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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion Physics Convention Guides Female Students’ Next Steps

By Tom Robinson

Sarah Overstreet's pursuit of a career in physics or math brought her to Old Dominion University last weekend with open eyes and ears.

She met about 150 other undergraduate women from mid-Atlantic colleges and universities who also are skilled in physics, and eager to decide what they'll do next.

The three-day Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, co-sponsored by Old Dominion and its nuclear research partner Jefferson Lab in Newport News, was there to offer expert guidance and support.

"I don't know which direction I want to go," said Overstreet, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., before Friday night's kickoff dinner at Old Dominion's Constant Convocation Center.

Overstreet said she was studying nursing, but switched when physics and math captivated her.

"I want to see if something like a scientific management position might be smarter for me," she said.

Answers, and other food for thought, were plentiful for women here, and around the country last weekend. The local conference was one of nine held simultaneously by the American Physical Society to support women, who are vastly under-represented in physics.

At ODU and Jefferson Lab, students received information through seminars, a tour of Jefferson Lab, a career and graduate-school fair, panel discussions and a keynote speaker - Kathryn Flanagan, from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Networking and fact-finding opportunities were rich for the women from 36 institutions who came to take advantage.

"I want to learn more about women in the field today, because they don't really get talked about unless you're in the right circles," said Amethyst Maps, a junior at Old Dominion. "And I'm interested to get advice on how to apply for grad school and what it's going to be like, because I intend to go to grad school."

Chandra De Silva, Old Dominion's interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, in his welcoming remarks reminded the group that Old Dominion, Jefferson Lab's biggest research partner, features one of the nation's best and most inclusive physics departments.

"A third of the graduate students here are women, far above the national norm," said De Silva, who also cited the physics department's three professors honored with Outstanding Faculty Awards from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. They are Larry Weinstein (2009), Gail Dodge (2015) and Charles Hyde (2016).

Dodge led a year-long effort to organize the convention, and she said the rousing appreciation she received from numerous students was gratifying.

"There were so many students thrilled to learn about the different opportunities they were hearing about," said Dodge. "And I think they were grateful to hear they could make a mistake and pick themselves up if something didn't go right and they could still pursue their dream."

Dodge said Ginger Kerrick, a flight director for NASA, reinforced the latter point by remote teleconference with all nine conventions Saturday afternoon.

"She talked a lot about the challenges she faced and how she picked herself up," Dodge said. "That's a powerful lesson for anyone in any field."

Dodge will speak about the efforts to increase the number of women in physics in an encore broadcast of the public radio program "With Good Reason," airing Sunday, Jan. 24 at 7 a.m. on WHRV-FM 89.5 in Hampton Roads.

"With Good Reason," produced by the Charlottesville-based Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, was created more than 20 years ago to spotlight the groundbreaking research being done at Virginia's public universities.

The show airs in more than 50 markets nationwide. Broadcast days and times are posted on the "With Good Reason" Website

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