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Career Development: Inspiration and Advice

ICTP's Women in Physics workshop returning in October 2017

Women in Physics workshop 2013
Women in Physics workshop 2013

08/03/2017 - Trieste

Meeting the right people at the right time in your career can make a big difference. That's what happened to Alexandra Dávila with just the right dose of inspiration and advice pushing her to strive for a career in physics and enroll in a PhD program. But these meetings with role models did not come about by chance. Dávila attended the Women in Physics career development workshop held at ICTP in 2013, meeting with other physicists from all over the world.

The workshop is the idea of physicists Shobhana Narasimhan and Elizabeth Simmons, who were students together at Harvard and are now professors at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore and Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy, respectively. They first put their idea into practice with a workshop in 2013, followed by one in 2015, with the 2017 edition planned for this October. It is only open to women, and always welcomes a new group of participants. Erika Coppola, the ICTP local organizer for the workshop, explained one of the main motivations: with all of the challenges specifically facing women in science, inspiration and support are too important to leave up to chance.

The workshop functions as a career development workshop, and a mentoring session, helping students and young scientists grapple with a wide variety of issues. It covers a variety of topics, from how to ask a boss for more resources to how to deal with unsupportive colleagues, to how to write a CV or proposal. By providing a forum for accomplished scientists to share their experiences, the workshop strives to provide both advice and inspiration. "It's an opportunity to come and get that kick that you need sometimes," says Coppola.

Accordingly, the participants are mostly early career scientists, graduate students or post-docs, with a group of more senior scientists attending as well. For the graduate student Dávila, the numbers themselves were important. "I had never seen so many women physicists," she says. "I met a physicist who got her PhD at age 40, another who escaped her country though a tunnel. Their stories proved that I didn't have an excuse to not try." Dávila applied to the workshop as a masters student, one who was earning only about 300 euros per month as she worked as well as studied. The application for the workshop was already expensive for Dávila; a supportive friend lent money for flights from Lima to Trieste. "Sometimes you think you don't have a chance, but no."

Once at the workshop, Dávila met scientists who had persisted through their own challenges. "One woman had raised six children while she was gradually earning her PhD, another changed her topic completely to continue, another built a very successful career in industry. They had strong personalities, and I decided I wanted to be like that." Accomplished guests such as physicist Jocelyn Burnell Bell have attended and spoken at the workshop, each bringing their experiences to share and inspire attendees likes Dávila.

"Shobhana and Liz are very experienced in facilitating workshops," says Coppola. "Everyone was really participating, doing a lot of networking." Coppola wasn't sure what to expect before organizing the first workshop, joking with curious colleagues that she would know what it was about after she attended. But she was very impressed with the outcome, the collaborations that resulted and the students that left the workshop inspired.

Dávila is now completing her PhD at the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Kiel, Germany, which includes its own challenges, such as teaching undergraduate students all in German and learning to mentor. "Before, I was not so sure if I wanted to apply to a PhD program, but the workshop helped me see this is what I want, that it is possible, because I love physics, I love what I'm studying." Dávila would like to have a career as a professor of physics in Peru one day, and to help organize outreach programs there sooner than that. "In Peru, the girls don't have the chance to see what else is out there," said Dávila. "There are only a few choices, especially for poor students."

The next Women in Physics workshop will be held from 9 to 13 October, 2017.  Coppola is currently working with Narasimhan and Simmons to confirm speakers and review applications, working for a geographically diverse balance of participants from developing countries, often inviting applicants who are involved in women in science organizations in their own countries. This year, 2017 L'Oreal prize winner Nicola Spaldin, a professor at ETH, Zurich, will also be one of the organizers and attendees of the workshop, and will use part of her prize money, meant for supporting programs for women in science, to fund workshop participants like Dávila. "It's not a scientific workshop, though we do talk about science," says Coppola. "The message is, yes, there are challenges, but you can overcome them."