Shared experiences: Conference for women in physics brings UW undergrads together

group photo in front of an astronomy and galaxy-themed backdrop

UW–Madison sophomore Haley Stueber did not always know she wanted to study physics, but she had an inkling.

“I started taking astronomy and physics classes in high school, and what really got me into physics was the astronomy aspect,” Stueber says. “I was always of the mindset that I wanted to keep learning, and I felt like the realm where I could do that was space, because the universe is so big.”

Like most women interested in pursuing a physics major, Stueber noticed something when she started college.

a small lecture hall with only women undergraduate students
Unlike most of their physics lectures, the undergrads who attend CUWiP sessions are surrounded by only women and gender minorities.

“All of my physics courses are predominantly male,” she says. “It was intimidating at first. I’ve definitely gotten more used to it, but it still just kinda sucks looking around the room and being like, ‘Alright, there’s one woman over there, one in that corner, and me.’” She notes that the male majority in her classes has not been largely problematic, but it would be nice to have more of a female presence.

Stueber’s experiences are similar to those of many women physics and physical science majors. According to Joelle Corrigan, a physics graduate student and president of GMaWiP, a UW–Madison organization for Gender Minorities and Women in Physics, only around 20 percent of undergraduate physics majors are women.

In an effort to support and retain women in physics, the American Physical Society hosts the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). This year, 10 UW–Madison undergraduates, along with Corrigan and physics grad student Abigail Shearrow, attended the Midwest regional CUWiP, held January 17-19 and hosted by the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.

“It is a very rare, empowering experience to be in a packed auditorium filled with women and gender minorities all excited about physics,” Corrigan says of the annual conference, which she first attended as an undergraduate. “They have many talks from amazing female scientists, sharing their work and providing role models to many students who may not have seen successful females in that role previously.”

Stueber concurs with Corrigan that it was helpful to see and meet women in the research labs they toured or heard speak during the conference — every presenter was a women scientist. Katy Jurgella, a junior astrophysics and geology major who is only now taking her first physical science course with a female professor this spring, agrees.

“Every presenter who talked about their research also gave an overview of their life story. If you see just their research, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this woman has a PhD in astrophysics, I’ll never get there,’” Jurgella says. “But then they mention they were born on a farm and I was like, ‘I was born on a farm, too!’ It was inspiring to me.”

women from many Midwest schools stand behind their schools' banners on a stair case where the conference was held
Students from all over the Midwest attended the regional CUWiP, hosted by the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.

While one focus of the conference was on research, an equal emphasis was given to professional development, including topics that often strongly apply to women.

Junior AMEP major Gabby Every says, “I went to breakout sessions this year on imposter syndrome, negotiation techniques for women specifically, well-being, work-life balance, and one on grad school. It was a catch-all of issues faced by women specifically.”

Anna Gerosolina, a junior astrophysics and chemistry major who currently has no plans to attend graduate school, says the professional development sessions were very helpful because they did not solely focus on women in academia issues.

“There was one talk about being a woman in the workforce in general, and how you need to be a little more aggressive. But it’s a hard balance because a lot of times we come across as bossy even though it comes across as great when guys are aggressive,” Gerosolina says. “That really stuck with me. It was basically, just stop apologizing for existing. And I didn’t even realize how much I did that.”

UW undergrad women at a table during the conference dinner
UW women physical sciences undergraduates enjoy a conference meal together.

The Midwest regional CUWiP was held January 17-19, just before the spring semester began. The students who attended have already noticed a difference in how they approach their courses, professors, and classmates.

“Even two weeks into the semester, I’ve noticed I’m better at asking questions in class because I’m less afraid,” says Jurgella. “At the conference, they stressed, ‘Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know something, because no one knows anything!’ It’s helped me remain humble, but I’m also less embarrassed now to ask about something I don’t know.”

All the women spoke of the support they now have from their fellow attendees, such as studying together, working together on projects, and just sharing experiences as women in the physical sciences.

“The conference is a great environment because sometimes I forget how reserved I can be in a room full of dominant male voices,” says Every. “Once you’re surrounded by all these women who feel the same way and have gone through similar things, you come out of your shell and talk about things that really matter to you.”

Adds Gerosolina, “These are women I can study with and not be mansplained about how to do basic physics. We even have a Snapchat group chat now!”

Wesley Smith honored for achievements in particle physics

The American Physical Society (APS) announced today, Oct 22, that Wesley Smith, a University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Emeritus of Physics and former Bjorn Wiik Professor of Physics, has earned the 2020 W.K.H. Panofsky Prize in Experimental Particle Physics.

The Panofsky Prize recognizes “outstanding achievements in experimental particle physics,” and is the top APS award in that field.

Smith developed systems that enabled the discovery of the Higgs boson, a previously elusive particle believed to give mass to all matter. Smith led a team of over 100 scientists on the CMS experiment trigger system that captured the data for the Higgs’ discovery at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva.

“In the experiment at the LHC, proton beams collide 40 million times per second, and each time the beams cross, detectors record a snapshot. That’s over a megabyte of data, 40 million times per second. You can’t store it all,” Smith explains. “The problem is, one in 10 trillion of those collisions actually has a Higgs in it, and you don’t want to lose any of them. So how do you do this?”

To sift through the enormous amount of data, Smith and his team developed a triggering system. The two-step mechanism quickly filters through the first set of data, using high speed electronics to take one billion collisions per second and identify interesting patterns in up to 100,000 of them. Then, the second step uses thousands of computing nodes to filter the data down to 1,000 collisions per second — a reasonable amount of data that can be stored.

Wesley Smith holds a large electronics board full of circuits and wires
Professor Wesley Smith shows the electronics of the trigger system which led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Smith led the team that designed and developed the trigger system.

“We designed a large amount of electronics that runs incredibly fast, and it had to be programmable and flexible because we didn’t know what we were going to find,” Smith says. “We’re basically throwing out 99.9999% of the data, and keeping a tiny fraction where all the physics has to come out.”

Smith, who had previously led a team charged with a similar task for the Zeus experiment in Hamburg, Germany, was asked to lead the CMS triggering team in 1993. The Higgs was discovered in June 2012.

Even though a major goal of the CMS experiment was realized, physicists have much left to learn about the Higgs, which means studying more Higgs events. Continuing plans for the experiment, set to go online in the mid-2020s, involve increasing the amount of proton collisions by a factor of 10, resulting in 10 times more data per second. As Smith was finishing his career, he worked on the initial prototyping for an even more advanced triggering system to filter through larger data sets.

“This award means a great deal to me because it’s the recognition of my colleagues, of the team of people who contributed, and because it recognizes this particularly challenging area of detector development and particle physics experimentation which had to be solved in order to do physics at the LHC,” Smith says.

UW–Madison physics department chairperson Sridhara Dasu, who trained with Smith before beginning his faculty position, nominated Smith for the award.

“Professor Smith is recognized as the world-leading expert in the design, construction and operations of the trigger electronics system for hadron colliders,” Dasu says. “The trigger system is at the very heart of particle physics experiments, requiring the very best talent. Professor Smith is the leader in training those best experimenters.”

Physics professor Stefan Westerhoff dies at 50

Stefan Westerhoff, a professor in the physics department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, passed away on Sunday, August 5, 2018, after a long illness. He was 50.

Stefan was a leading physicist in the fields of cosmic ray physics and gamma ray astronomy and a faculty member at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC). He contributed to a suite of historic experiments concentrating on the search for the enigmatic sources of cosmic rays: the High-Energy-Gamma-Ray Astronomy (HEGRA) detector array in La Palma, Spain, the High Resolution Fly’s Eye (HiRes) detector in Utah, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina, the Milagro telescope in New Mexico, and, in the past decade, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located at the South Pole and operated by UW-Madison, and the High Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) Observatory near Puebla, Mexico.

Stefan started his career in particle physics, but he had the vision, many years ago, to move into particle astrophysics. At that time, few astronomers or physicists paid much attention to this struggling discipline, and he was one of the pioneers in the early and rapid expansion of this field in Germany.

Born on December 25, 1967, in Hagen (Germany), Stefan was a PhD student at the University of Wuppertal, where he graduated in 1996. He came to the US as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which included a stint at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Following this, he was a faculty member at Columbia University from 2000 until 2007. He joined the faculty at UW-Madison in 2007, where he became a full professor in 2012.

Throughout his career, he was selected to serve on the main advisory committees covering particle physics as well as particle astrophysics, from the Subatomic Physics Evaluation Section (SAPES) of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, which he chaired in 2015, to the CERN Proton Synchrotron Committee and the advisory board of the Gran Sasso underground laboratory. He was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2013 and received a UW-Madison Vilas Associates Award in 2014.

Stefan also excelled as a teacher. During his time in Madison, he taught courses ranging from core physics requirements to acoustics for musicians. As a physics teacher, Stefan was brilliant and fair, challenging and clear, and he was consistently rated as easily the best physics professor you could ever have, to quote several of his students—many of whom would organize their schedules to take as many courses with him as they possibly could.

At UW-Madison, he was a respected and admired colleague, and especially recognized for the constructive and thoughtful input given to every task he undertook, including advising undergraduate students and serving on committees for new faculty searches and overseeing tenure appointments.

Stefan’s colleagues and friends are deeply saddened by his passing and will remember him for his sharp mind, a witty sense of humor, his comforting voice and presence, and an amiable, generous, and straightforward personality. His legacy as a mentor leaves behind a cohort of scientists, not only in the IceCube and HAWC collaborations but also in other astronomy and astrophysics communities he was once a member of.

Stefan’s passion for music was well known. He preferred the classics and, among them, the opera: Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and many others. Stefan also was an accomplished piano player, although most of his friends never heard him play—not even when they were visiting in a room dominated by a baby grand piano—perhaps from Stefan’s inclination to always devote his full attention to his friends.

When not talking about physics or music, he would also make references to movies. As with music, he was fond of the classics, mostly films released before 1940. Yet he sometimes surprised his friends with his knowledge of sitcoms, such as The Golden Girls or Seinfeld.

Stefan is survived by his parents, Christa and Bernd Westerhoff, who visited him a few times per year but found themselves very far from Madison when Stefan’s health suddenly declined. His family and friends want to express their gratitude to Michaela Schultheis, his doctor Alissa Weber and the SSM oncology team, and the many caring nurses and social workers at Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care.

A memorial service will be held on August 25 in Madison.  It will be from 2:00 to 4:00 PM at the Alumni Lounge in the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon Street. Memorial donations can be made to Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care and/or to the Stefan Westerhoff fund at IceCube for a memorial exhibit on acoustics to be placed in Chamberlin Hall, home of UW-Madison’s Department of Physics. To donate to this fund, please use this link and write “IceCube Project” as “Fund name” and in the gift options section mention that you are making this gift in memory of Stefan Westerhoff.