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Physics department to add new astrophysics major, biophysics track this fall

Curran Neenan | News Editor

The Washington University physics department approved a new astrophysics major and a biophysics track for physics majors.

The University approved the new astrophysics major for fall 2019 last May. The physics department faculty approved the biophysics track this week and it’s expected to be an option by fall 2019 as well.

Crow Hall is home to the physics department. The physics department recently expanded physics programming by offering two new majors. With the establishment of astrophysics and biophysics majors, the department aims to draw more female students to the department.Stephen Huber | Student Life

Crow Hall is home to the physics department. The physics department recently expanded physics programming by offering two new majors. With the establishment of astrophysics and biophysics majors, the department aims to draw more female students to the department.

The push for expanded programs in the physics department began last year when the Society of Physics Students (SPS) formed a curriculum committee to explore the creation of majors in biophysics and mathematical physics, as well as a new astrophysics major. The physics department currently offers two minors in astrophysics and astroparticle physics and biomedical physics.

SPS president senior Tyler Orden said the driving force behind the new programs was for the mostly-male physics department to draw more female students.

“The idea behind mathematics and biology is that there are greater percentages of women in those fields; so, those interdisciplinary majors can draw students who might be in those fields to the physics department,” Orden said. “That gets us a more diverse set of students.”

Chair of the department’s diversity committee professor Mairin Hynes said physics students were expressing interest for more interdisciplinary programs.

“Students realize once you get out there, you’re not just doing physics, you’re blending different things,” Hynes said.

Chair of SPS curriculum committee junior Austin Stover says while diversity is important to keep in mind, it wasn’t the only motivation for the creation of the new programs.

“I think the physics department is actually fairly diverse compared to a lot of the other science heavy departments. The diversity problem in the department is more upper level, as in most of the professors are male,” Stover said.

Stover said the unanimous approval of the new astrophysics major is partially because the physics department faculty is heavily populated with astrophysicists.

“There’s certainly a bunch of research and classes in the department, because of the large number of astrophysicists in the department,” Stover said. “They actually wanted to make an astrophysics major from the get-go.”

According to Stover, a mathematical physics program has yet to gain traction with faculty.

“Mathematical physics hasn’t gotten a ton of acceptance from the department yet. We’re still trying to find a professor who can take it up,” Stover said. “We’ll try and talk to a bunch of the theoretical physicists and see what they think.”

Hynes says she hopes the new programs will foster a larger cohort of women in the department.

“Once you have more equality, then more people will come in and build a community,” Hynes said. “We want people to feel like there’s something available for everyone.”

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