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ODU Conference Joins National Effort to Mentor Female Physics Students

By Tom Robinson/ttrobins@odu.edu

Old Dominion University physicist Gail Dodge had few female role models during her educational journeys through Princeton and Stanford. That's among the reasons Dodge is excited Old Dominion, and Jefferson Lab in Newport News, will co-host 150 aspiring women scientists Jan. 15-17 as part of the nationwide Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

"Women are badly under-represented in physics," said Dodge, honored in 2015 with the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "We just can't afford to have half the population not contributing to the technological future of the country."

Nine simultaneous regional conferences, directed by the American Physical Society, will seek to change that trend. It is the 10th consecutive year that college women fascinated by physics will get to meet, network, ponder their scientific futures, receive academic and professional guidance and, if necessary, even comfort.

"Bringing women together where they can see other women is part of building that sense of community," Dodge said. "Some may not need it. But it's very helpful for women who feel isolated or somehow don't see going into physics as a viable option for them to know they're not alone."

The conference, supported as well by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy Office of Science, begins Friday night at Old Dominion's Ted Constant Convocation Center. Much of Saturday will be spent at the Jefferson Lab Nuclear Accelerator, where there will be tours, graduate school and career information, and presentations by university and NASA physicists. Old Dominion is J-Lab's largest research partner.

Saturday night's keynote speaker at Old Dominion's Diehn Center for the Performing Arts will be Kathryn Flanagan of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

When the women - and a few undergraduate men also attending for career guidance, Dodge noted - leave Sunday, they will better understand that advanced degrees aren't a requirement to continue in physics, Dodge said.

"The future is wide open," she said. "Sometimes men and women have the impression all they can do in physics is go to graduate school. Many people go into industry or professions or teaching. We want to make sure students know they have many options so that they continue to pursue what they love rather than getting discouraged."

Dodge said Old Dominion's entire physics department, which also includes female physicist Lepsha Vuskovic, prides itself on nurturing and retaining students. ODU's percentage of female undergraduate students is typically around the national average of 20 percent.

But ODU's usual percentage of female graduate students is about 30 percent, above the national average. This year, department chair Charles Sukenik said, 13 of Old Dominion's 47 grad students (28 percent) are female.

To build camaraderie throughout the department, Dodge and Vuskovic host dinners at their homes for all female physics students each year.

Efforts to build community nationwide appear to be working. About 1,500 undergraduate women will attend the regional conferences. And 20 percent of the Ph.D.s awarded in physics nationwide now go to women, an all-time high, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Likewise, statistics show the number of women who earned a Ph.D. in physics increased from 153 in 2001 to 354 in 2012, an increase of 131 percent.

Dodge recalls being one of five female doctoral physics students at Stanford, but the only one who completed her degree.

"I was always encouraged, but I still suffered from some internal doubt and a lack of self-confidence that I could make it," said Dodge, an experimental physicist. "Now I enjoy mentoring very much. I try to provide at Old Dominion what I would have liked to have had."

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