Northwest Section Links US and Canadian Physicists
By Mary Catherine Adams
Before free long-distance and the Internet connected people, physicists in the Pacific Northwest established a way to keep in touch despite the geographical separation of mountains and the political separation of an international border. In the 1960s, physicists from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the University of Washington in Seattle organized an annual meeting which rotated between the universities as a way to keep up with what their peers were doing.
“To some extent, the Northwest [section] is a revival of that spirit,” but with more modern communication, said former section Chair Erich Vogt. A founder of Canada’s TRIUMF national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, Vogt was the section’s first chair-elect when it was created in 1998 and is back for another round, now serving again as chair-elect.
The Northwest section is unique for being the only cross-border section. In fact, the first meeting was held at UBC, said the University of Washington’s Ernest Henley. A former executive committee officer and former APS president who, along with Vogt, was instrumental in creating the section, Henley called the cross-border relationship “appropriate” because about a fifth of APS members are foreigners.
“They claim we should call this the Southwest [section],” Brian Milbrath, the section’s vice chair, said of its Canadian members. Comprising the US states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, the Northwest section has over 1200 members.
“It’s been a very strong collaboration between larger and smaller schools,” said Thomas Olsen, the section’s secretary and treasurer. Meetings have been held at large state schools and also at smaller colleges, like Lewis & Clark in Portland, and Whitman College, in Walla Walla. The section has also been good for students from smaller schools that might not have graduate programs, said Janis McKenna, a former executive committee officer from the UBC.
Still, the region’s vast size sometimes makes it hard for students to attend. Reaching a meeting in Wyoming, for example, is a challenge for those in northern British Columbia and Alaska. The executive committee encourages professors and students to pile into vans and make a road trip out of attending a meeting.
The section also provides $100-per-person travel grants and inexpensive meeting accommodations for students. Undergraduate and graduate students have taken advantage of the opportunity, outnumbering non-student attendees for at least one meeting.
“Students have been pretty creative and keen to come,” McKenna said. She remembers one group of about six students who applied for something like $80 in travel grants for the group. “They were going to camp,” and asked for enough money to cover the campsite fees, the former officer said. “We gave them some more.” Other officers told similar stories of driving over mountain ranges with a car full of physics students bound for the meeting.
Last year, the section moved its annual meeting from the spring to the fall because spring meetings can conflict with the larger APS annual meetings and with graduation schedules. Having a meeting in the fall, though, is also problematic. This year, the organizers had to wait until the PAC-12 Conference announced their schedule before setting the date.
“You cannot have a meeting the same weekend as a football game,” Past Chair Michael Miller said. “Every hotel within 50 miles is full.” The section will host its thirteenth annual meeting Oct. 20 –22 at Oregon State University when the Beavers will be out of town challenging the Washington State University Cougars in Seattle.
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