APS News

Sarachik Outlines Priorities for Society in 2003

Editor's Note: Myriam Sarachik (City College of New York) assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2003. In an interview with APS NEWS, she discusses her priorities and concerns for the Society during her presidential tenure and beyond.

Q: In some respects, the APS is operating in a vastly changed national and global context since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Has this impacted the Society's activities and priorities?

A: Despite how much the world has changed since September 11, I think the fundamental mission of APS remains the same. For example, we still need to continue to make the case for the importance of science in general, and for the physical sciences in particular. Physics is a fundamental science. It drives and informs many of the advances in other fields, for example, medical instrumentation such as MRIs, X-rays, CT scans. The technology that has shaped our world originated in fundamental discoveries made by physicists in their quest to understand how nature works.

So we have to persuade the public and our policy makers that continued investment in science - including fundamental research - is absolutely essential for the future of the nation. The APS Washington office has been increasingly effective in making the case. And it's also gratifying that we've succeeded in involving more of our members in these efforts. We hope very much to increase that participation further.

Q: One of the issues you cited in your candidate's statement was the increased specialization of physics, and the need for more unity in the field. Why is this so important?

A: That has been one of my serious concerns, because the field has divided itself into smaller and smaller subgroups that often don't communicate with each other very well. But we're all physicists with common backgrounds and interests, regardless of subfield and regardless of whether we work in industry, academia or government labs. I would dearly love to establish better communication between us and re- establish a sense of community. Communication is particularly important since so much of today's exciting research is at the interface between disciplines, for example, biology and physics.

The APS recent workshop on opportunities for physicists in biology was extremely successful. The Society also helped establish a consortium of scientific societies to work to increase science funding which has met with considerable success. There is great strength in unity. If the physics community were more united, and united in turn with all the sciences, including the life sciences, we would represent a very strong force indeed.

Q: What are some of the prevailing current issues that require the Society's attention?

A: There are a number of issues that have come up recently. One issue concerns several recent instances of scientific fraud, which many of us thought could not happen in our field. These have prompted a careful re-examination and strengthening of our guidelines for professional conduct. Another issue is that our foreign students and colleagues are now encountering a great deal more difficulty in obtaining visas in a timely way. This has become a very serious problem for many of our graduate programs. The APS Office of International Affairs has labored very hard on this, but it's been difficult to get a handle on the problem. It's not clear how to access the people who are making the decisions, especially in light of changed circumstances and with a new administration that espouses a very different philosophy from the previous administration.

A third issue just on the horizon is proposed new rules to classify the results of scientific research. These rules will affect the exchange of information, which we all recognize is essential for scientific progress. There is a move towards categorizing some work as sensitive but not classified, for example. What does that mean? What are the consequences?

Who's going to make the decisions, and how is that going to be handled? I think this is going to be a big issue for us. We strongly believe that communication between scientists everywhere should serve as a bridge between us. But we do live in a very altered world. I think the threat of terrorism and terrorist activities is something we must take very seriously. The APS has formed a Task Force on Countering Terrorism to survey the current activities in this area and to help identify problems for which physicists can find solutions (See story on page 5). We need to inform our government leaders how we can help them deal with these problems.

Q: There are also ongoing concerns about the future workforce in physics, particularly the need to attract more young people to the field.

A: The APS has been quite active in this area through numerous initiatives in the area of education. But more needs to be done. We need to spread the message that physics is very exciting. It's a fundamental science that drives many other things. It is particularly important that we continue to apply resources to our ongoing efforts to involve women and minorities in physics.

There has been some progress regarding women but again, more needs to be done. And we need to redouble our efforts to interest members of minority groups to study physics and to join our ranks. We've been relatively unsuccessful at that.

Q: As a successful woman in physics, when did you first become interested in the subject, and what made you decide to make it your career? And what advice would you give to other women who would like to study physics?

A: To be honest, I don't really know what drew me. I was interested in a number of things, and I was trying to choose between them: music, languages, math, and literature. Physics was the toughest subject I had ever tried to do, and in the beginning I had a great deal of difficulty with it. It was interesting and it was a challenge, and I decided that was what I was going to do in my life. It took some time, and hard work, but eventually I did very well. My advice to other women is: if you like it, don't let anything or anyone talk you out of it. But, be prepared to work hard.

Q: You are only the third woman to become APS president in the Society's 100-plus-year-history, about to be followed by a fourth, Helen Quinn, in 2004. You've been involved with the APS for many years, but why did you decide to take on the presidency, with its substantial time commitment?

A: It is a big commitment but I felt that it was an important thing for me to do. I would urge all physicists in all subfields and in all sectors to join the Society because the APS represents us all. The physics community needs to stay in touch with us and I urge APS members to inform us of their concerns and needs, and to play an active role in the Society's affairs. I was given a special opportunity to serve the APS when I was asked to run for president. And I'm delighted have the opportunity to do so.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette