APS News

Letters to the Editor

Academia Ignores a Major Issue for Women

As the wife of a physics grad student, I hear about the need for attracting more women into the field of physics. I have a specific observation to make regarding one major issue for women in graduate school, especially those in long programs (as physics often is).  That factor is family-building, and it seems to be largely ignored.

It is a truth substantiated in studies (for example “The Shriver Report: A Report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress”) that whereas a male graduate student (or postdoc, or even beyond) can manage to start a family simultaneously with facilitating his career, females find it far more difficult, virtually having to choose one or the other.

The Shriver Report says: “Forty-six percent of female respondents began their graduate studies working toward a faculty position in a research university, but babies changed that, resulting in only 11 percent of new mothers saying they now want to continue on that path. And once again, fatherhood for men similarly situated in graduate studies appears to have less impact. Fifty-nine percent began their doctoral programs planning to pursue a research-intensive academic career and 45 percent still plan to do so.”

In our small, local Christian fellowship, most of the single women members pursuing graduate degrees express the struggle with loneliness, depression, and anxiety over missing out on serious romantic involvement, marriage and children. There is a fear that their chances of ever realizing this aspect of life are diminished by their pursuit of higher degrees and the time it takes from important and limited family-building years.

A 28-year-old single woman, having just defended her doctoral thesis in physics, has roughly seven years to unite with Mr. Right, obtain a stable job, start and nearly conclude building her family. That isn’t much time!! Now, add a two-year postdoc (though many are longer) to the wait time, while our female scientist of great potential seeks a stable research position in a competitive market. This narrows her window down to about five years.

The likelihood is, when she finds that position, the demand for high performance early in the game will lessen her ability to start a family even more. According to the Shriver Report:

“But, as with graduate students, childbirth often derails the scientific ambition of postdoctoral students. Forty-one percent of women graduate student scientists who have babies in the University of California system while working in a postdoctoral position decide not to pursue an academic research career…. Unfortunately, students and postdocs are also sometimes openly discouraged from having children by their mentors, who explain that, as mothers, they will not be considered ‘serious scientists.’ ”

Maybe this is indeed why, or partly why, a childless woman has approximately equal chances with a similarly educated man of snagging a tenure-track position, while a woman with children has 37% lower chances (Survival Analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, op. cit. Shriver Report).

Media coverage has been fairly prolific on women in high-power positions of the business world requiring and finally receiving in some places of work the innovative accommodations necessary for their family-life, but academic institutions have regressed in this area. Twenty years ago my mother was able to take me on campus as a child, and even to class, and complete two degrees in statistics while being a wife and mother simultaneously, but today most universities abound with hostile policies toward children. Policies against children in the classroom for any reason are almost universal.

There are no family-friendly areas of campus; no changing tables in bathrooms; no space to nurse; no place where it feels “okay” for little ones to cry, play, or babble. No other mother of young children and wife to a grad student of my acquaintance feels particularly comfortable on campus either. I can’t answer to women who are grad students with small children, because I rarely if ever meet any. Within the ranks of the department that I have seen, one finds not one female physics student with a child.

I would personally love to go to graduate school (albeit not in physics). I always intended to. And I look forward to the day when a family woman can also realize her academic potential. But not at the expense of my children; greater elasticity of the institution is required, in order to accommodate the basic reality of my womanhood as motherhood. Claiming to desire “diversity” through the presence of women, and yet requiring women to fit the mold of a traditional male student and ignoring other tangible, practical aspects of life distinct to womanhood, eliminates the desired diversity. It might make the numbers look nicer–it doesn’t contribute to the actual flourishing of women in the field.

Keri Haruza
Rochester, NY

Letter Misses the Point Regarding Laser Isotope Separation

The letter in the April APS News by Frank Chen concerning isotope separation gives rather interesting information about activities at UCLA and Livermore’s LLNL. It misses the point that Michael Goldsworthy’s SILEX method for isotope separation by lasers (see Google: SILEX, Silex Systems) is being commercialized by General Electric-Hitachi Global Laser Enrichment (GLE) to produce fuel for carbon–free nuclear power plants in the market. Despite the necessary confidentiality of this technology, the inventors and original developers–Australian-listed company Silex Systems Ltd–said that the efficiency of the SILEX process is far higher than centrifugation, meaning that the capital costs for an equivalent capacity enrichment plant are expected to be about half that for a centrifuge plant. The company has also said that a SILEX plant will still be a very large industrial complex–a point Francis Slakey seems to consistently overlook (APS News Back Page, January 2013). In view of the enormous future potential of energy from nuclear power as fundamentally the only carbon-free base load electricity alternative to coal, the commercialization of this technology should be regarded as a key component of an essential industry for modern society. The related proliferation issue, consistently raised by critics of nuclear power and enrichment technology in particular, has also been discussed by Silex and GLE. Without doubt, the technical and logistical barriers to developing a laser based enrichment technology such as SILEX are infinitely higher than those for centrifuge technology. History has proven this fact over and over again. Billions of dollars have been spent by various governments and organizations around the world trying to develop laser enrichment technology without success–the only exception being the brilliant SILEX innovation from Australia. On the other hand, several countries have already successfully developed centrifuge technology (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and others). Clearly, the SILEX technology represents a significant shift away from proliferation-sensitive technology.

The debate by Frank Chen also reveals the further role played by John Dawson leading to recent developments in the field of laser driven fusion energy. A potential solution may be closer than generally believed, using direct drive laser implosion volume ignition (Laser and Particle Beams, DOI:10.1017/S0263034613000219). This goes back to basic physics questions of electron beam interaction with laser beams as derived from the Kapitza-Dirac effect [Appl. Phys. Letters 102, 141119 (2013)]. It is pleasing to see the success of Alfred Wong recognized. His related early result on the measuring of cavitons generation by laser-induced ponderomotion following on from the Livermore result was pioneering (see Figures 2a and 2b of the review - Proc. of SPIE Vol. 8780 24; DOI:10.1117/12.2017534).

Heinrich Hora
Sydney, Australia

Ed. Note: Perhaps it should be mentioned that, in addition to his success in research, according to the May 9
Los Angeles Times, retired UCLA professor Alfred Wong “has agreed to plead guilty to federal fraud charges and pay almost $1.7 million for turning in false invoices related to nanotechnology research he was performing for the Department of Defense.”       

Definition Given for Proper Affirmative Action

I heartily concur with Meg Urry’s description of equity (Back Page, May 2013 APS News), as “when women of slightly-less-than-world-changing ability succeed as easily as men of similar ability.” This was true in the narrow window within which I received my PhD (l968), but probably not by the time she received hers, nor, perhaps, ever since.

She and I might, however, part company over my definition of the only appropriate form of affirmative action, encouragement, etc: Be sure the barriers look as high to white, upper class males as they do to everybody else.

Virginia Trimble
Irvine, CA

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella