The Only Woman in the Room

by the “A Day in the Life” Editorial Board

Most people probably suspect that physicists tend to be male.  The most well-known personalities in physics, both past and present, with the exception of Marie Curie, are men, from Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman to Carl Sagan to today’s Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Most of the physicists portrayed on the popular television show “The Big Bang Theory” are men.  But is this an accurate portrayal?  Is physics still mostly male?

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The famous 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons.
A message to Marie Curie – the only woman in the photo – you go girl!

Yes, it is.  While many other STEM fields have seen an improvement in gender balance in recent decades, the number of women entering physics has been rising much more slowly.

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Source: “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” National Science Foundation.

The OSU Physics Department is not atypical in this regard.  Here, there were four women out of 48 students who graduated with physics bachelor degrees in 2013.  The entering class of 48 physics graduate students included 12 women last year.  Out of approximately 55 professors, five are women.  Three of those were only hired in the past four years, and Prof. Connolly is the first female professor in experimental physics in the history of the department.

With such a small female-to-male ratio, at some point on a typical day a woman in physics often sees herself alone in a room full of men.  The first time that this happens in a young woman’s educational path, it can have a tremendous effect on how she views herself, physics, and her place in it, often very unexpectedly.  We would like to share our memories of the first time we were the only woman in the room along our physics path and the effect that it had on us.

Amy Connolly

I went to Purdue University for college knowing that I liked math and unsure what I would do once I graduated.  I took physics classes because I had done well in physics in high school and enjoyed it.  However, I just didn’t see myself as a scientist.  I had watched a lot of Bill Nye The Science Guy and Julius Sumner Miller (“Physics is my business!”), but I didn’t feel like one of them.

I was a sophomore in college the first time that I was the only woman in a class, and it was an Intro to Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) course with only about eight students.  I looked around and saw that I was the only woman, and it was such a mix of emotions.  I nearly panicked, while being really surprised at my response.  All kinds of questions went through my mind.  How on earth did I get here?   Can I possibly pass this class?  Do these guys already know everything about E&M while I know nothing?  If I take the class and don’t do well, am I doing a disservice to women everywhere?  Again, how did I get here?

I was very upset when I went home that day.  Now it seems so silly that I could have possibly thought that the guys in that class knew more about E&M than me.  That’s why we were all taking the class!  I think it even seemed silly to me then, but I couldn’t help but think it.

But I told myself I couldn’t quit then, I had to give it a shot.  So I studied hard for that class, learning the subject backwards and forwards, working every problem in the book.  I think I was overcompensating for this feeling that I had some sort of disadvantage.  As a result I got the highest grade in the class, and in the process I became hooked on physics.  I saw the math that I loved in a new light, as it so beautifully guides our understanding of the fundamental laws of nature.

But could I be a scientist?  The professor for that class encouraged me and helped me find a research position at Argonne National Lab that summer, where I got to participate in a beam test to calibrate a detector component for the ZEUS experiment.  I traveled to Brookhaven Lab and worked all-night shifts with my co-workers from Argonne, using the relativity equations that I had just learned that year, and changing the beam energy myself.  It was really fun.

After that summer I decided to go after the goal of becoming a physicist, and here I am.  At times when I am the only woman in the room I still have that question popping into my head “How did I get here?” but now I know that I got here by working hard at doing what I love, having luck on my side at pivotal moments in my career, and continuing on during those times when I felt very out of place.

Megan Harberts

The first time I remember being the only woman in the room came early in my science career.  As I have written previously, I was very active in science activities in elementary and middle school.  One of the things I enjoyed the most in middle school was Science Olympiad.  When I got to high school, I found out there was a team and started going to the after school practices.

However, I was the only girl and the only freshmen who was interested in the Science Olympiad team at the time.   No one excluded me directly, but it wasn’t as much as fun as when I was middle school. This was the first time I felt like I didn’t fit in with a group other people interested in science.

Since I was just starting out a new school, I was trying out lots of new things, including the swim team, which it turns out practiced after school at the same time as Science Olympiad.  I considered doing both, but since I didn’t really like going to Science Olympiad I just joined the swim team, which I did for four years and led me into my favorite sport, water polo.

I don’t feel like there has been a negative impact on my career because I didn’t join my high school Science Olympiad team.  I still took 5 different science classes in high school and decided to become a physics major in my junior year.  I do feel like because I encountered this experience so early it didn’t faze me much when I got to college where there were only a couple of girls in my physics classes of 30 people. I also came from a family where science was heavily emphasized.  My sisters and I have all ended up majoring in science in college, but I can see how somebody who doesn’t come from such supportive background might encounter a similar experience to me and let that feeling of not fitting in turn them away from science.

Personally this is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently: there are advantages I had growing up that helped me become a scientist and not everybody has those same opportunities.  Therefore all scientists should really consider how we can include people who don’t come from the same background as us and how we can encourage people of different genders, races, and economic status to become a part of the science community.

Meredith Meyer

I am still in high school at Columbus School for Girls, and so far the only certainty I have about college is that it will be co-ed. I have always been in classes with only women in the room, so I am a little anxious to experience a classroom with a majority male or all-male population.

Since I’ve grown up in an all-girl community, the first time I was the only girl in the room was pretty recently. During my summer research project, which I loved and which didn’t expose me to any discouragement, I saw, first-hand, that the statistics hadn’t lied. I was the only woman working in the physics group that summer.

I knew that women had worked in that group in the past, but that summer when we gathered for our weekly meetings, I was the only female. I wondered where all the girls were and why I was alone. I was having a lot of fun, and I thought, “Why wouldn’t more women want to be a part of this research?” At first, I was a little angry at my gender: why weren’t they there? However, I later thought about my fellow females, and that they haven’t been as lucky as I have.

I know that I am an irregularity: for the most part I’ve never really any negative experiences when it comes to math or science.  Looking around the room and seeing only men made me feel lucky that I’ve never had to face the underestimation and discouragement that I know a lot of women face every day, a factor that probably caused me to be the only woman in the room that summer.

My experience as the only woman in the room was eye opening for me, and I am glad that I experienced it amongst a group of really encouraging people who believed in me. I know that the next time I may not be so lucky, and I hope that when that next time does come around, I won’t give up; I’ll only try harder.

Nancy Santagata

My story must first begin with a confession: I am actually a chemist that masquerades around as a physicist.  Often my physicist colleagues express surprise upon learning of my true identity, to which I respond with a joke about stealthily sneaking in through an unlocked back door of the department so that I could play with the cool kids.  In my defense, my attempt to major in physics as an undergrad was foiled by the fact that the small private university at which I was a student did not actually offer a physics major.  I instead chose the next best thing, chemistry.

My class of budding chemists at the aforementioned small private university was 83% female, and if I remember correctly, the class after mine was 100% female.  We became a close-knit group, struggling through difficult homework sets and seemingly incomprehensible physical chemistry exams together.  Because the Chemistry Department was so small, I also came to know the female faculty quite well.  Both my professors and my classmates were supportive as I set off to participate in a summer research program hosted by the Chemistry Department at Penn State.  There, my primary mentor was a female graduate student.  I purposely highlight this strong female presence because, surrounded by so many intelligent women, never once in four years did I believe that I was incapable of academic success simply because I was female.

Over the course of my studies, my scientific interests quickly gravitated toward a branch of chemistry (surface chemistry) that is entangled with physics.  As graduation neared, my hunt for potential graduate schools narrowed its focus to a few specific surface chemistry groups whose research was insanely fascinating to me.  In browsing the website of one particular experimental lab, I couldn’t help but notice that every. single. person. was male.  However, in place of feelings of insecurity, intimidation, or doubt, I perceived a challenge.  I wanted to join the group, and I did, because I knew that I could be just as successful as my male peers.

Upon arrival at my new school, I learned that another female had joined the group at the same time, and over the years several others followed.  Graduate school certainly isn’t easy, but we stuck together and each of us achieved our ultimate goal, a PhD.

Fast forward to today.  As a postdoc, my lab mates (all physicists!) informally refer to me as Second-in-Command (only our faculty advisor ranks higher), and in the general chemistry course that I teach, students respectfully address me as Dr. S.  In both environments, I’m completely in my element, and hey, would you look at that, I just happen to be woman.  And so I help manage this blog and lecture on the physics of sports GRASP because I want to show young women that gender isn’t an obstacle to accomplishing your goals.  If I can do it, then you certainly can too!

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We leave you with an awesome selfie! From left to right: Nancy, Megan, Amy, and Meredith.

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