April Showers Bring May Flowers

Meeting Notes

April Showers Bring May Flowers

2018 APS April Meeting and Hope for the Future

Stephanie Williams, SPS Chapter President, University of Maryland

I have a pretty busy schedule, but when I saw the advertisements for the APS  April  Meeting, I knew I had to find a way to go, even though the meeting   started the same day I had to take the physics GRE. The tagline “Quarks to Cosmos” piqued my interest, and as I did more research I realized that this was the main professional conference for those in my field. I also learned that a new PhD  who  used  to work on my research team, Jon Balajthy, would be presenting his work, among others in the field of dark matter detection. There were also multiple sections discussing physics education research (PER) and outreach, which intrigued me.

And so I was off to Columbus, Ohio. I arrived late Saturday evening and, after some sleep, checked in early Sunday, expecting a wonderful day. That is what I got! I met new people and learned about possible areas of research and jobs I had never considered before. There were talks aimed at undergraduates by people in industry jobs that were especially helpful to me. They cleared  up a lot of anxiety I had had about my future, as they affirmed and explained different ways I could continue as a physicist even outside of academia. I went out to a local restaurant at the end of the evening with some people to talk more and just relax and it was amazing. These people had been coming to this conference for years and were catching up with each other as well as advising me on graduate school choices and explaining their research. It was a wonderful example of what my future in physics could be like. We exchanged contact information and have kept in contact since.

The next day, I had the polar opposite experience.

I started the day going to see some of the PER talks and met people from the Access Assembly Network, a university-based program working with graduate and undergraduate students across the country towards a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible STEM community. I work in this network and will be going to their conference in Boulder, Colorado, soon. I spend a lot of time doing outreach, and increasing accessibility and inclusion in STEM is very important to me. These talks were interesting and seemed to set a nice tone for the day to come.

Next, I headed to a talk about Richard Feynman given by Virginia Trimble. I am a fan of the “Trimble Lectures” she endowed in honor of her father and was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about Virginia Trimble and Feynman. I do not know much more about Feynman after Dr. Trimble’s talk, but I do know she  is an explicit opponent of the “Me too” movement. She said that she thought it was a ridiculous movement and often empathized with the men who have been outed for their sexual harassment of women in the workplace. She went on to talk of her liaisons with physicists, including Feynman. She explained how during her time in graduate schools, women were not allowed to live on campus in the dorms, and the stipends they received were never enough to pay for a real apartment. She talked about how she used to model for Feynman, an amateur artist, in exchange for money and physics lessons to get by. Trimble explained, to paraphrase, “Every woman had to do things to get by then. It’s just how it was. But we had a grand time.”

It is impossible to say how each person in the room internalized this information, but the message was essentially that it is acceptable for a faculty member to exchange favors and have an affair with a grad student. What her remarks fail to acknowledge is that Trimble may not know of people who did not have a “grand time” back then because they have since left physics. This lack of acknowledgment of thousands of women’s pain and trauma  in such a public way from a position of power, and from another woman, felt invalidating and alienating in a room full of older men.

I tried to not let that single talk affect me and instead went  to a talk about women in the history of astronomy, which, while interesting, was poorly coordinated, as every one of the speakers talked about the same woman.

Next, I went to a talk in a PER session titled “Privilege and Broadening Participation in Physics.” The speaker was Dr. Lior Burko of Georgia Gwinnett College. Dr. Burko decided to use a public platform, at a nationally acclaimed conference and in a PER section focused on diversity issues, to claim that there were none.

In the talk, Dr. Burko responded to “Unveiling Privilege to Broaden Participation,”1 an article published in the “Race and Physics Teaching’’ special collection of The Physics Teacher. The article attempted to explain why women do not pursue physics degrees or drop out before finishing graduate school. Dr. Burko’s talk consisted of a rebuttal to that article, an article with multiple sources and authors. Burko’s rebuttal, however, had only one source with six data points, used to derive a result that fit his world view. This is bad science. The evidence behind his assertion that women were not leaving the field was six data points from the AIP website detailing how many women had received a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree for three different years. He argued that since the average number of women earning bachelor’s degrees and doctorate degrees over these years was the same, women aren’t leaving physics, and therefore we do not have a problem. However, this does not take into account how many women are leaving programs, how many are coming back to programs, how many are international, how many went into the physics workforce, or how many simply left physics altogether. At this point in the talk, women began to leave the room.

Dr. Burko then went on to explain how microaggressions were a fallacy, or at the very least, not enough of a problem that we should care about it as physicists, as it is not a physics issue. He seemed aggravated by the idea that this was even being discussed in a physics-based forum. All I could think about was how even today at my own school, the women have had to create our own study space to avoid disrespect from male students. We get together to study in the research building, which is not designed for collaborative study, late at night after the professors have left in order to learn in peace. Professors all over the country have been fired for harassing students, asking for explicit favors in exchange for granting the student better grades. But, Dr. Burko insisted, harassment isn’t a problem in physics.

After these talks, I was so uncomfortable that I ended up leaving the conference a day early. I couldn’t stomach being invalidated in my experiences, in the experiences of so many of my female peers, and I did not feel comfortable and welcome. The positive feelings I had from the night before had all but washed away.

Is physics really still this bad? Is this a field I want to be in? Will I have to deal with this kind of rhetoric the rest of my life if I stay? These are the things that cause people to leave. Fighting constantly to be even heard, let alone make a change, is draining, to say the least.

Both Dr. Burko and Dr. Trimble’s2 abstracts are posted online if you would like to explore them for yourself. Dr. Burko also shared his slides.3

I hope to use this avenue to change things for the better. To Dr. Burko and Dr. Trimble, I want to emphasize that just because you have not experienced transgressions does not mean they don’t exist. And in fact, the actions you are taking are further alienating people in the field of physics, which is a physics issue. I urge you to think critically about the things you choose to say in positions of power and how you decide to spend your time on a public platform.
To everyone else who may be reading this, things are changing, and we are the change. People are speaking out against these attitudes and behaviors, including wonderful people I met at the conference, people who stayed behind after each of the talks to discuss and debate with the speakers, people who participate in and help plan inclusive events in physics.

For the first time, this year’s APS April Meeting had a workshop focused on LGBT+ issues and entire seminar sections dedicated to discussing minority issues. People care, and they give me support and inspiration to stay in physics, along with a determination to make it better for the people who will come after me so that in 60 years when another 20-year-old undergrad walks into a conference, they don’t leave thinking “How are things still like this?” Things are changing because people are talking about them and becoming more aware. Do not give up, stand up when you can, and when you don’t have the strength, know that being here is more than support enough. Physics wants you, even if some physicists don’t.

If you are interested in becoming involved in groups focused on increasing access to physics, some resources are listed below. You can also feel free to contact me at swillia7 [at] terpmail.umd.edu.

  1. Women in Physics (WiP): https://www.aps.org/programs/ women/.
  2. Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS): http://sacnas.org/.
  3. Out in STEM (oSTEM) for LGBT+: https://www.ostem.org/.
  4. National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP): https://www. nsbp.org/.
  5. Access Assembly Network: http://accessnetwork.org/ assembly/.

  1. Rachel E. Scherr and Amy D. Robertson, Unveiling Privilege to Broaden Participation, The Physics Teacher 55, 394 (2017), https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/10.1119/1.5003737.
  2. Dr. Virginia Trimble, “Richard Feynman in Song and Story,” http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/APR18/Session/S06.3.
  3. Dr. Lior Burko, “Privilege and Broadening Participation in Physics,” http://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/APR18/Session/U10.8.