Jeff Gore - Young women in physics explore faculty careers in inaugural MIT workshop

Rising Stars event features research presentations, panel discussions on academic life.

Elizabeth A. Thomson | Department of Physics
December 14, 2016

Twenty-four of the world's leading female physicists gathered at MIT recently for a two-day workshop aimed at increasing the number of women who pursue faculty positions in physics.

In the United States, only 16 percent of physics faculty are women, according to a fall 2015 analysis by the American Institute of Physics. At MIT, about 15 percent of the faculty in the Department of Physics are women.

"One of the main goals of the inaugural Rising Stars in Physics Workshop is to change those statistics," says Professor Peter Fisher, head of the MIT Department of Physics. "The idea was to bring together the next generation of women physics leaders for two days of scientific discussions, panels, and informal discussions aimed at navigating the early stages of an academic career." Participants were selected from 82 applicants. All were within a year of graduating with a PhD or obtained a PhD no earlier than 2011.

The idea is pure genius, says Erika Hamden, a postdoc and astrophysicist at Caltech. "MIT gets to meet incredible women who could be potential faculty hires in the future while the participants get an inside view of the hiring process and what it's like to be a young faculty member, plus a view of life at MIT. I think other physics departments should do exactly the same thing!"

The Rising Stars in Physics Workshop was organized by Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT. He was inspired by Anantha Chandrakasan, the head of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), who organized the first EECS Rising Stars workshop in 2012. Since then, the workshops have expanded to other MIT engineering departments, and the EECS event has been hosted by other universities.

After talking with Chandrakasan, "I thought it was time to organize the first Rising Stars workshop for physics," says Jarillo-Herrero, who noted that Fisher and other colleagues were very supportive. Six other MIT faculty joined him on the organizing committee. They are: Nikta Fakhri, assistant professor of physics; Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics; Sara Seager, the Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science; Iain Stewart, professor of physics; Lindley Winslow, the Jerrold R. Zacharias Career Development Assistant Professor of Physics, and Bolek Wyslouch, professor of physics.

Mavalvala and Seager were also guest speakers at lunches and dinners. Other prominent guest speakers included Jacqueline Hewitt, an MIT professor of physics and director of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and Maria Zuber, MIT's vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics.

Workshop events included short research presentations by each of the 24 participants. These ranged from "Unraveling the Mysteries of Superconductors," by Ming Yi, a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley, to "Ultrafast and Nonequilibrium Processes in Quantum Plasmonics," by Prineha Narang, a Ziff Environmental Fellow at Harvard University.

"I rarely have the opportunity to hear about research being conducted beyond astrophysics, so I really enjoyed learning about all of the very different areas of physics in which these talented scientists are working. It was also a great chance for me to practice sharing my [own] work with a broader scientific audience," says Elisabeth Newton, a postdoc at MIT.

The program also featured several panel discussions on topics including the first few years of a faculty career to managing the work-life balance and public speaking. Panelists from MIT included Fakhri, Fisher, Jarillo-Herrero, Mavalvala, and Seager plus Jeff Gore, the Latham Family Career Development Associate Professor of Physics; Kerstin Perez, assistant professor of physics; Vladan Vuletic, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics; Michael Sipser, dean of MIT's School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics; Ibrahim Cisse, the Class of 1922 CD Assistant Professor of Physics; Tracy Slatyer, the Jerrold R. Zacharias CD Assistant Professor of Physics; and Edmund Bertschinger, professor of physics and the MIT Institute Community and Equity Officer.

External panelists were Mariangela Lisanti of Princeton Univeristy, Toyoko Orimoto of Northeastern University, and Monika Schleier-Smith of Stanford University.

Says Kanika Sachdev, a fellow at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory: "After returning from the workshop, I discussed with some of my tenured colleagues what I'd learned at the workshop and their reaction was unanimously something to the effect of, 'that's absolutely right! I wish someone had told me this when I was starting out on an academic career.' I got this same reaction whether I talked about the discussions we had about time management or the faculty application process or the work-life balance."

Sachdev called the discussions "immensely important": "In my opinion [they] need to happen more openly and become the norm in academia, because they would help young academics make more informed and conscious choices."

Hsin-Yu Chen, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, noted that "some of the topics discussed in the panels ... applied to all physicists. I certainly would be happy to share all of these discussions with my male colleagues."

Jarillo-Herrero hopes to convene future Rising Stars in Physics Workshops. "It was extraordinary to see so many talented young women in one room — I'm used to being in a room with mostly male colleagues. So it was very inspiring, and shows how much talent is out there that we can tap into for academic careers."