring 250-300 undergraduate physics majors who identify as women to Pittsburgh for three days, Jan. 17-19, 2020.

Twelve of these conferences are held every January, making it one of the largest conferences of its kind in the country, but this will be the first time Pittsburgh has had the opportunity to host.

“It has been shown to be an effective tool in getting women into physics and helps with retention,” said Special Lecturer Diane Turnshek.

As the conference nears, excitement in the department is increasingly palpable.

“Meeting other women (at the 2019 conference) who were either going through what I had gone through or who had already gone through it was both reassuring and inspiring,” said sophomore Aria Salyapongse. “I cannot wait until we can host our own CUWiP and bring together another wonderful sea of women.”

■ Theresa Gabrielli

A Meeting to Remember

Ph.D. candidate Dacen Waters attended the 69th annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Held on Lake Constance, Germany, the meeting is a chance for young scientists to meet and mingle with the mavens behind some of science’s greatest discoveries.

This year’s gathering brought together 39 Nobel Laureates and 580 scientists from 89 countries. The program is packed with a number of large events such as lectures, panel discussions and master classes that allow attendees to hear from the Laureates about their discoveries and their careers and explore a wide range of current topics in physics.

For example, Waters participated in a master class on topology, the mathematical study of shapes and space, which recently has begun to provide unique insights into the physics of materials.

Topology is a rising star in condensed matter physics, Waters’ area of research. His work uses scanning tunneling microscopy to explore two-dimensional materials. Depending on how 2D materials are arranged, it can change the properties and functions of those materials. Scientists believe that understanding topological materials and how to engineer them could eventually lead to big advances in quantum computing.

The meeting also featured a number of smaller, more informal events.

“The whole conference is difficult to convey. It’s a very unique experience,” said Waters in describing the smaller gatherings like Q&A sessions, Laureate Lunches and Science Walks that let the scientists pick the Laureates brains in more intimate settings.

Some of the most memorable moments for Waters included attending a Laureate Lunch with Konstantin Novoselov, who received the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his co-discovery of graphene, and meeting Duncan Haldane, a prominent condensed matter theorist who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for his work on topological phases of matter.

“Being able to listen to them and talk about what is going on in the field right now and tell them about my own work was an amazing experience,” said Waters.

The most impactful takeaway, Waters noted, was the inspiration the meeting invited. Many of the speakers, including the keynote from Australian Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, encouraged attendees to play an active role in confronting today’s societal issues.

“As scientists, we bring particular skills and a unique way of thinking about the world, and we should think about how that intersects with acting as a global citizen. We have a responsibility to act on things, such as politics and climate change.”

■ Emily Payne

With Dacen Waters

In addition to his work as a graduate student in the department, Waters is president of Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate Student Assembly (GSA). He’s been advocating on behalf of his fellow graduate students since 2016 and has been heavily involved in updating and enacting the GSA’s strategic plan.
What are the biggest issues facing graduate students?
CMU is a very decentralized institution, which has its benefits but is also the root of some of the major problems facing graduate students. Ph.D. stipend levels vary wildly across the university, health insurance costs are handled differently even within colleges, advising practices are not standardized, the list goes on.
What is on your agenda as president?
I’d like to make progress toward improving mentorship training and practices because the relationship between graduate students and their mentors disproportionately affects students. Second, I’d like to see more attention turned to improving the experience of master’s students, academically and from a personal wellbeing perspective. The response to the growth of master’s students in the past decade has not been enough to meet their needs. Lastly, I want to advocate for the financial stability of Ph.D. students, which comes down to a livable minimum stipend level and a means at the university or college level to cover the rapidly increasing costs of health insurance.
What inspired you to get involved in GSA?
I started out as a Physics Department Representative in 2016. I wasn’t sure what GSA did at the time and mainly took the role as a leadership position within the department. Then national events spurred me to organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for the March for Science. After that, I became involved in the GSA External Affairs Committee and decided to run for an executive position. I served as the vice president of communications in 2017-18 and was heavily involved in the three-year update to the GSA Strategic Plan. Then I took a year off, but I realized that I missed being involved. So, I ran for president for 2019-20. I thought that I was uniquely positioned with my previous experience to advance the vision laid out in our updated Strategic Plan.
What is the hardest challenge facing you in your role?
The hardest challenge that the GSA Executive Committee continues to face is that the scope of our role is huge. The needs of the graduate student population are diverse and wide-ranging. We serve not only as one of the primary event planners for the entire graduate student community but also as advocates on many issues. Our advocacy efforts are not just on campus but also at the local, state and national levels. Therefore, the hardest challenge in my role is prioritization; (in GSA) we’re all striking a balance between meeting our responsibilities as elected representatives and the fact that we all have full-time jobs as researchers and educators.
What lasting impact do you hope to have on CMU students?
The GSA 10-Year Strategic Plan lays out a vision for an improved wholistic graduate student experience at CMU. If I, along with the rest of the GSA Executive Committee, can make a significant step towards fulfilling that vision, I will consider my time as president a success. Some of the issues that we tackle are small, things that can be accomplished in a semester or year. The vast majority, though, are cultural or institutional changes that take years to overcome, so I hope that my team will be a small but important part of meeting that challenge.
What is the best thing about being a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon?
My favorite thing about being a graduate student here has been the incredible people I have met along the way. I have lifelong friends, from multiple walks of life, who are spreading out all over the world as I approach the end of my time here.