Karen Barad gives a presentation on feminism and science Jan. 17, during the Women in Physics conference held at UCSC. Photo by Morgan Grana.
Karen Barad gives a presentation on feminism and science Jan. 17, during the Women in Physics conference held at UCSC. Photo by Morgan Grana.

In the lab or in the classroom, female physics students are always in the minority.

Last weekend, at the West Coast Conference for Women in Physics, female physics students gathered at UC Santa Cruz to learn about opportunities in their field and discuss the reasons they are such an underrepresented group.

Over the course of the three-day conference, prominent female physicists presented their work, and discussed the options for women in physics as well as the challenges they face.

Speakers included Sandy Faber, UCSC professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and several other successful female researchers and professors from West Coast universities.

The conference was held simultaneously with three others at Ohio State University, Duke University and Yale University.

Though in the past the University of Southern California hosted the conference, a number of groups and individuals were eager to hold it in Santa Cruz.

Students and faculty worked to bring to light an issue that is important to many female college students — the treatment of women in the professional world.

Event organizer and UCSC third-year Jessica Missaghian said the goal of the conference was to educate female students about their opportunities in the sciences.

“This is an opportunity to network, learn about the research that’s being done, meet peers, and to see the opportunities that we have in pursuing careers in science,” Missaghian said.

Melinda Soares, a third-year physics major who also helped organize the event, said she hoped to give female students encouragement to continue on in physics by providing them with positive role models.

“It exposes them to various career paths,” she said, “as well as lets them meet inspiring women in their field.”

Conference attendees were invited to hear lectures by female physicists throughout the weekend, from Jan. 15 to 17. In addition, university physics professors opened their labs to tours and gave short presentations on their work.

Joel Primack, a distinguished professor of physics at UCSC, was among them.

“Some of the best students and collaborators I’ve had are women,” Primack said. “I’ve appreciated for a very long time that women can make huge contributions to the sciences.”

Primack emphasized the importance of the conference in making female students aware of their opportunities in the field, which will hopefully decrease the number of woman physics students who leave the field early in their education.

According to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), while the numbers are increasing over time, the number of undergraduate women receiving degrees in physics is less than 20 percent, and is even lower at the graduate level.

Primack believes the disparity in numbers between undergraduate and graduate female students can be attributed to the pressure to commit to either having a family or having a career in physics. However, he doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

“You can have it all — a great scientific career and a family,” Primack said. “I think we need to change the rules, or work within them to make people realize it’s possible, and what they have to do.”

Ultimately, physics department chair David Belanger said that the goal of the conference was to increase the number of women pursuing a career in physics. The percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in physics has increased from 9 percent in 1978 to 21 percent in 2007, the AIP reported.

“Physics is one of those fields underrepresented by women,” he said. “We’d like to increase the number of women going into the field — they can see what it’s like to have a career in physics, and be inspired to keep going on [in the field].”

The conference’s location at UCSC also gave the visiting students a chance to explore the university as an option for graduate school, said fourth-year physics student Assia Tolpygo. However, she too placed importance on exposing students to opportunities to succeed in the field without sacrificing the rest of their lives.

“We want to emphasize that you can be a normal person but do these wonderful, incredible things,” Tolypgo said. “It’s all very possible.”