WU launches mentorship program for women in physics
Washington University’s physics program will host a mentorship program for women in the physics department, beginning this semester.
The program will match two undergraduate students with a graduate student mentor. Participants will receive gift cards to Kayak’s Coffee to facilitate meetings over the course of the semester. The American Physical Society (APS) awarded a grant to fund the program, and the Washington University Physics department will match the funds provided by the APS.
Junior Hannah McCall developed the idea for this program during a summer research program at the University of Chicago.
“[During the program,] I talked to a lot of women in physics there, and I found out that University of Chicago, Stanford and a lot of universities of similar academic caliber to Wash. U. had programs like this in their physics departments,” McCall said. “And that was something we didn’t have; so, that is kind of where the idea came about.”
McCall then worked with physics professor Marin Hynes during the fall semester to secure funding for the program.
“[McCall] made some contacts at the University of Chicago and found this grant that was available to be written by a student and then sponsored by a faculty mentor in a department,” Hynes said. “She did most of the work, the writing of the grant. She came up with a ton of the ideas, and then I was more than happy to lend my support to her by writing a letter issuing my support.”
Min Shinn, a fifth-year graduate student who will be serving as a mentor this semester, hopes to help younger women in the department find their way in a field that often has issues with gender equality.
“There is large inequality in positions that are filled within physics organizations like the American Physical Society or just generally physics in academia,” Shinn said. “For one thing, I know when I was an undergraduate in physics, as a woman, I had trouble finding people to do homework with weekly because there aren’t so many girls [in the department,] and girls tend to stick together…So, if [undergraduate women in physics] have trouble with that or if they have more serious troubles like sexual harassment, I would be all ears.”
McCall and Hynes hope to address these issues by creating a space for women to build relationships and discuss their interests.
“A major goal is trying to build a sense of community, especially because for people who are women or gender minorities. There are not a lot of them in our physics classes; so, it can feel sort of isolating if you look around and don’t see a lot of people who look like you,” Hynes said. “So, this is a way to bring people together and show them that you are not isolated.”
McCall promotes a hands-off approach to the program, encouraging students to take the initiative to adapt the program to their needs.
“Our first event is just a dinner for everyone involved to meet each other and to find out who the mentor matches are. After that, the program becomes kind of whatever you decide with your group,” McCall said. “The idea is that they have to meet a minimum of two times per semester in their group to check in, talk about topics in physics or outside of physics, but it is really up to the individual groups. If they are free and decide to go outside of coffee and would like to explore the city, it is really up to them.”
Another goal of the program is to bring together women in physics at different points in their academic careers in order to provide guidance and perspective.
“Often undergraduates are curious about what graduate school is like, but they don’t necessarily know any graduate students to talk to, or they might not feel comfortable just approaching someone,” Hynes said. “Also, a lot of our graduate students would love to be able to give back. They have experienced and learned things along the way and would love to tell a younger version of themselves what to expect.”
Currently, 20 students are participating in the program, but McCall hopes to expand participation in the future and encourages any women in the physics department to contact her if interested in participating.
“We want more women to feel welcome in the department and to think that physics is a great thing to study not only because the science is incredible, but because there is support,” McCall said. “So, that is truly what the program aims to do; and in the meantime, you can make friends—which is always good.”