Let’s Get Physical

There have only been two Nobel Prizes in physics awarded to women in the entire 114 years of the prize’s existence, and none since 1963. I asked three of Research2Reality’s female physics research rockstars to comment on their decision to study in such a male-dominated field and which women researchers they believe should win the next Nobel.

The Nobel Prize announcements were made in early October, and with them another reminder of the small number of women afforded this honour. Physics has a particularly bad record; only two women have ever received the Nobel Prize in Physics! The first was Marie Sklodowska Curie in 1903 for her work on radiation. The second was Marie Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for her work on nuclear shell structure. Since then, nada. Physics is historically a very male-dominated field but there has been growth in the number of physics PhDs conferred to women, a trend that is not reflected in the Nobel ratios.

Still, getting more female researchers in physics will certainly make them more and more difficult to ignore. What makes someone want to study physics and how can we encourage this in women? I spoke to three of Research2Reality’s women research rockstars in physics to find out. Dr. Fiona McNeill is a Professor in the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation and Associate Vice President Research at McMaster University, Dr. Sarah Gallagher is an Associate Professor at Western University in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Dr. Melanie Campbell is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo.

What made you choose to study physics?

For all three women, physics wasn’t immediately apparent as their chosen field. Dr. Gallagher started in University taking various science courses, but eventually physics, with its “clean view of the world” separated itself from the rest. Dr. Gallagher saw physics as the most fundamental of the sciences. Astrophysics in particular drew her in because of how close it was to the unknown; you could make big progress on big questions because lots of big questions still remained.

Dr. Campbell actually didn’t take physics at all in first year. She took first year physics in second year because her favourite part of chemistry class was physical chemistry. She remembers coming out of the first evening midterm smiling and when her Professor pulled her aside to ask about her grin, she replied “that was so much fun”. University physics was taught with a depth that illuminated the world for her. Not surprisingly, her Professor suggested she switch to a physics major.

For Fiona McNeill, it was her love of sci-fi and an encouraging father that sealed the deal. Her dad was a high school science teacher, so science was part of her life from a very young age. When her dad went back to university to study biology, she would spend almost every day at the zoo with him as he studied spider monkeys.

The lesson here is clear: encourage girls into STEM and the physicists will come.

Did you notice that the field was male-dominated? What made you keep going despite this?

Did you notice that the field was male-dominated? What made you keep going despite this?

When I ask this question everyone laughs. Of course they noticed! It’s hard not to notice. Dr. Gallagher recalls several times when she was the only woman in the class. Dr. McNeill was one of five girls in her graduating class of 55 at the University of Edinburgh. During our conversations, two things emerged as requirements for women in physics: you have to be stubborn and you need a support network.

When Dr. Gallagher noticed that she was the only woman in a class, she remembers thinking, “Well, I can’t quit now!” She notes that it’s also important to have a network of colleagues that you can talk to if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Chances are, lots of people didn’t understand that lecture either!

Dr. Campbell mentions several organizations, from university level to international, for women in physics. She is the faculty advisor for FemPhys, a club for women in physics at the University of Waterloo. There’s also the annual Women in Physics Canada Conference (this year’s was held in Toronto) and the International Conference on Women in Physics. Dr. McNeill adds that she, “…didn’t need a female role model, but lots of females need female role models”.

What woman do you think should have or should still win the Nobel Prize in physics?

Dr. Gallagher doesn’t hesitate with her answer: Vera Rubin. After some thought, Dr. Campbell seconds this nomination. In the 1970s, Dr. Vera Rubin provided some of the strongest evidence for the existence of dark matter with her work on galaxy rotation. She is among ten other prominent women physicists mentioned in this Slate article as deserving of the Nobel.

There are clearly many women doing great work in physics. Hopefully more of them will be recognized soon, with what is undoubtedly still the most iconic prize in the sciences.

Research2Reality is a ground-breaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public. See all our content at www.research2reality.com or follow us on Twitter and Facebook for up-to-date Canadian research news.

Malgosia Pakulska


For Women in Science

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