Reflections on the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 2023

3/8/2023 9:00:00 AM

Healey Kogan and Sarah Hagen for Illinois Physics

The Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) are regional conferences sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS) to support undergraduate women in pursuing physics careers. At these locally organized conferences, participants learn about career opportunities in physics, hear from current graduate students, present posters, and network with faculty and peers. Illinois Physics hosted a CUWiP conference in January 2023. In honor of International Women's Day, two student organizers share reflections on their experience.

Healey Kogan, Illinois Physics junior


As a freshman, I was welcomed into UIUC by the Society for Women in Physics (SWIP), where I found a supportive community. Having a space for women in physics gave me a sense of belonging and eased my doubts about being a physicist. I joined the local organizing committee (LOC) for CUWiP at UIUC, so I could help other women in physics form their own supportive communities that would last beyond the conference. It is important to me that everyone who wants to study physics has the chance and is not dissuaded by feeling like an outsider. By being on the LOC, I had the ability to help create community and celebrate physics with other undergraduate women.


Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professor in Physics and Director of Beckman Nadya Mason delivers the keynote address at CUWiP.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professor in Physics and Director of Beckman Nadya Mason delivers the keynote address at CUWiP. Photo by Nathan Carlberg for Illinois Physics

As the week of CUWiP approached, we made last minute preparations and put everything into place. Finally seeing everyone gathered at dinner that first night, I was filled with a sense of awe and excitement. I had never seen that many women all together in Loomis before, and there was power in all of us being together in one place. Although hearing the talks and sitting on the panels were incredible and informative, seeing participants' reactions and hearing their experiences were the most exciting parts for me. I was running around a lot and did not participate in every event, but it made me happy to see everyone else enjoying what the LOC had organized.


Even though it was cold outside, and the conference lasted many hours, the energy in Loomis never waned. By chance, I met someone who had worked in the same lab as my research advisor, and we had a great conversation about what AMO research looks like in graduate school. She connected me with another woman in physics who was doing research I was interested in, and I was able to meet with her over Zoom. Facilitating these chance connections was one of the LOC’s goals for CUWiP. It’s a perfect opportunity to meet other women in physics who can help support you on your journey. When I look back at this conference­—and maybe as I plan another one when I am in graduate school—what I will remember most is the people and the joy on their faces as they made new friends and heard about all the different journeys of women in physics.


A conference this memorable could not have happened without all the time and effort of the LOC, undergraduate volunteers, and speakers. I would like to thank all the people who helped put this together, and especially Patrick Snyder, Elizabeth Goldschmidt, Irene Lira-Andsager, Jaki Noronha-Hostler, Kristen Schumacher, Azel Murzabekova, Spoorthi Nibhanupudi, Vedha Muvva, and my co-author, Sarah Hagen.


Sarah Hagen, Illinois Physics graduate student


In January, I had the chance to experience CUWiP from the perspective of a graduate student speaker and organizer. As I welcomed participants to Loomis, I remembered my experience three years earlier, when I was on the other side of the check-in table. I had just spent a terrifying hour in the passenger seat as my mom sped along the frontage roads of Chicagoland interstates, trying to avoid the blizzard-induced traffic jams and get me to the welcome dinner at the University of Chicago on time. 


CUWiP is special because of the unique opportunity this conference gives for peer networking. Being the youngest physicist at a national conference with attendees at various points in their career can be beneficial—so much absorb, so many connections to be made—but it is potentially overwhelming. There is no such thing as a stupid question, but even (maybe especially) as a graduate student, it sometimes sure feels like it! CUWiP presents an alternative by making sure its attendees are surrounded by student researchers and learners similar to them, which creates a welcoming environment that encourages questions and discussions.


I had the privilege of being on a Day in the Life panel with a few other graduate students. Although I knew each of the women there, I was able to learn more about their stories as we responded to attendees’ questions, such as, “How do I choose an adviser in graduate school?” and “Is having a pet a good thing in graduate school?” The former question gave us a chance to elaborate on our own experiences—for my part, I think I have the best adviser—and the latter prompted mixed responses. I prefer the ease of not having a pet, especially when I have to travel, but the others enjoyed their pets: a cat, a dog, and a rabbit. 

Illinois Physics student Samantha Lund presents her poster at CUWiP 2023.
Illinois Physics student Samantha Lund presents her poster at CUWiP 2023. Photo by Nicole Terzian for Illinois Physics 


The poster session at our CUWiP was one of the most impressive and lively events. Both presenters and listeners were engaged in intense discussion about their research projects. In fact, there was so much participation that we found ourselves moving the coffee bar to accommodate more people near the posterboards! When I stopped to ask a few questions and admire the excellent posters, I was blown away by the expertise of the student attendees. I made sure to take notes for any future poster presentation of my own!


A formative experience like CUWiP is possible because of the mentors who provide guidance and insights. Our conference benefited from a wonderful collection of speakers, panelists, and even sponsors. These role models and supporters brought their expertise and infectious enthusiasm, prompting discussions that extended into coffee and meal breaks. 


Three years ago, I was grateful for my mom, her car idling on a street corner as I traipsed through a snowbank in high-heeled boots. Today, I want to thank all the organizers who put time into planning several local conferences over three years, only one of which actually took place. From Patrick Snyder, who sat next to me in January 2020 in the 3rd floor atrium of the University of Chicago’s Gordon Center for Integrative Biology, taking notes on how to improve the conference, to Elizabeth Goldschmidt, Rebecca Wiltfong, Irene Lira-Andsager, Jaki Noronha-Hostler, Kristen Schumacher, Danielle Woods, Vidushi Adlakha, Spoorthi Nibhanupudi, Vedha Muvva, Rachel Nguyen, and my co-author, Healey Kogan, who worked so hard to make this year’s conference a success.