Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 2015

30 March 2015

Five undergraduate physics students at Dublin City University were selected to attend the inaugural four-day Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CuWIP) in March, held at the University of Oxford.

CuWIP 2015

It was the first CuWIP in the UK, following the lead of previous conferences in America organised by the American Physical Society (APS). The timetable was made up of a combination of talks, tours and social activities with many opportunities to engage with both the speakers and other physics students from the UK and Ireland.

CuWIP 2015

The conference kicked off on Thursday evening where we had our first opportunity to meet the organisers as well as the other participants. The accommodation, provided by the conference, was in Keble college (one of the colleges on the University campus) where we each had a room to ourselves. After the initial welcome and dinner in the college bar we were given a chance to chat to some members of the physics department and the other physics students. A mix of physics postgraduates, lecturers, organisers and students from all stages of their degree were present. The only curiosity of the event was, there was not a male in sight.

The next day we were formally welcomed to the conference by John Winters, head of the Physics department at Oxford and Daniela Bortoletto, professor at the university, who presented us with the all-too-familiar statistics of the female representation in physics. She also highlighted the goals of the conference. These included realising the opportunities available after a degree in physics, combating isolation of females in such a male-dominated area and addressing the bias that both men and women continue to have against the female population of the physics world.

Friday presented a day of tours to the Rutherford Appelton Laboratory (RAL) and the Oxford University physics Laboratories. However before embarking on the coach ride to RAL we had the chance to view a partial solar eclipse. 85% of the sun’s light was obscured by the moon which we were fortunate enough to view due to clear skies and solar viewers. It was the start of a long but inspirational day.

RAL is one of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Laboratories. It encompasses a range of scientific facilities such as the Central Laser Facility (CLF) which includes the Vulcan Laser, the most powerful and intense laser in the world which can be used to produce a plasma displaying characteristics similar to those found in the centre of the sun.

We were given a tour of both ISIS and the Diamond light source. ISIS, a pulsed muon and neutron accelerator is used for applications in medicine, aerospace and many other fields. For the neutron source Hydrogen with an extra electron is accelerated linearly. The electrons are stripped from the ions by means of an Aluminium layer and the resulting protons are accelerated through 10,000 turns of a circular accelerator. This pulse of protons is used to bombard a tantalum clad tungsten target releasing neutrons. Every 20ms a pulse of neutrons is released.

The Diamond light source on the other hand accelerates electrons and uses these to emit synchrotron light. The beam of width 100 microns by 50 microns depth uses magnets to energise the beam up to 3 GeV. 900 of these pulses travel the half mile circumference at any one time with new electrons being injected every 10 minutes to account for those lost to the chamber walls. The technology is so precise that the number of electrons in each pulse can be monitored and the injected electrons can be timed to join the depleted pulses. Given that the pulses travel around the ring a half a million times a second this is a mind boggling feat. The experiments are set up at 25 tangential stations from the ring.

At RAL we also received a talk by Ceri Brenner, a past student of Oxford University who works at the CLF who shared her career path with us. This was followed by a career panel with women of different backgrounds and careers, from the European Space Agency, the London Mathematical Society and the CLF to Oxford Instruments. The one thing all of these inspirational women had in common was their honest nature and willingness to share their stories. They really highlighted what a range of paths a physics degree can lead down as well as describing the tough periods and times of doubt they experienced, how they dealt with them and how they came to where they are today. Many could recollect experiencing gender bias and other road-blocks in their career but the open manner of addressing these issues served as a comfort for the rest of us who have also felt doubt or indecision at some point. The speakers really made us feel at ease about asking questions and gave us opportunity to do so after the talk and over lunch.

On arriving back at Oxford University we were split into groups and given tours of different research laboratories within the physics department. This gave an insight into the variety of areas in which research is currently being conducted and the ‘hot topics’ at the moment. From quantum computing to solar cells and renewable energy there was everything in the mix. We were given a tour of a clean room and a lab investigating alternatives to semiconductors in photovoltaics to name a few. The day was concluded with dinner in the fabulous dining hall of Keble college which can only be compared to the great hall of the world of Harry Potter.

CuWIP 2015

Saturday was filled with talks. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of pulsars, gave a talk on astrophysics. This was followed by Kate Lancaster who works at the York Plasma Institute on laser fusion. Interactive character development talks were also held over the four days including a talk on assertiveness and one on effective marketing including CV, interview, cover letter and application tips. Katherine Blundell discussed ‘what hinders clever people from flourishing in physics’ which lead in nicely to the academic panel. This open session allowed the students to ask questions about entry into further study after the undergraduate degree or any other pressing concerns we may have about the future.

What physics conference would be complete without a talk by someone working on the largest and most famous particle accelerator of today’s world? Tara Shears, professor of physics at Liverpool University, gave us an insight into her work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. Her job involves essentially trying to recreate the conditions present at the beginning of our universe. Sarah Bohndiek gave the last talk of the day presenting her work on the molecular imaging of cancer and her work on merging physics with biology research. The evening activities included stargazing and a table quiz in the college.

The final day included three more talks. Helen Mason, discoverer of the origin of the solar wind and Cambridge graduate, gave us a talk on the interaction of the sun with the earth. Heather Williams described her work as a medical nuclear physicist and Sheila Rowan outlined the research currently underway to detect gravitational waves.

CuWIP 2015

Daniela Bortoletto concluded the conference with some kind and encouraging words sending us home in the hope that we would all stand ‘an inch taller’ and never be afraid to chase our dreams. The objectives of the conference to promote networking and ease the qualms of many a physics student were undoubtedly realised and the few days spent in Oxford will remain in our memories for a long time to come. We would like to give our thanks to all the organisers, speakers, attendees and sponsors, especially DCU and the institute of physics for making the trip both possible and such a great experience.

Authors: Nicole Fleck, Cleo Harvey, Aine Matthews, Tessa Ronan and Michelle Rooney