WU hires 2 tenure-track female physics professors

Kayla Steinberg | Contributing Reporter

Washington University’s physics department offered positions to two female tenure-track faculty members this semester. Nuclear physicists Maria Piarulli and Saori Pastore formally accepted the positions earlier this month and will become the only women tenure-track physics faculty.

The physics department had long struggled with attaining female faculty members in the past and had been unsuccessful despite its push in hiring efforts for several years until now.

According to Society of Physics Students (SPS) president and junior Tyler Orden, both students and faculty in the physics department advocated for more female hires in the program.

“The Society of Physics Students has been pushing for diversity and trying to help improve the climate in the department and across the campus for a long time,” Orden said.

Orden believes that SPS has served as a liaison between students and the physics department, and he commended the efforts of all who supported increasing the department’s diversity.

“[Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Barbara] Schaal and Provost [Holden] Thorp have put through literally millions of dollars in funding requests that wouldn’t otherwise have happened,” Orden said.

Orden is also a member of the physics department’s Workplace Climate and Diversity Committee, chaired by Dr. Mairin Hynes, which seeks to promote diversity and inclusion within the department and advocates for the hires of female physics professors like Pastore and Piarulli.

Orden considers the physics department’s efforts to be indicative of a campus-wide push to increase diversity. The math department doubled its female faculty recently by hiring three more female members.

According to professor Willem Dickhoff, the lack of women and minorities in STEM fields is a nationwide epidemic.

“This underrepresentation is not confined to Washington University in physics, but also elsewhere,” Dickhoff said.

“The momentum can’t stop. We’re still very far behind national averages, as well as peer institutions, in terms of diversity, so we are going to continue to push for increasing diversity,” Orden said.

Orden views hiring Pastore and Piarulli as a step toward promoting a more inclusive and diverse environment in the department.

“Hiring a more diverse faculty isn’t the end game,” Orden said. “We’re going to keep improving the department climate so that women and minorities are comfortable.”

Pastore and Piarulli were hired after a search committee for new physics professors, chaired by Dickhoff, began its nuclear theory search this year. The timing was perfect—a nuclear physics experiment involving rare isotope beams recently started at Michigan State University and the U.S. Department of Energy was looking for nuclear theorists to assist with the work.

Dickhoff’s proposal—selected over five others by the Department of Energy—prompted applicants to Washington University for the theorist position. Pastore and Piarulli were deemed the strongest candidates, and the University extended offers only to them.

“It is quite unusual for a search to turn up two women in physics at the top of the ranking,” Dickhoff said. “We were very lucky that these two who are also a unique pair were available this year.”

Pastore and Piarulli both grew up in Puglia, Italy, earned their doctorates from Old Dominion University and were postdoctoral fellows at Argonne National Laboratory. Pastore then went to University of South Carolina and the Los Alamos National Laboratory for two additional postdoctorals, respectively.

“They know each other quite well, and they do complementary work, which makes hiring them as a team a great opportunity for this department,” Dickhoff said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Pastore and Piarulli were not the first-ever women hired by the physics department.

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