My Experience at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

By Fernanda Sophia Morais Laroca

On January 19, twelve Amherst College students (including myself!) hopped in a car to Boston for the American Physical Society Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (APS CUWiP). CUWiPs are three-day regional conferences for undergraduate physics majors who identify as women or a gender minority, with the goal of helping them continue in physics by giving an “opportunity to experience a professional conference, information about graduate school and professions in physics, and access to other women in physics of all ages with whom they can share experiences, advice, and ideas.” This year’s New England conference was co-hosted by Boston College and Wellesley College at BC’s campus. 

Reporting for ASN, what follows is a diary of my experience at the event.


After speed-packing in the morning and a very quick lunch, four Amherst students and I drove to the conference. Upon arrival, we quickly unpacked at the hotel and went straight to the registration/check-in table at Corcoran Commons, where we received our name tags and conference swag (!). After, we went to the first poster session, where we got to see some of the physics research being developed at BC. Later, we heard the opening remarks from organizers Benedetta Flebus (BC), Laura Steinberg (BC), James Battat (Wellesley College), Mu-Chun Chen (APS National Organizing Committee) and had dinner. Immediately following, we had our first Planetary Talk from Mallika Randeria (MIT Lincoln Laboratory), titled “Qubits and Me: Balancing Physics and Life.” In the talk, Randeria discussed both her research in superconducting qubits (which are macroscopic superconducting circuit components with quantum properties) and quantum computing, as well as how her life path led her to work at Lincoln Laboratory. 

Afterwards, we had a physics trivia competition, which the Amherst team won (!), and went back to the hotel for some well-deserved sleep.


On Saturday, we woke up just in time for breakfast and took the BC shuttle to the conference. After a welcome from Mike Graff (BC), we had our first talk of the day, “Planetary Talk II: Journey Through the Particles” by Zeynep Demiragli (Boston University). The talk was about Demiragli’s journey moving from studying physics at a female-dominated university in her home country of Turkey to getting her PhD at Brown and postdoc at MIT in male-dominated environments. She also weaved in the history of the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) discovery of the Higgs boson (a particle in the Standard Model first theorized in the 1960s which through the interaction of its field with other particles gives mass to them), and the story of her life, to show how much of science opportunities are gained through adapting your interests to current research.

We had some parallel workshops on careers as physicists, and following that was the National Keynote Speaker, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (University of Oxford). If her name sounds familiar, that is because she is famous for discovering pulsars during her PhD, which is precisely what she told us about. She walked us through the story of her discovery of pulsars (rotating neutron stars that emit electromagnetic beams out of their magnetic poles), and what it was like to be a woman in the extremely male-dominated field of astrophysics in the 1960s. At the end, someone asked her how she felt when her advisor received a Nobel Prize for her discovery, not her, to which she replied that she was just glad that for the first time, an astrophysics discovery won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and how she could imagine how many doors that opened for future astrophysics research. 

After Planetary Talk II with Anushya Chandran (BC) on quantum computing, we headed to dinner and the poster session of student research in which I got to hear a lot about the undergraduate research conducted at other universities in Massachusetts. Some Amherst College astronomy professors were popular names!


On the last day, we woke up early enough to walk to the BC campus, even though it was absolutely freezing, and head to “Planetary Talk IV: Reaching for the Best of Both Science and Life” by Ling Wang (Biostatistics Alkermes Inc.), where we not only learned about pursuing a career in the industry, but also her story of becoming a mother and a scientist simultaneously.

The view from our walk.

After hearing about the next APS conference, we went to our last workshop, which were the parallel talks, where I attended “From Students to Scientists: Diverse Journals through Physics,” and got to hear from undergraduate and graduate students alike, as well as research fellows and professors about their pathways through physics at such diverse stages. 

After the closing remarks and a questionnaire by APS, it was time to eat lunch and head home. Attending APS as a first-year student gave me so much hope and perspective on what I can do while pursuing a physics career and left me re-invigorated to continue on this path.

One group picture before going home!