Young Women Inspired to Pursue a Male-Dominated Career

Yale astrophysicist Debra Fischer speaks at national conference

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Some 225 young women registered for the Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics this month. Laura L. Calderone/MEDILL 

Roxanne Accola expresses excitement about majoring in physics at the University of Wisconsin. Her mother, a chemist, inspired her to pursue physics as a career. But Accola was surprised to learn once she got to her classes that she was part of a minority. 

"I went, 'Oh my gosh! There are no girls here," Accola said.

Frigid temperatures, frosty wind and several inches of snow could not stop Accola and 225 other women from attending the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics held at the University of Chicago over the weekend.

The conference, from January 17-20, urged women to change the game.

Out of eight locations nationwide totaling over 1,000 registered attendees, the Midwest had the largest turnout of undergraduate women pursuing careers in the field of physics, said Mary Heintz of the Midwest's local organizing committee.

The conference's mission is to guide young women in physics through various career options and provide advice from current experts in a field dominated by men.

Women make up 13 percent of professorial-ranked faculty members in physics departments, according to data in a 2013 report by the American Institute of Physics.

"It's important to cheer each other on," said Debra Fischer, physics professor at Yale University and the conference's keynote speaker. She told the crowds of young women to be brave, stay educated and speak up.

Fischer said she was shocked and excited to see so many young women at the conference.

"Ladies, it is time for you to stand up as citizens of the world to make the world a better place. I really mean you have to be brave," Fischer said. "You have to be educated and count as the leaders that are really going to make this world a better place. I implore you to be a part of the change."

Fischer said that she needed to learn to believe she deserved "a seat at the table" - a notion that resonated with the attendees.

Fischer's talk was broadcast live from Pennsylvania State University to all the attendees of the various national conferences to discuss her experiences researching and discovering exoplanets and planetary systems. She was on the team that first discovered a multiple planet system in 1999.

"Nothing has really made a giant leap forward like the discovery of the exo-world that we found in the past almost two decades now," she said.

Fischer spoke about the history of the exoplanet discoveries and the hunt for Earth-like planets, which she believes is vital to understanding more about the universe. She also shared her personal experiences as a woman in the field of physics and offered advice to the attendees. 

"To have a woman in my field in physics who is so open and willing to talk to people is really inspiring," said Anna Schonwald, an undergraduate at Earl Ham College in Indiana. "It makes me feel like I can be a researcher, which I didn't think was possible at first."

Fischer admitted she faced some challenges balancing family and career. She had to trade celebrating her daughter's birthday for time spent observing planets. She had to move to the other side of the country to accept her job at Yale, while her husband and son, who was still in high school, remained in San Francisco.

"I lost those years with him and I often have felt that I traded that time with my son for my career," Fischer said, adding she was thankful for the support of her family.

"As hard as it was, I would still do it again," she said.

Fischer is still searching for more Earth-like planets and has turned her attention to developing instruments that will aid in the search. Yale's Extreme Precision Spectrometer, also known as EXPRES, will provide higher resolution to measure stellar velocity and find these planets.

More funding is still needed, but the EXPRES will hopefully be finished in two to three years. Once it is completed, Fischer said the search will begin using the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona.

EXPRES will be on the hunt as part of Yale's "100 Earths Project."

"The goal is to find 100 Earths," Fischer said. These rocky "Earths" will help to understand how often life evolves on other planets and other worlds.

Accola started a group for women in science at her university so she could network within the industry at conferences and learn about today's research in physics, like what is being done by Fischer.

"This conference is pretty huge for me," said Accola. "To see there are women here is exciting, especially since we are a minority."

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago

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