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By Leah Poffenberger
Pursing a bachelor’s degree in physics should be a possibility for all college students, but some groups of students feel more welcome in other fields. According to research conducted by APS, underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities in physics—which includes African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—are awarded less than 14 percent of physics bachelor’s degrees despite making up nearly a quarter of all bachelor’s degrees awarded.
In order to improve this situation, APS created the National Mentoring Community (NMC) to match students with local physics mentors. One of these mentor-mentee pairs from the University of Cincinnati, Rohana Wijewardhana and then-undergraduate student Madelyn Leembruggen, shared their experiences in a testimonial following an NMC conference.
Before joining the NMC, Leembruggen had found herself at a crossroads: follow a life-long goal of doing scientific research or pursue something entirely different. She had begun training in astrophysics, but quickly came to the realization that it wasn’t her passion and began to consider another path.
“I thought maybe I would enjoy theoretical physics, but I could not name a single theoretical physicist who was a woman or from an underrepresented background, and I couldn't see myself fitting in with the theorists whose names I did know,” said Leembruggen. “At this point I had also convinced myself I did not have the drive or skills to make it through graduate school and began to plan for a career path which seemed, to me, easier.”
Fortunately, Richard Grass, the undergraduate director of the University of Cincinnati Physics Department, pointed Leembruggen in the direction of the NMC, where Wijewardhana was in search of a mentee. Wijewardhana had newly joined the NMC after attending the 2015 APS Bridge and NMC Conference and, up until then, had never supervised undergraduate physics students.
Mentor Rohana Wijewardhana (L) worked with Madelyn Leembruggen (R) at the University of Cincinnati as part of the APS National Mentoring Community.
“If it were not for my membership in the APS NMC, I would not have started supervising undergraduate research. I had attended APS Bridge Conferences in 2013 and 2014, and at that juncture my main interest was improving diversity in graduate education,” said Wijewardhana. “When I came back from [the 2015 conference] I registered as an NMC mentor and started looking for a mentee.”
Wijewardhana became Leembruggen’s mentor In May 2016, just after her sophomore year. She started working with Wijewardhana’s theoretical cosmology research group studying axions and quickly became a valuable part of the team.
“Her research project was to analyze the collapse of gravitationally bound bubbles of candidate dark matter particles termed axions. Such bubbles are termed axion stars and they become unstable towards collapse above a critical mass,” said Wijewardhana “To analyze this problem Madelyn had to use some Lagrangian mechanics, quantum mechanics, and field theory—subjects she was not familiar with at that point. She was a quick learner and a hard worker and within a few weeks acquired sufficient background knowledge to start working on her research project.”
Working with Wijewardhana gave Leembruggen new confidence in her abilities as a physicist, bolstering her commitment to completing her undergraduate education and continuing on to graduate school, and resulted in the publication of six papers. She also collected several achievements for her work including taking first prize in the poster competition at the 2016 NMC conference, receiving a Goldwater Scholarship in 2017, and qualifying as a finalist for the Leroy Apker Award in 2018.
Participating in the NMC also impacted Wijewardhana, who gained an appreciation for supervising undergraduate research. Since Leembruggen’s graduation and acceptance to a Harvard PhD program, Wijewardhana has been mentoring two more undergraduate students through the NMC.
“I am now…so excited for my future in research and scientific outreach. There are still days when being a woman of color in physics weighs heavily on me. But because I had the extraordinary opportunity to be part of a community as special as NMC, I know I have scores of peers and allies who will go to incredible lengths to push me toward success,” said Leembruggen. “I am still here because of all the people who loaned me stamina when I was weary and spoke truth to me when I began to hear lies. I can say with certainty that NMC changes students' lives because it absolutely transformed mine.”
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik