BC co-hosts conference for undergraduate women in physics

Attendees learned from female professionals—including a woman who changed astronomy forever

Undergraduate women interested in physics had the opportunity to seek advice, learn about graduate school prospects, and explore careers in the field—as well to hear from a woman who changed astronomy forever—at a recent conference co-hosted by Boston College.

The 2024 American Physical Society’s Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), sponsored by the physics departments of BC and Wellesley College, attracted more than 200 attendees to the Heights in January. Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Energy, the American Physical Society, and the respective host institutions, the event was one of 13 CUWiP conferences held simultaneously throughout the country at sites including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, and Stanford University.

Assist. Prof. Benedetta Flebus (Physics) welcomes the participants at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Boston College, on Jan. 20, 2024.   
© Ann Hermes 2024

Assistant Professor of Physics Benedetta Flebus, who co-organized the event with BC colleague Qiong Ma, welcomed participants to the conference, which was held on campus January 19-21. (Ann Hermes)

Locally co-organized by Assistant Professors of Physics Benedetta Flebus and Qiong Ma, the BC-based event featured a keynote address—livestreamed from the University of Michigan to the CUWiP host sites—by University of Oxford Visiting Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a pioneer in the field of astronomy whose contributions were overlooked for decades.

In 1967, as a 24-year-old Cambridge University doctoral student assisting her thesis advisor, astronomer Antony Hewish, Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, the compact, spinning celestial objects that emit beams of radiation, like cosmic beacons—a finding that altered the perception of the universe.  It was Hewish, however, who was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.

Bell Burnell went on to an illustrious career: chancellor of the University of Dundee, president of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society, and first female president of both the UK/Ireland Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. But years later, in a piece for The New York Times, she recalled the snub: “I was a graduate student and a woman, which demoted my standing in terms of receiving a Nobel Prize.”

In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which she donated to help persons in under-represented groups become physicists. The 2021 documentary “The Silent Pulse of the Universe” chronicled Bell Burnell’s arduous path to this astrophysics breakthrough, and society’s repudiation of an extraordinarily brilliant young woman and her crucial role in an advancement characterized as the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

“It can feel very uphill doing an undergraduate physics degree; if you are a [gender and/or ethnic] minority, it can feel even more so, but it’s worth hanging in there, because it opens so many doors,” Bell Burnell told the CUWiP audience, which included more than 2,000 young women. “There is, unfortunately, still a certain amount of bias that women can’t do physics; however, the more women who are members of a physics department, the better it gets. I find it immensely reassuring to be with such a large group of women who are all doing physics.

“It’s a turning point when the men who lead physics departments recognize that it’s an issue that needs attention. We’re 90 percent of the way there; we’re beginning to win.”  

In 2020, according to the APS, 25 percent of all U.S. physics bachelor’s degrees were earned by women, the highest percentage ever recorded. Some 30 percent of BC physics majors identify as female, and the department, chaired by Professor Michael J. Graf, has expressed a vigorous commitment to their support by founding the Society of Women in Physics, comprised of female graduate and undergrad students, post-docs, and faculty members who regularly meet for peer-to-peer learning, and to share advice and information about participation in research groups.

“I love physics, and I’m driven by the desire to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level,” said Sarah Wells ’24, a BC chemistry major minoring in physics, who came to CUWiP with the goal of meeting other women in the field. “Being a minority in the sciences, it’s encouraging to see more women becoming involved, and inspiring to engage with those who have had similar experiences.”

Flebus and Ma expressed appreciation for “unwavering support” from Wellesley College, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Kalscheur, S.J., Graf, colleagues, student volunteers, department staff, as well as Laura Steinberg, Seidner Family Executive Director of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society.  

“We aspire to leave an enduring impact, instilling in these remarkable women the pride of being physics majors, and carrying this confidence with them throughout their lifelong journeys,” the organizers said.

“The CUWiP series has played a crucial role in energizing and empowering young women interested in pursuing physics careers,” said Graf. “The entire team did an amazing job in making this event an impactful experience for the participants.”