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(Photo: Zara Zhuang/Medill)

A participant at the 2014 Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics examines an optical device that mimics how a gravitational lens distorts light in space.

The gravity of physics

by Zara Zhuang
Jan 23, 2014


Graph by Zara Zhuang/MEDILL. Data from the American Institute of Physics.

Click on the graph to view it in large format. 

The universe has been Jessica Avva’s playground since she was young.

“I went to the Air and Space Museum when I was five and I really wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “So that’s where I got into this astrophysics stuff in the first place.”

And Avva, a junior majoring in physics at the University of Chicago, has maintained that dream. At the 2014 Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, she presented her research on how charged particles are accelerated by stars that have exploded. These energetic particles hurl across the galaxy at high speeds, with streams of them reaching our atmosphere.

The conference was held Jan. 16-19 at the University of Chicago.

Avva belongs to a rare breed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 23,379 students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in physical sciences and science technologies in 2009–10, the most recent year for which figures are available. That falls far below the most popular majors: business (358,293 bachelor’s degrees), social sciences and history (172,780), health professions and related programs (129,634) and education (101,265).

And even rarer still, Avva belongs to the slim segment of the population of physics majors that carries two X chromosomes. According to the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics, women earned only about 20 percent of physics bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in 2011, a figure that is already a substantial increase compared to 7 percent of undergraduates and 3 percent of Ph.D. degrees in 1973.

Despite a steady, heartening rise in the number of juniors and seniors enrolling in college physics over the past decade, science majors lag behind in terms of their numbers. But why should a college-bound youth consider this major?

“(Physics is) interesting and exciting because it teaches how the world works,” said Young-Kee Kim, professor of physics at the University of Chicago and the chair of the local organizing committee of the Midwest conference. “We want to know what’s going on behind any phenomena, so that’s human nature.”

“Physics is where mathematical beauty and nature meet,” she said.

The versatility of a physics education benefits students, according to Michael Turner, professor of astrophysics at the University of Chicago and the director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Graduates can go on to a career in science and figure out how to invent machines, how the universe works or what makes up the most fundamental particles of matter, or become a doctor or lawyer or go into business. “It’s just good basic training,” Turner said.

Encouraging more women to sign up for physics is part of the strategy for boosting enrollment, as is helping undergraduate women stay in physics programs. That was the purpose of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Now in its seventh year, the 2014 conference saw approximately 1,000 students take part at eight locations across the country, with 225, representing more than 50 universities and colleges, convening in Chicago for the Midwest regional meeting.

“I think it’s having more females in academia, and having good, strong role models that girls can look up to and say, ‘I want to be like her,’ instead of always having to say, ‘I want to be like him,’” Avva said. Indeed, based on the 2010 Academic Workforce Survey, women make up only 14 percent on average of physics faculty members.

Women need not feel deterred or put off by physics, or even science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There is a lot going on in these STEM fields that is related to working in teams with others, making a difference in the world by pushing the frontier of our understanding or even just helping to solve community problems that require technical expertise, said Michelle Larson, president and chief executive officer of Adler Planetarium.

“Those tend to be the things that resonate with women — and men, but a lot with women.