Six women all gathered in a classroom, talking about how excited they were to see so many similar women in one place.
They met in the Bigelow Physics Building at UNLV for a murder mystery game night on Sept. 30. Six people may not sound like a lot, but for women in the UNLV physics department, it was a big deal.
Graduate student research assistant Kristine Haley organized the event to create a community for women in UNLV physics. She identified herself as an advocate for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses.
“I have always been a huge proponent for women in STEM and I’m a little biased for
women in physics because I’m in physics,” Haley said. “It’s easy to sit in a classroom full of men and not feel comfortable in the classroom.”
According to UNLV Office of Decision Support’s students statistics, 29 women are
enrolled under a physics and astronomy major at UNLV, compared to 91 men. These numbers account for both undergraduate and graduate students.
The physics department only has one female faculty member. The low amount of women in these programs can lead to women’s experiences in STEM being more difficult than men’s. Studying STEM can already be very difficult, and the additional pressures of feeling alone, anxious, uncomfortable and feeling like an impostor can be enough to push women out of STEM subjects.
This almost happened to Haley. She struggled with imposter syndrome during her
undergraduate years, questioning her ability to study physics despite her accomplishments. Haley is a listed author in two research publications and had a 3.8 GPA in physics and math as an undergraduate. Still she felt strongly that she didn’t belong.
It wasn’t until Haley made female friends within the department that she had the encouragement to stick with physics. Haley applied for a grant last fall and used those funds to set up the murder mystery game night. The “whodunnit” mystery game created a friendly environment for women in physics to listen to each other’s research interests, share their experiences as women in STEM and connect undergraduates with graduate students.
She hopes to create a support system to help other female physics students like the ladies who gave her support.
Haley’s event isn’t the only initiative for women at the physics department. Daniel
Proga, a UNLV professor of physics and astronomy, has an astronomy research program targeting undergraduate students of any major. Proga specifies that underrepresented students like women and other minorities are welcome to apply.
Proga grew up in Poland, where female science teachers are a typical sight. He collaborated with and was mentored by women throughout his academic career in Europe. When he arrived in the United States for post-doctoral work and eventually ended up at UNLV, Proga realized the diversity of the U.S. was greater than he ever experienced, so he decided to be more proactive and gave opportunities to minority graduate students he mentored.
To Proga, extending opportunities to underrepresented undergraduates is just part of that past.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, perhaps never stopped,” Proga said. “I don’t
consider it as very different from things that I’ve been doing for years.”
From a faculty standpoint, Proga speculates that the UNLV physics department only has one female faculty member because of tradition. Proga is used to working with female scientists, but older generations may have not been exposed to large amounts of diversity.
Hiring people from different backgrounds could provide enough momentum to adopt successful strategies from other institutions. Dr. Proga also said that the number of female faculty is low because female applicants don’t find it appealing that there is such a low number of women in the first place. He threw out an idea to hire a cluster of female faculty at one time, like hiring three women at once instead of one at a time.
Haley believes that the department could provide funding for food and drink to make it
easier for female students to get together. She said that undergraduate and graduate students
aren’t paid much, so being able to meet without worrying about finances would be more inviting to female students.
Haley also said that just being accepting and supportive of initiatives like these would be extremely helpful. She recalled a story where she mentioned creating a female physics group to a male peer. He asked why and said that there were plenty of women. Haley was completely shocked at what he said. She said that people don’t necessarily have to understand the reason why, it’s crucial for them to just be supportive.
“I was really hoping that everyone would be interested in getting back together,” Haley
said after the event ended. “I think forming a group of a community of females within the
department is necessary.”
The six women have planned to meet once a month, cementing the official creation of a
women in physics group.
This article was submitted by a UNLV journalism student as part of an assignment for a journalism class to get work published in the student newspaper. The article was edited by The Scarlet & Gray staff.