Women in Physics Group inspires the next generation of physicists and astronomers

Students had the opportunity to interact with a world-renowned astronomer during a day of informal get-togethers, networking events, and physics lectures at the annual conference.

a group of women talking while sitting around a table
Willman (center) and a group of undergraduates, including physics majors as well as students studying other STEM-related disciplines, chatted informally over breakfast about their personal experiences as STEM students and researchers.   

Earlier this month, Penn’s Women in Physics group hosted its fifth annual spring conference and networking event. Students had the opportunity to meet informally and share their work with Beth Willman, a world-renowned astronomer and deputy director of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).

Providing access to strong role models is just one of the goals of the undergraduate led group, which was founded in 2013 to support women studying physics through scholarship, mentorship, and social activities.

“It’s a positive message that [Willman] is a strong, leading woman in a field that’s usually dominated by men,” says junior Olivia Sylvester from Mendham, New Jersey, a board member of the group. “In addition to learning about what she has to say about her research, you’re also taking in the fact that she’s probably overcome a lot of barriers to achieve such great success.”  

The conference kicked off with a casual morning get-together as Willman and a group of undergraduates chatted over coffee and breakfast. Students shared their experiences at Penn, with several indicating that they felt the atmosphere in the Department of Physics & Astronomy was generally welcoming and inclusive for women.

After being introduced to several researchers in the department and sharing lunch with the Society of Physics group, undergraduate students presented the results of their summer research projects to Willman. 

First-year student Jen Locke from Ambler, Pennsylvania, presented her work from the lab of Masao Sako, an associate professor and undergraduate chair of the physics and astronomy department, on visualizing new planet candidates located in the Kuiper belt. Next summer, Locke will work on developing a search strategy for finding new objects in the LSST database, a project that will likely involve Willman to a certain extent. 

Junior Alex Ulin from Los Angeles talked about her NASA internship on the flower-shaped starshade, a complex foldable structure that will make it easier to take pictures of potentially habitable planets that are difficult to visualize because of the brightness of the sun. Ulin, who wants to study materials science after graduation, worked on how to cut the nanometers-thin sheets of metal so they can cover the 20-meters-wide, origami-like structure as precisely as possible. 

Senior Abby Lee from St. Paul, Minnesota, who is advised by Gary Bernstein, the Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, presented the results of her research on selecting features for a physical model that describes dark matter subhalo disruption. These events, which happen when the circular “halo” around stars and galaxies interact with black holes or large areas of dark matter, can now be visualized thanks to improvements in technology but now require models that can help describe their behavior.  

Throughout the student presentations, Willman asked questions that ranged from the technical to the philosophical. Ulin, who also sits on the board for the Women in Physics group, says that these types of projects, as well as having researchers and mentors who can provide meaningful feedback on results, are instrumental experiences for undergraduate students in physics. “Talking to someone that you see having a success in the field can really inspire you to consider research and a career in STEM,” she says. 

The final event of the conference was a public lecture from Willman. More than 70 students, faculty, and other members of the Penn community attended her presentation, “The Most Magnificent Map Ever Made.” Willman, who is a Philadelphia native, says that the LSST is poised to become one the most productive scientific endeavors of all time. The project will look at half of the sky over 1,000 times across a 10-year period, and each image it collects will be 3.2 billion pixels large. 

willman in front of a large screen presenting to a group of people
In 2022, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will embark on a 10-year mission to map half the sky. Willman discussed this ambitious project, as well as how the data could revolutionize the field of astronomy, during a public lecture that was held at Houston Hall. 

But Willman says that LSST’s real impact will come from distributing data in “science-ready” formats that can be used and studied easily. Through open-data initiatives that reduce barriers and enable people from a broad range of backgrounds to get involved with astronomy, Willman says that both scientists and society can benefit. “Everything that’s required in the future of scientific progress requires diversity,” she says. “Bringing ideas and people together is beneficial, and science needs as many viewpoints as possible.”

Junior Abby Timmel from Baltimore, the third board member of the group, says that researchers like Willman who teach from their own experience instead of a textbook can do a lot to inspire students. “This event shows what it looks like to be really successful in physics, how to take the things that you’re learning about and go further with them to really make an impact,” she says. 

With more than 30 active members and a number of events throughout the year, the members of Women in Physics will continue working on their own “magnificent map” as they chart a course towards improved inclusion in STEM. 

Their annual conference is just one example of how important making connections and providing encouragement are for students in STEM. “It spreads awareness that there is a group for women physicists, but I also think that having an event that we’ve organized helps people respect the idea of a group like this,” says Ulin. “They see that not only are we trying to be a support system, we’re also actively doing things for the community.”

The Fifth Annual Women in Physics Conference was supported by the Department of Physics & Astronomy of the School of Arts and Sciences and a grant from the Fund to Encourage Women from the Trustees' Council of Penn Women