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Mount Holyoke College


BY SARA LONDON

 
 
BEN BARNHART
  Danthu H. Vu '03 (foreground); Janice Hudgings, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics; and Becky Wai-Ling Packard, assisiant professor of psychology and education, explore the College's physics career Web site.

Can you name a woman physicist other than Marie Curie? If not, it just might be because today, more than sixty-five years after the death of radium’s codiscoverer, relatively few women have entered the field. According to a June 2000 report published by the American Institute of Physics, in 1998, women earned less than one-fifth of bachelor’s degrees in physics; received only one-eighth of Ph.D.s in the field; and accounted for only 8 percent of college and university physics professors. Two Mount Holyoke professors are trying to improve these numbers through a high-tech mentoring initiative they created to encourage future Madame Curies.

Research repeatedly points to the importance of mentoring in the retention of women in the sciences. According to Catherine Jay Didion, executive director of the Association for Women in Science, “There is no better way to encourage women to enter the sciences than to create interaction between students and female scientists in industry, government, or academia.” To ensure that physics students are getting the mentoring boost they need, Janice Hudgings, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics, and Becky Wai-Ling Packard, assistant professor of psychology and education, have brought a NASA robot builder, a prosthetic limb developer, an acoustical consultant, and other specialists into the classroom via a new interactive Web site. Having access to these successful scientists, many of whom are alumnae of the College, is transforming the way students are thinking about their own potential to pursue a career in physics.

 
 
 
 
KEVIN GUTTING
  Becky Wai-Ling Packard with Sasha Cirino, whom she has mentored for more than a year. Cirino recently became the first person in her family to graduate from high school and begin a college career.

"You come from a particular neighborhood and you write off certain options,” says Becky Wai-Ling Packard, “But then someone sees potential in you and helps you to turn everything around.” Packard, who grew up in a blue-collar community in a Detroit suburb, considers herself among the lucky. Two years ago, at the age of twenty-five, she became an assistant professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke. Now she teaches about the crucial role of mentorship, particularly for women in minority and low-income communities.

“Most young women in my neighborhood dropped out of school,” says Packard. But her mother, a Chinese immigrant who worked in fast-food restaurants, and her father, a Campbell Soup Company employee, instilled the value of hard work and education in their children. In school, Packard was encouraged by first-rate teachers. She won a scholarship to college, where a professor provided valuable mentoring and the encouragement to later earn a Ph.D. in educational psychology.

Now, mentorship and motivation are among the subjects Packard teaches, and her students lead workshops and work with elementary and high school students. In her current research on retention, mentoring, and socioeconomic diversity, she and her students are examining trends in higher education.

Retention for women in the sciences is of special interest to Packard. As an undergraduate in chemistry, her focus was research. Ultimately, however, she decided to combine her research interests with a passion for counseling, devoting part of her graduate studies to investigating why so many talented women stray from career paths in the natural sciences.

Packard trains student mentors at Mount Holyoke and volunteers as a mentor for an outreach program for local teens. “It is the hardest-case scenario that interests me most,” she says. “My accomplishments are really minor considering the hurdles these girls face and successfully overcome."

“To give students ideas about how their pursuit of physics connects to a future,” says Packard, “we created a careers Web site that has links to ‘real-life’ women physicists and applications of physics.” The site was developed to address concerns Packard and Hudgings shared about low retention rates among women in the sciences. To make role models more visible to students, they found sixteen professionals who work in physics-related fields, thirteen of them Mount Holyoke alumnae, and created profiles of the women for the site. Each is featured with a report on her work, how she spends her free time, and difficulties she has faced in her professional life. Through these role models, students have learned that a wide range of professionals, including doctors, dentists, deep-sea divers, mechanical engineers, and astronauts, are also physicists.

The site, titled “A Spectrum of Possibilities,” is now an integral part of Physics 115 and incorporates a list of topics covered in class and assignments with links to women in corresponding careers. Under the topic “2-D and 3-D Motion and Force,” for example, five professionals are listed, with specialties ranging from clinical biomechanics to the study of humans in space to weather sensing. Krisanne E. Bothner ’90 works in clinical gait analysis at a hospital that serves children and adults with neurological disorders that affect walking. Under “Gravitation and Simple Harmonic Oscillation,” students find Lucia Dexter Brimer ’76, an assistant project director of the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, which solicits proposals for experiments to be tested aboard a zero-gravity training aircraft.

Student responses to the site have been “overwhelmingly positive,” says Hudgings. “Beforehand, they had stereotypical notions of what physicists were like. They are now discovering that careers in physics do not exclude a family life, and that these are not superwomen. They are also learning that hard science can help people; for example, it has frequent applications in medicine.” Perhaps most importantly, the Web site has succeeded in boosting confidence, says Packard. “Students are able to look at themselves and see ‘a science person.’ The field has taken on a fresh, purposeful, accessible, and exciting relevance.”

 
 
BEN BARNHART
  Physics professor Janice Hudgings and Charis Quay Huei Li '01 observe light from a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser being back-reflected into the laser from an external mirror. A small amount of the light is coupled out of the beam path using a beam splitter; that light is sent to a photodetector and a spectrometer for analysis.
In October, Iva Zaharieva ‘01, Charis Quay Huei Li ‘01, and Kirstin Walther ‘01 gave “poster presentations” on their research on vertical-cavity surface-emitting (VCSEL) lasers at the annual meeting of the Optical Society of America (OSA). Among the thousands of professionals, graduate students, and industrial researchers who attended from all over the world, the three Mount Holyoke undergraduates were standouts.

Their work elicited enthusiastic praise and added momentum to the cutting-edge work they have been doing for their independent thesis study under the tutelage of Mount Holyoke physics professor Janice Hudgings. Of special interest to Hudgings is the new light source called the VCSEL that may one day replace the conventional semiconductor lasers used for CD drives and printers. VCSELs are currently revolutionizing the field of optical communications.

“The new lasers exhibit all kinds of fascinating physical behavior,” says Hudgings, “and we are hard at work investigating why.” While Zaharieva and Quay Huei Li are looking into how optical feedback, or “back-reflected” light, degrades the laser’s performance, Katherine Boates ‘02 is examining light interference in optical fiber, and Walther is composing a mathematical model of the VCSEL that might help explain its behavior.

A new optics lab, initiated in 1999 by Hudgings with the help of funding from Mount Holyoke and Jean McPherson Bennett ’51, a retired physicist who specialized in optics, has made high-tech laser experiments possible on campus, providing students with an invaluable advantage. “I have learned so much, and this exposure to optics has given me a better feel for what I want to do in graduate school,” says Quay Huei Li. “And Janice has been a great adviser.” Hudgings also teaches courses in introductory electromagnetism, advanced quantum mechanics, and mathematical methods.