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Robin L. B. Selinger is a Professor of Chemical Physics at Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute. She is an APS Fellow and previously served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Topical Group on Statistical and Nonlinear Physics. Selinger was elected to the APS Council of Representatives as a General Councilor beginning in 2019, to the Board of Directors beginning in 2020, and serves as the 2022 Speaker of the Council. APS News spoke with Selinger about the role of the Council and her priorities for the year as its Speaker.
The Council is elected by APS members and holds oversight responsibility for the Society’s scientific mission, including publications, meetings, and honors such as fellowship, prizes, and awards. The Council also holds responsibility to approve policy statements and any changes to the APS Constitution & Bylaws.
The Council includes representatives from all APS Divisions, Forums, and Sections, plus four General Councilors and four International Councilors, together with the Presidential Line and Treasurer. The Council also elects three of its members each year to serve on the Board of Directors.
The CEO and other members of the senior leadership team work closely with the Council to address key issues related to our scientific mission. In turn the Council relies on the work of APS Committees, which draft many of the proposals that come before the Council.
The speaker, in collaboration with the Council Steering Committee, assembles the agenda for each of the Council’s two annual meetings. My priorities for the coming year include:
(1) Continued focus on needs of students and early career scientists: I’d like to see APS undertake a new initiative to promote industrial career pathways by helping both undergrad and grad students find internships in industry. I’d also like to survey new graduates embarking on industry careers, to find out what services APS can provide to support their professional success.
(2) Continued focus on building a diverse physics workforce: As a mentor, I’ve worked with many students who face economic barriers to entry into STEM careers. Unpaid internships, for example, are a privilege of students who don’t need wages to cover their basic needs. Some students are working at fast food restaurants or stacking cans at the supermarket while their more privileged classmates are getting started in the research lab. Graduate application fees—and, where applicable, the cost of standardized tests—also represent a financial barrier for undergrads who do not receive family support.
These barriers to the physics career on-ramp represent a form of structural classism that has grown steadily worse over time. The tragedy is, such problems could be solved for a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand dollars per student. But though the financial barrier is small relative to the total cost of an undergraduate education, these costs are not covered by financial aid, so to students the barrier often appears insurmountable.
While the APS Council cannot solve all problems in the world, we have a moral obligation to point out these barriers and lead efforts to tear them down. The solution might include APS-funded grad school application fee waivers for qualified physics majors who are eligible for financial aid, with support from donors.
I once made a modest financial gift to one of my former REU students to cover two of her graduate application fees, as her parents were unable to assist. She added two “wish” schools to her list, was accepted to both, and later won an NSF graduate fellowship. Thus my small gift was multiplied many times over. There are so many deserving students who just need a little assistance to get launched.
(3) Focus on implementation of rules for Ethical Conduct in Physics at meetings. Session chairs have primary responsibility to set the tone and preside in our meeting sessions. I’d like to see APS offer training materials for session chairs to promote a welcoming and inclusive environment for both speakers and audience, whether in-person or remote. And to bring the new ethics rules to the attention of our members, I’d love to see APS start a campaign called “Don’t be a d3x/dt3,” where d3x/dt3= “jerk.” T-shirts are already available! See https://www.amazon.com/Dont-JERK-d3x-Math-T-Shirt/dp/B07XJRNL9J .
(4) Communications are central to everything we do. I plan to ask our Unit representatives how APS can better support communication between Unit leadership and members, and communication among members. Is APS Engage fulfilling its promise as an ad-free social network? Or would unit leaders prefer to use Slack, Facebook, LinkedIn, or something else?
(5) Meetings are also on my mind. Many APS Units sponsor online seminars these days, demonstrating that we can hear excellent talks without cramming thousands of people into a conference facility. The associated cost and inconvenience of travel, the carbon footprint, and risk to public health all must be considered. Now that we’ve realized the benefits of online meetings, we’re not going back to in-person only. Hybrid meetings will eventually become our new normal. But what is the best way to organize a hybrid event? I’m looking to our Unit leaders for ideas.
Among the Council’s responsibilities are oversight of the Society’s journals and approval of policy statements. What are some of the challenges facing APS and the Council in these areas?
The transition of APS publications from subscription-based to open access (OA) is already well underway. Navigating this changing landscape means that APS cannot simply continue business as usual. Luckily the Council can depend on expertise from outside consultants, from our publications professionals, and from our own APS leadership to help us understand the issues at hand.
In my view, the trouble with conventional OA journals is that far too much administrative labor is wasted on sending and receiving small payments. One solution is for large university systems to negotiate annual contracts, but that option won’t work for everyone.
As an alternative, I’d like to see APS create a new platinum OA journal that’s free to both readers and authors, with financial support from generous sponsors, just like public television. APS could make the journal especially attractive to authors by providing a robust public outreach effort to make journal content accessible to the general public.
Policy issues that come before the Council often involve national and international affairs that go well beyond my physics training. I’ve needed to undertake quite a bit of reading to learn about the issues at hand. One of the most challenging issues facing the physics community this year is research security and in particular the Department of Justice’s China Initiative.
My lifelong fascination with theoretical/computation physics was sparked by an NSF-funded high school research internship at Boston University. I was assigned to work with H. Eugene “Gene” Stanley, an amazing and inspiring mentor. Having learned to program with a little TRS-80 Radio Shack computer at my high school, I was so excited to run Monte Carlo simulations on an IBM mainframe. When the six-week summer internship ended, Gene invited me to stay, and I spent much of my senior year doing research at BU. I later pursued both undergrad and graduate study at Harvard and continued working with Gene, who supervised my dissertation work. After postdocs at UCLA, University of Maryland, and NIST, I joined the physics faculty at Catholic University of America in 1995, and later moved to Kent State in 2005.
Early exposure to research is a highly effective way to get young students interested in STEM. It certainly worked for me. To “pay it forward,” I organize research internship placements for high school students dual-enrolled at Kent State.
My students and I model shape-morphing dynamics of liquid crystal elastomers, a class of stimuli-responsive programmable solids. These fascinating materials morph under stimuli such as a change of temperature or illumination, and their trajectory of motion is programmed by patterning the liquid crystal director when the material is cross-linked. I’ve had a lot of fun working with experimenters to understand their most puzzling results. Most recently my group is developing a machine learning approach to address the inverse problem, that is, to design a liquid crystal director field to produce a desired shape deformation. Another topic we’re pursuing is the study of disclination line defects in liquid crystals. We’re exploring how the Frank-Read mechanism works to drive heterogeneous defect loop nucleation in nematic liquid crystals, a close analog of the process that drives heterogeneous dislocation nucleation in ductile crystalline solids. But while such sources form stochastically in crystals, in nematics we can create them via a “materials by design” approach.
I hope our members will join me in extending thanks to the hardworking professional staff at APS, along with our dedicated volunteers, who have together managed to keep the organization moving forward, in spite of the challenges of the pandemic. A special thanks to APS Corporate Secretary Jeanette Russo who keeps the Council on track, along with our most recent speakers, Baha Balantekin and Andrea Liu, who both served with wisdom and good humor.
Members who would like to contribute volunteer service to APS can ask colleagues to nominate them for one of many APS committees. The 2022 nomination process is complete, but nominations are open for next year. I also suggest talking to executive committee members of your favorite APS Units about opportunities to get involved.
For more information about the APS Council, visit the Council of Representatives page.
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