Female physicists change topic from labs to life

Women in Physics is proving the power of the personal narrative.
Through a series of biographical seminars held this spring, WIP has made good on its promise to showcase the accomplishments of female scientists and educate the physics community on relevant issues. The talks are by women about women – yet have attracted and engaged both men and women. And in an environment where only 8 percent of faculty and 13 percent of graduate students are female, that means WIP has turned up the volume on a voice that has been relatively quiet.

Each seminar offers a rare glimpse at the experiences of women in science. In that sense, WIP member and graduate student Rachele Dominguez says they differ from the typical physics talk, centering on research. Discussions sometimes grow intense, as they tend to revolve around life issues rather than academic ones.

The first talk this spring came from Physics Professor Ophelia Tsui, who focused on her career transition from Hong Kong to Boston. Tsui’s path involved undergraduate training in Hong Kong; graduate school and post-doctoral positions in the United States; a faculty position back in Hong Kong; and finally a faculty position at BU. For the many attendees considering jobs abroad, Tsui’s advice was cogent. Anna Swan, joint professor in engineering and physics at BU, spoke in April about her life in science. Swan herself was a product of the Boston University graduate program and offered up a personal narrative of her career path from graduate training to her current position. She furnished students with insight into navigating the field as a female.

Visiting professors also offered their stories, including Professor Marcia Barbosa, a statistical physicist at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil, who chairs the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics WIP group. Theoretical physicist Professor Giulia Pancheri, a member of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy, touched on gender policies and the status of female physicists in the European Union. At a recent speech at the APS meeting in Missouri, she also provided an historical analysis of why there are so few women in physics, including data from both the United States and Europe.

In an effort to pick up on an issue affecting a broader pool of graduate students, WIP also held a seminar on the proposal for a parental leave policy at BU. In March, biology graduate student Elizabeth Ewen discussed the proposal for the graduate student policy, now under review by administration. Ewen is a member of the Biology Graduate Student Association, a founding member of the Women in Biology, and the chair of the Parental Leave Committee for the graduate organization. Her talk, funded by the Physics Department and the Graduate Student Organization, underlined the need for the policy and drew a significant number of male attendees, as the policy will apply to both mothers and fathers. That may reflect the relevance of the group’s activities to the BU community as a whole, as well as the shift taking hold in American family life in recent decades.

Only 3 of 37 BU Physics faculty members and 15 of 115 graduate students are female, percentages that fall slightly below the national averages. Unpublished data from the American Institute of Physics states that 13 percent of physics faculty nationwide were female in 2006, and 14 percent of physics PhD earners were female. A 2005 AIP study also showed that women’s salaries on average were lower than men’s – even when working in the same area for the same amount of time.

It is from that reality that WIP began in earnest last year. The group is a wing of the BU Women in Science and Engineering, developed over the last decade, with roots in workshops that Professor Rama Bansil helped organize at MIT and BU in the early 1990s. But in 2007, it became a formal university organization and made it priority No. 1 to arrange lunchtime seminars that put female scientists front and center.

Of the past semester, Bansil says she is “so proud of what these women have accomplished.” But Dominguez says there is more work to do. Looking ahead, WIP members hope to collaborate with other female science students to found a graduate branch of WISE, allowing WIP to help organize and coordinate efforts to address shared concerns. It also plans to continue its seminars, including greater involvement from men. Physics Professor Gene Stanley is slated to speak next semester.

When asked why it’s critical to pull more women into the field of physics, Dominguez said that adding female faculty “improves the health” of a department. Bringing the number of female physicists closer to the number of males, she said, requires workplace policies related to family and lifestyle that “reflect the way society is already progressing.” She also expressed support for physics diversity in general, saying the inclusion of women and minorities builds on the variety of methodologies and ideas in any department. Science, Dominguez said, should serve society, and therefore be a cross-section of society.

Photos: WIP members Fanny Dufour, Elena Strekalova and Rachele Dominguez.