Katayun Kamdin always enjoyed science and math classes — so, naturally, she decided to pursue a major in physics. While realizing that she was stepping into a male-dominated field, she had never “thought about that fact too critically,” she said — until she started feeling unwelcome in her classes. “There were a few interactions with my male peers and professors that left me feeling awful, which I dismissed as ‘being all in my head.’”
Those feelings were not merely her own self-doubt, she realized later. After coming across scientific studies on gender bias in physics, Katayun understood the factors that contributed to the low numbers of women in her major. That was when she realized she was not alone. “More than half of the female students in my intro physics courses had left after only one year,” she said.
Today, Katayun, who is a third-year graduate student of physics and head coordinator for UC Berkeley’s Society for Women in the Physical Sciences, uses her past experiences to explore the issue further and help her peers to understand about the common patterns women in the science fields may be subjected to.
Recently, she helped to organize the 2014 West Coast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. The event had a successful outcome, she said, with the presence of about 170 female undergraduates from various states, including California, Washington and Oregon.
“Having students meet other students with different backgrounds really widens the scope of what students think of as the ‘physics track’ or the ‘typical physicist,’” Katayun said. “A lot of women may also be the only female student in their year or even their program, and attending a professional conference where all the participants and most of the speakers are women can be really powerful.”
In this Q&A, Katayun shares the details of her experiences in physics and gives some advice for women — and other underrepresented minorities — who are interested in this field.
What is it like to be a graduate student in the field of physics?
It’s great! I mean, grad school is difficult, but I haven’t encountered difficulty extraneous to learning how to be a physicist. I’ve found the faculty and staff to be extremely helpful and supportive, and my peers to be thoughtful and respectful and engaged in each other’s learning.
Tell us about your experience with The Society for Women in Physical Sciences.
This is a campus organization aimed at creating a friendly and supportive environment for all students in physics, astronomy, earth and planetary science and biophysics. It’s a rewarding experience working for this organization. SWPS gets a lot of support, monetary and otherwise, from our constituent departments, which allows us to focus on events and programs for Cal grads, undergrads, and the wider community. Support from our constituent departments along with support from the Science Diversity Office really makes my — and the other SWPS coordinators’ — jobs quite easy.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a woman in this field?
I think different women have different experiences. Maybe the biggest challenge is being seen as a “woman in physics,” i.e. as a representative of and for all women.
Why do you believe it is important to have more women involved in the field of physics?
I don’t think the issue is that we need a certain number of women for symmetry (although 50% would be nice), but rather that the low numbers of women and people of color in the field is a reflection of bias in the system — it’s a question of academic integrity. There are socio-cultural influences keeping women and people of color out of physics, which I think we can make an effort to overcome together by, for example, building a welcoming community. And there is also measurable implicit bias against women coming from faculty of all ages, tenure level, and gender (according to a Yale study in 2011). I just don’t see how we can be getting the best people to do physics if there is a systematic bias against entire groups of people.
What kind of advice can you offer women who are interested in physics?
I think my advice applies equally to all students who are interested in physics, but it is disproportionally important for women and underrepresented minorities to find a mentor. This could be a grad student in your research group, a favorite GSI, an older undergraduate, basically anyone who is familiar with the field. It could be part of a formal mentoring program (Cal has several), or it could be an informal ‘hey, can I ask you some questions?’. Ask your mentor questions, and ask them often! And of course remember that you can always disagree with their advice.