Students Are Key at Southeastern Section
By Mary Catherine Adams
Editor’s Note: This is the second of an occasional series of columns highlighting the history and achievement of APS Sections. The first column appeared in October. There are currently nine geographical sections, covering most of the United States and parts of Canada.
Students are at the heart of the Southeastern Section of the APS (SESAPS), and physicists serving in the various chair positions of the section’s executive committee see students’ interests as paramount in the section’s annual meeting.
“What can you do that bigger meetings can’t do?” one asked. Focus on students, was the answer.
This year, at the section’s 77th annual meeting, in Baton Rouge, nearly half of the attendees were undergraduate students.
The section tries to make the meeting student-friendly, Vice Chair Roxanne Springer of Duke University said, giving students the opportunity to interact with physicists in an environment that’s less intimidating than a national meeting.
For Laurie McNeil, the section’s chair-elect from the University of North Carolina, the smaller regional meetings are ideal for students. “It’s the first meeting I take my students to,” she said. “It’s good for them to get the experience of going to a real APS meeting,” without all the pressure of a national meeting, she said.
At this year’s meeting, three popular sessions focused on the relationship between physics and education, including a new session on physics education research. Four speakers, one of them the current SESAPS chair, gave talks on “What can we do about the dearth of qualified high school physics teachers (and high school physics students)?”
The third education-based session addressed the issue of diversity in physics, a discipline of science where minority groups are significantly underrepresented. In this session, David Ernst, the section’s past chair, described how the bridge program he helped to establish ties the masters program at Fisk University, a historically black university, into the PhD program at his own Vanderbilt University.
By establishing what he calls a “great working partnership,” the universities are able to admit students that show promise through hard work and intelligence but who have holes in their academic records because of lack of opportunity early on, giving them the chance to pursue a PhD.
Forty-three minority students have been admitted to the bridge program since its inception in 2004 and 18 have gone on to pursue PhDs at Vanderbilt. About six of those students are expected to graduate in 2011.
“If we add up to three or six a year,” Ernst said, “It’s a significant contribution,” to the 25 or so minority physicists who earn PhDs each year.
Although the annual meetings revolve largely around students, they also give the society the opportunity to celebrate excellence in physics. The section gives out three awards each year, one for teaching, one for research, and one for service. The awards, current chair Paul Cottle of Florida State University said, are a “fascinating snapshot of the region in action.”
In 2010, the awards went to Amer Lahamer, chair of the Berea College physics department in Kentucky, who is making a difference for students with disadvantaged backgrounds in a less-affluent region of the country; Beate Schmittmann, a Virginia Tech physicist doing condensed matter research; and Florida State University’s Kirby Kemper, a nuclear physicist whose work has had an influence across the nation.
“The awards reflect the remarkable range of things physics educators in our region do,” Cottle said.
Although the 2,700-member section that encompasses 10 states in the southeastern US only started giving awards as recently as 1971, it has been active in education since its inception in the 1930s. Some in the section claim that it is the oldest of the APS sections although it was, admittedly, the second section to join the Society. They argue that the southeastern group had existed as an independent physics organization before joining the APS in 1937, making it older than the New England Section, the first to join APS.
The one concern that remains primary to each of the leaders is the future of physics. In upcoming years, section leaders plan to focus increasingly on career development for physics students by reaching out to them at annual meetings.
McNeil wants to remind students of the broad range of career opportunities that lie ahead. Young physicists, she points out, can go on to be video game developers, industrial physicists, science writers, museum curators, high school teachers, technical lawyers, technical salesmen, public outreach proponents and more.
“Everyplace you go, you’ll find a physicist,” McNeil said.