When it comes to physics, it’s a man’s world.
The discrepancy begins as early as high school, where there are far fewer women than men enrolled in high school physics classes across Canada. The male-female imbalance continues to worsen through university and in all career stages.
“Girls are looking for opportunities to make a difference. What we don’t communicate well about fields like physics and engineering, is that these are careers where you can have a great impact,” said Elizabeth Croft, a professor of mechanical engineering at UBC and an expert in the field of robotics.
“In high school we say, ‘Solve equations!’, ‘Do this study on the Milikan experiment!’ or ‘Document the number of electrons!’ Well, how exciting is that?” Croft said. “We don’t connect that to knowing the strength and materials needed to design a car to keep people safe, or how to process chemicals to produce enough energy for our world without polluting our environment.”
Croft is one of 15 female scientists invited to speak at UBC’s second annual Women in Physics conference this week. More than 115 people are expected to attend, many of them young women enrolled in university-level science programs. Conference organizers say they want to encourage and support young women who may have an interest in pursuing careers in physics and other sciences.
Anne Broadbent’s interest in science actually began in high school, but the postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo agrees that such a career can be isolating for many women.
“This conference is really to tell other young women that they’re not alone,” said Broadbent, who was surrounded by male classmates as she completed degrees at the University of Waterloo and the University of Montreal. “We hope to give all the women out there a sense that they’re part of a group and a community.”
The community of women scientists is growing, said Anadi Canepa, a research scientist at the National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics who is working at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Large Hardon Collider is a giant machine used to observe protons smashing and potentially creating particles that were produced during the time of the Big Bang.
“While particle physics is still a very male dominated field, it is very open to young women,” Canepa said. “In fact, a large fraction of physicists working with the experiment [in Geneva] are women. It’s a very promising field.”
The Women in Physics conference kicks off Thursday at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.
THREE COOL WOMEN IN SCIENCE
1) Anadi Canepa is a research scientist in Vancouver at TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics. She works for the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland.
What is the Large Hardon Collider (LHC)?
The LHC is a giant machine used to observe the collision of protons. The protons travel very fast, close to the speed off light, in a 27 kilometre underground pipe. A complex device similar to a digital camera captures 40 million pictures per second in order to observe the protons smashing and potentially creating particles that were produced during the time of the Big Bang. “The LHC may lead to a revolution in particle physics that can be compared to the Copernicus’ revolution,” Canepa said. “It may unravel a mirror Universe or new dimensions of space-time.”
2) Elizabeth Croft is a professor of mechanical engineering at UBC and the leader of the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) program. She specializes in the field of robotics.
What about robots?
Croft’s research investigates how robotic systems can behave, and be perceived to behave, in a safe, predictable, and helpful manner, as well has how people interact with and understand robotic systems. “Imagine having a robot that could clean your house and tell you where it put everything because it could remember,” Croft said. “We are working to teach robots basic behaviours so they are more helpful and understandable to their users.”
3) Anne Broadbent is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. She works in the field of quantum information and how we would be able to use it once quantum computers become available.
What is quantum computing?
Quantum computers are the next generation of computers. They operate according to the laws of quantum physics, which are fundamentally different laws than what traditional computers are operating on today. According to quantum mechanics, an object can exist in more than one state simultaneously. “There are more degrees in nature than what we are using now,” Broadbent said. “By tapping into those degrees of freedom we can do things we can’t imagine possible.”