Joint Annual Black/Hispanic Physicists Conference Draws Hundreds, Gets Positive Reviews

By Tehani Finch, Ph.D.

In September 2011, the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP) converged on the very warm location of Austin, Texas for their joint annual conference, with the theme “Global Competitiveness through Diversity”. This event featured tours of the physics department of the University of Texas, plenary sessions, an awards banquet, poster presentations, research talks on a wide range of subjects, and dozens of corporate, academic, & government recruiters.

The conference attendees included some 600 students, faculty, research scientists, exhibitors, and friends of the physics community. The last time NSBP and NSHP had had a joint meeting this size was in February of 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. NSBP President Peter Delfyett, of the University of Central Florida, expressed abundant satisfaction at the number of attendees and indicated that NSBP will try to build on this momentum for a future conference. David Ernst of Vanderbilt University, the immediate past President of NSHP, emphasized that this year’s conference was helped significantly by funding from the Southeastern Universities Research Association. The National Science Foundation, Dell Computers, and the University of Texas at Austin also provided generous funding.

One of the presentations that got the biggest response from faculty was “Mentoring Research Students”, facilitated by Eric Hooper of the University of Wisconsin and David Ernst. Since faculty everywhere have had to deal with challenges when mentoring students, nearly everyone in attendance had his or her own anecdotes; many were perceived as more approachable than the typical professor and therefore had been sought out by students for help or guidance. During the discussion, certain commonalities became apparent. Familiar questions about culture of an institution included “how supportive does such-and-such department tend to be of minority students?” and “During the hiring process, do female scientists encounter interview questions different from those posed to male scientists?” It was noted that many professors struggle to balance being receptive to students having difficulties versus preserving the integrity of the student-faculty professional relationship. It was further pointed out that such boundaries depend on the situation; the relationship of a faculty member with a student he or she directly supervises may differ from that with a student in a different research group, department, or institution.

Astronaut Piers Sellers of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center enthralled the audience with the presentation of his trip into space. He featured a video that included footage of astronauts floating upside down, eating weightless pieces of food, and frolicking in zero gravity. He described the enormous push felt during the acceleration of the initial take-off, how heavy one feels when one first returns to the gravity of earth, and the adjustments of the human body after returning from space. He was able to put a human face on the astronaut corps, which students, faculty, and administrators all appreciated. One young student remarked that it was among the most memorable presentations of the entire conference.

The Nobel Laureate and Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science at the University of Texas, Steven Weinberg, discussed fundamental particle physics and cosmology during the keynote address at the closing dinner. He recounted portions of the history of particle physics, including those in which he had played a major part, such as the unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions. He declared that a theory beyond the standard model of particle physics will be needed to unify all four fundamental interactions (strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitational), and of the major candidates available, he finds string theory to be the most favorable. Nonetheless, he lamented that string theory has yet to fashion a firm connection to the standard model.

Several hundred undergraduate students and beginning graduate students were in attendance, and unsurprisingly, this gathering was in some ways a bit overwhelming for some of them. The nature of modern-day physics is that typical research projects require the expertise of a second- or third-year graduate student just to fully grasp the nature of the questions being examined. Many of the talks can be mystifying for any who do not specialize in that subfield, including senior scientists from other areas of physics. Nonetheless, there was no shortage of students that relished the opportunity to participate in the conference. Ajamu Abdullah, a Howard University junior majoring in physics, noted that the opportunities for networking and learning about internships were impressive, commenting, “I strongly encourage students to attend…and take away as much as they can” from the NSBP/NSHP conference.

Pictured from left to right are NSBP President Peter Delfyett, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Tehani Finch.

Tehani Finch, Ph.D. is a lecturer at Howard University. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: A.I.Roca
The citation for this article is:
T. Finch (2012) Joint Annual Black/Hispanic Physicists Conference Draws Hundreds, Gets Positive Reviews.
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Published 15-Dec-2012