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The banquet speech, “A Life Not in Physics,” by California news science and weather reporter Brian Hackney captured the spirit of innovative careers in physics at this year’s annual meeting of the California Section of the APS. The meeting, which took place November 2-3, 2012 in San Luis Obispo, took as its guide one of the missions of the APS sections: to increase communication between professions in academic physics and professions in fields allied to physics.
“We’ve definitely taken to heart the aspect of bringing together people who don’t necessarily interact at the national meetings,” said Lynn Cominsky, the section’s chair-elect and chair of physics and astronomy at Sonoma State University. “One of the unique aspects of our annual meetings is our career panel, which focuses on a subfield of non-academic jobs.”
The topic of this year’s career panel was aerospace science, featuring speakers from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, the first private company to dock at the International Space Station. “They were treated like rock stars–and almost mobbed by the students,” said Cominsky, “it was very exciting.”
Previous career panels have focused on medical physics and how to get a job in a start-up company.
Students are at the focus of the California Section, whose name belies its span of California, Nevada, and new-inductee Hawaii. The California Section was proposed and founded in 2001 under the leadership of then APS Executive Officer Judy Franz, who sought to provide opportunities for the large number of physicists in California to present their research outside the national meetings. At the time, the national meetings were rarely hosted away from the east coast, explained Daniel Cebra, the founding section chair and professor at the University of California, Davis. Today, the California section is the largest of the nine sections of the APS.
From its founding, one of the primary goals was to offer students and junior scientists the opportunity to present and talk, said Cebra. “For me [as a professor], it was incredibly valuable because I could have my students drive and carpool to the meeting, which reduced travel costs and enabled more students to attend,” he said.
The section is able to provide travel and housing reimbursement for every student who gives a talk, dramatically increasing the opportunity for junior graduate students and undergraduate students to attend. Of this year’s 178 attendees, half were undergraduates. “We hope to encourage students to learn how to give talks and provide mentoring and networking opportunities for them as they embark on their careers,” said Cominsky.
“I really think the APS section works beautifully in California because it brings the three levels of higher education in California together,” Cebra said. Higher education in California has three kinds of schools: the University of California schools, the California State schools–which do not grant PhDs–and the Community Colleges, which offer the first two years of higher education to twenty-eight percent of University of California graduates and over fifty percent of California State graduates (data from the California community colleges chancellor’s office).
“For higher education in California to work well, and for physics in California to work well, the students in the Community Colleges and California State schools need to know the research going on at California State and University of California schools and make contacts,” Cebra said.
“I was tremendously impressed when I went to this year’s section meeting at CalPoly,” he said, “this is the vision I hoped for when I pushed to get the section started.”
In the future, the section hopes to draw an even larger membership from the California State and Community Colleges and offer more junior graduate students from the University of California schools the opportunity to present. Cominsky notes, “These friendships that you make as an undergraduate or graduate are the people you’ll end up sharing your professional life with.”
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Editor: Alan Chodos