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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Ada Lovelace Day: Women in physics

Posted by Melissa on March 24, 2010

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today, a day to blog about the achievements of women in technology and science. Many bloggers choose to celebrate by writing about a woman in technology or science whom they admire. In outreach activities, I’m occasionally asked what woman physicist I admire most, and I always stumble over the answer. Marie Curie is the obvious choice as a famous woman physicist, but she never held much fascination for me. Rather, the biographies of Lise Meitner and Chien-Shiung Wu captured my attention, in part because they both made significant contributions to physics developments for which others received the Nobel prize (the 1944 prize that went to Otto Hahn and the 1957 prize that went to Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee). The stories of these women awoke me from my naiveté that science is a field were hard-work and dedication always pay off.  Their tales introduced me to the idea that a career in science involves politics, and if you are a woman, the political landscape is often different than it is for men.

As I’ve continued in physics, I’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of impressive women in both formal and informal settings. I never fail to be amazed by Vera Rubin and Millie Dresselhaus, by their research accomplishments, their success at breaking down barriers, and their commitment to improving the situation for women who have followed them. Laurie McNeil and Meg Urry are of a younger generation than Rubin and Dresselhaus, but both have influenced my vision of women in physics. In the condensed matter physics community, there are a number of junior faculty, including Nadya Mason, Jenny Hoffman, and Alessandra Lanzara, who are doing outstanding research and serve as a reminder that women can be successful on the tenure track at top tier research universities. And there are many talented undergraduate and graduate women just starting their careers. Both of this year’s Apker award winners are women’s college graduates, Bilin Zhuang of Wellesley College and Kathryn Greenberg of Mount Holyoke College, and they worked with two women who successfully balance the teaching, research, and advising demands of being a faculty member at an undergraduate institution, Courtney Lannert of Wellesley and Janice Hudgings of Mount Holyoke.

During my career, most of my mentors have been men; both my undergraduate thesis advisor and my PhD advisor were male. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, there weren’t any women faculty in condensed matter physics so all of the professors for my graduate courses and my dissertation committee were men. Nevertheless, by keeping my eyes open, I’ve found it’s not hard to see the many women who are making contributions to the physics community — something that should be acknowledged everyday, not just on Ada Lovelace Day.

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