Sara Evers shares her experience at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics
When a friend told me about the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, I decided to apply without knowing very much about it. The first surprise came when I got invited and shortly after found out that two other girls from my year were attending. We decided to book tickets for the same trains, and we ended up on a six-hour train journey to Oxford together.
Since our train left Edinburgh very early in the morning, we had a few hours in Oxford before the conference started and decided to visit some sights, including the History of Science museum, which fittingly included an exhibition of remarkable women in science. That evening, the conference started with a welcome reception and buffet. There we got to meet many of the other girls attending from all over the UK and Ireland.
The first full day of the conference started with a visit of Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (RAL), a national research facility, with a range of different departments and areas of research. The most exciting part for me was the particle accelerator ISIS, the onsite muon and neutron source. Apart from that, the facilities host a central laser facility, a space research and engineering department and many other interesting facilities. Apart from the tours, we also got a series of talks from several female engineers working at RAL, who told us about their work, how they got where they are today and also about internship and graduate opportunities at RAL.
In the afternoon, we got a talk from Professor Alexandra Olaya-Castro from UCL, who told us about her research and her inspiring career path and the challenges she faced along the way. After that we got to attend different workshop. I took part of a medical physics workshop. As someone who has always been interested in medicine and biology, being able to meet and talk to three medical physicists and getting lots of information about the different career options and training schemes was very insightful.
On the second day, we started off with two talks. The first speaker was Doctor Francesca Day, who is both a theoretical particle physicist at Cambridge University and a stand-up comedian. She gave a talk about Science, Creativity and Stereotypes, talking both about her personal story and research and about general gender and inequality issues in Physics. The second speaker was Ms Carole Kenrick, a resident scientist working in primary schools in London, where she is trying to get young children invested and interested in science.
After the talks in the morning, we got a tour through some of the laboratories at Oxford University. I got to see a particle physics lab, where they worked on detectors for ATLAS, the particle accelerator and detector in Switzerland. We also saw a group working on producing solar cells out of biomaterials and some groups working on telescopes in the Astronomy department.
In the afternoon we got another talk from Dr Rain Irshad, who was talking about her career in space science, starting with her aim to become an astronaut and the many setbacks and changes in life, and how she ended up working at RAL space. Following her talk, there was a career panel, with six physicists who are now pursuing careers outside physics (e.g. Patent law, data science, government adviser). To me, this showcased the many opportunities I will have with a physics degree. The day ended with an informal chat with different scientists and PhD students at Oxford University, where we got to ask questions in a very relaxed atmosphere.
The conference ended on Sunday with a talk from Dr Suchitra Sebastian, talking about combining a career in physics with having a personal life and an academic panel. Attending this conference benefitted me in many different ways. Hearing from all the physicists about their work and their career path inspired me a lot. At the same time, I got to realise how many different career options there are with a degree in physics and how one can get into these different areas. On top of that, it was very motivating to hear about all the setbacks people had to overcome but still made it to where they are today. I now have a better understanding of what it means to do physics research both in academia and industry and what alternatives there are.
On a more practical level, I got to hear about several internship programmes, some of which I will definitely apply for next year, as well as information on postgraduate studies and funding, which will be very helpful in a few years’ time.
But the most inspiring aspect of the conference wasn’t even the great programme, but that I got to meet so many female physicists and physics students, all very passionate about this subject. Being used to usually having a male majority in every single lecture and workshop, sitting in a lecture theatre full of female physicists is quite an empowering feeling. Over the weekend, I got to meet so many great and inspiring people and made many great connections and friendships that will hopefully last for a long time. I’m very grateful to both the organisers of the conference, especially the main organiser Professor Daniela Bortoletto, and the School of Physics and Astronomy at Edinburgh University, who enabled us to attend the conference by covering our travel costs to Oxford.