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Toni Sauncy Director's Matters

Guest column by Toni Sauncy, Director of Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

SPS summer interns – expanding the physics universe

It seems like only yesterday that we first welcomed to DC the dozen eager students selected from a national pool of highly qualified applicants for the 2013 SPS Summer Internship program. For me, hosting the interns throughout the summer was thrilling — it was my first opportunity to interact directly with students since leaving my teaching position at Angelo State University. Moreover, the interns and I were able to share our first summer in our nation’s Capital, both enjoying the diversity of activities at our disposal and dogging it through the area’s unmatched humidity. Sadly, the 9½ weeks have flown by, and the Education staff and I had to bid farewell to these outstanding students last week. Though, admittedly, we were satisfied with completing another wildly successful year for this program, which has hosted 107 students since its inception in 2001.

For high-achieving undergraduates that have aspirations of pursuing advanced degrees in physics-related disciplines, participation in extracurricular enrichment programs is no longer an option; it is an imperative. SPS is committed to the success of undergraduate physics students, in scholarship, research, outreach, and career preparation. The SPS internship program is the only physics program in the country that aims to address the whole range of options available to physics students. The placements go far beyond the more traditional research experiences available to students in colleges, universities and even national labs. This, plus the living arrangements (at George Washington University in the heart of DC), opportunities for community science outreach, and cultural enrichment activities, have made the SPS program increasingly competitive, attracting applications from a diverse group of outstanding, highly motivated students.

SPS interns tour NIST
The SPS interns tour NIST.

This year’s group of students was no exception, and new partnerships enabled us to expand the range of their impact even further. For the first time we worked with the NIST Summer Teaching Institute to develop this year’s SPS SOCK (Science Outreach Catalyst Kit). SPS outreach interns Caleb Heath and Nicole Quist built the 2013 SOCK around the theme measurement and sensors, touching on the fundamental ways that we discover the nature of the physical world and the importance of calibration and standards for giving our discoveries meaning. Another new opportunity arose with the STEM group in the US Department of Education, which accepted its first ever SPS intern to work on STEM education policy issues, Dayton Syme (supported jointly by AIP and APS).

In a trial partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Alec Lindman and Darren McKinnon worked with researchers investigating the polarization of cosmic microwave background radiation and the battle of massive winds in the Eta Carinae binary star system. For the first time, AAPT, in collaboration with the University of Virginia, sponsored a policy intern, Christine O’Donnell, who developed advocacy strategies for AAPT members. Her efforts will culminate in a workshop tutorial whereby members will work to develop practical plans for making a difference in physics education at the local, state and national levels.

In addition to these new partnerships, SPS interns expertly fulfilled previously established roles in NIST, AIP, and APS. Despite the last-minute sequestration impact on our long-standing relationship with the NIST Materials Measurement Lab, we found support for intern Alexandra Day to advance some theoretical work for the lab. Mather science policy interns Nikki Sanford and Katherine Stankus were placed in the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Their internships were generously sponsored by the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts, a program now four years in the running. They hit the Hill just in time to participate in one of the most heavily attended hearings in recent memory, a full committee hearing on the proposed reorganization of STEM Education funding.

Fiona Muir, hailing from University College-London and the first ever international intern not enrolled in a US institution, worked with the AIP History Center to develop lesson plans centered on the role that women have played in physics. Jose ‘Ro’ Avila built on the work of two past interns to create career-related resources for undergraduate physics majors through the NSF-funded AIP Career Pathways Project. Jamie Garrett became the eighth SPS intern to contribute the APS PhysicsQuest project, which sends physics kits to around 13,000 middle school science classrooms each year.

All interns are required to keep weekly journals, highlighting their work and overall experience of living with the cohort of SPS interns. Ro Avila produced a parallel video blog, which he narrated in Spanish. The blog was picked up and featured in the latest edition of the National Society for Hispanic Physicists newsletter. Tours of NASA Goddard, NIST, The Department of State, The Capitol and the minority side of The House Committee on Science Space and Technology, and the professional organizations housed in ACP helped to demonstrate the wide array of opportunities for those with physics backgrounds. The group also participated in several outreach events including the Howard Community College STEM festival, the “Summer Girls” physics camp at the University of Maryland, and Tuckahoe Elementary School. Their shared experiences made them a true community.

From discovering the origins of the universe to explaining the wonders of quantum mechanics to middle-schoolers, to developing career and educational resources for students and their departments, the 2013 SPS interns produced meaningful work that will be used by their peers and mentors. More importantly, each of these outstanding students left AIP with a new network of professional relationships, an expanding view of the role of physics in the world, and a new sense of their ability to contribute to it.

From AIP Publishing

AIP journals lead in the physical sciences

Mather internsAccording to Thomson Reuters 2012 Journal Citation Reports, journals from AIP Publishing ranked #1 in total citations in two key categories, and 12 out of 15 titles with impact factors experienced growth. With nearly 350,000 total citations in the Applied Physics category, Applied Physics Letters and the Journal of Applied Physics ranked first and second in citations, accounting for over one quarter of the total citations in the Applied Physics category. In the Atomic, Molecular & Chemical Physics category, The Journal of Chemical Physics ranked number one with over 188,000 citations — nearly twice as many as its next closest competitor. In fact, nearly one third of all citations in this category are attributed to this one journal from AIP Publishing.

In addition to strong citation rankings, many AIP titles experienced notable impact factor increases. See the AIP Publishing press release for more details.

Also of note, Physics Today, AIP’s leading monthly news and physics research magazine, experienced a 19% increase in impact factor to score its highest impact factor ever: 6.762.

Physics Resource Matters

All-male physics departments are not proof of bias against hiring women

If a physics department has no women faculty members, does that mean the department has a hiring bias? In a recent report, Susan White and Rachel Ivie of the AIP Statistical Research Center (SRC) used a simulation analysis to answer this question. Their report, Number of Women in Physics Departments: A Simulation Analysis is available on the SRC website. The simulations involved drawing a random number of women and men to fill up physics faculties in departments of different sizes. They conclude that there are two factors that affect whether a physics department has no women:

  • the total number of faculty members in a single department (many departments have fewer than four faculty members) and
  • the proportion of women among all physics faculty members (currently 13%).

SRC infographic

The simulations can be illustrated with an easy example. If, many different times, you randomly draw four socks from a drawer with 87 green socks and 13 orange socks, you would draw all green socks over half the time. Drawing only three socks, you would get all green about two-thirds of the time. Similarly, if physics departments have only three or four faculty members, we would expect to find more than half of them with all-male or all-female faculty. All-female is very rare because the proportion of women in physics is so low. So, while it may be alarming to see that over 230 of 503 bachelor's-granting physics departments have no women faculty members, statistics suggest this is what we expect to see.

White and Ivie would like to extend the debate about women's status in physics beyond the sheer numbers. A physics department could have one or even more women faculty members and still show bias against women in other practices. For example, results from the SRC's Global Survey of Physicists show that women have less access to opportunities and resources to help advance their careers than their male colleagues. The SRC will begin a new study this fall that will look closely at the climate, or working environment, for women in physics departments in the US.

Hang out with our Hill interns

Mather internsOur two SPS Mather Capitol Hill interns, Nikki Sanford and Katherine Stankus, were featured in the first ever Google+ Hangout conducted by a Congressional Committee.  The House Science, Space and Technology Committee Democrats hosted the live event to enable Nikki and Katherine to answer questions about their summer experience. Here are some of their responses in brief, regarding:

  • Everyday work activities:  Whatever is asked, including drafting hearing questions and opening statements, researching legislation, photography, and administrative duties.
  • Living in DC:  “There are endless opportunities on the Hill that you don’t know about until you get here. ”
  • Favorite things:  Seeing what you wrote actually being used by a Congressional representative; learning how to communicate about different issues.
  • Application of science degrees: Working with the committee has shown how science can be applied in society and how it affects every person in the country.

The Google+ Hangout event enabled the interns to have a frank conversation with their peers about their experiences as scientists on the Hill. The interns stressed that this experience had reinforced the principle that a physics degree can be applied to any field you go in to.  They are also learning important life lessons, noting “No matter how much you prepare, you don’t know how things will go, so you have to be flexible.” 

AIP’s government relations staff also participated in the Hangout to field questions about the internship program. The event can be viewed on YouTube. AIP appreciates the House Science, Space and Technology Democratic staff for hosting our interns this year.

Physics Resource Matters

SPS Observer, Spring 2013 issue

SPS Observer coverScales of SPS: How individual and chapter involvement at the regional, national, and international levels epitomize this year's SPS theme, "Science Beyond Borders: Physics for All."

Coming Up

Wednesday, August 14

  • Staff birthday breakfasts (Melville and College Park)
  • Summer ice cream break (Melville)

Through August 15

  • ACP school supply drive (College Park)

Monday, September 2

  • Labor Day. AIP and AIP Publishing closed. (Melville and College Park)
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