APS News

May 2018 (Volume 27, Number 5)

Making Room in Physics for Everyone

By Leah Poffenberger

2018 APS April Meeting, Columbus, Ohio — Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is crucial to ensuring physics is explored by the brightest minds, regardless of gender, race, or LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) identity.

The 2018 APS April Meeting offered several events and sessions on diversity, including a panel discussion on "Best Practices for Establishing a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace," sponsored by the APS Committee on Minorities. Each panelist lent unique perspectives and experiences to the questions that arise around creating a diverse and inclusive environment.

"Creating diversity is about getting people in the door, and inclusivity is about keeping people in the room," said Jesús Pando, a member of the Committee on Minorities who moderated the discussion. Pando was joined by Arlene Maclin, a distinguished black female physicist and Howard University professor; Ansel Neunzert, a transgender graduate student at the University of Michigan; and Willie Rockward, current president of the National Society of Black Physicists.

This diverse panel discussed many ways to improve inclusivity in physics academia, such as mentorship, faculty demographics reflecting student demographics, and re-evaluation of who gets to participate in science. Questions provided by Pando and the audience facilitated a lively three-hour session that gave voice to the experiences of underrepresented groups in physics.

"There’s untapped potential in physics," said Rockward. "We need everybody to solve the big problems."

One of the ways to ensure talented individuals have the chance to work on these problems is mentorship, especially for students who may be from underrepresented groups. Often, the need for mentorship arises in commonplace circumstances, as in Neunzert’s case on their first day teaching in front of a classroom after transitioning. "I didn’t know what to wear," says Neunzert. "Someone giving me advice on what to wear or how to present myself would’ve gone a long way to making me feel more comfortable."

Maclin has experienced the impact of mentorship on student success from both sides of the table, having been both mentor and mentee. "I met a female physicist for the first time when I was a sophomore in college, and she became a lifelong mentor," said Maclin. "She taught me the importance of what a mentor is."

For Maclin, this means acting as an advisor, and exemplifying what she calls "sponsorship" — speaking up on behalf of students in order to ensure their success. She often does this by pushing for research and internship opportunities for her freshman students. "Getting students into internships early helps keep students in STEM," says Maclin. "National labs are open to freshmen, but research universities need to get on board."

Rockward, too, employs a model of mentorship that involves championing his students. As the Chair of the physics department at Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male university, Rockward mentors students often from different backgrounds and facing different challenges than the majority of students at a predominantly white college. As a black male physicist, Rockward understands the challenges many of his students may face, and works to make sure their future research advisors will do the same. "I get calls all the time from people asking me to send them my brightest students," says Rockward. "But I can’t just turn over my students to someone who won’t be their advocate."

Rockward’s concerns stem from what happens when his students move on to attend research institutions where they likely won’t be represented in the makeup of the faculty. A physics department that includes diverse faculty opens up mentorship opportunities and combats social isolation that often plagues minority students. "Faculty should reflect the demographics of a university but this still isn’t happening," says Maclin. "Some women are still the only [female] physicists at major research institutions."

Maclin’s statement was confirmed by a question from a member of the audience — an undergraduate student who attends a university with a physics department in which half the students but none of the faculty are female. She wanted to know how to bring up this issue and, hopefully, change it. "Team up with other female students and form male allies," said Maclin. "Start from the bottom to work on these issues."

Creating a faculty environment that mirrors student demographics can be difficult in the case of less visible groups like the LGBTQ community. Pando pointed out that physics departments often don’t collect data on such groups and therefore might overlook needs of LGBTQ student groups, and the responsibility to raise these issues often falls on the shoulders of people within those groups. "Be prepared to be labeled ‘the person that…’ and have the stamina to keep fighting," added Neunzert. "For every visible person, many more invisible people will hit the same barriers."

Many barriers for success for students from underrepresented groups in physics come from, as Pando put it, "the criteria about who gets to participate." In academia, this can be an issue, even for faculty: "It’s a thorny point that women professors are often given more negative evaluations," said Pando. Changing the fixed ideas on who is able to be a physicist will likely come with increased support for students from underrepresented groups who succeed in the classroom. The panelists agreed this requires action from allies who may be outside of such groups. "Our hope is that we can move towards inclusion being everyone’s issue," said Neunzert.

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APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

May 2018 (Volume 27, Number 5)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

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Articles in this Issue
High Selectivity, Inclusive Scope, and Open Access for All
Plenty of Plenaries: From Feynman to LIGO
Hubble Trouble: A Crisis in Cosmology?
Programming a Quantum Computer
Making Room in Physics for Everyone
The Road to a Goldwater Scholarship
APS Joins the March for Science
Profiles in Versatility
This Month in Physics History
Education and Diversity Update
Update from the Office of Government Affairs
The Back Page