An undergraduate conference as a graduate student

Looking back on four (would be) iterations of CUWiP

Note: This article was originally written upon the request of the Illinois Physics Department and was published here. I have made some modifications for its publication here.

A few weekends ago, I had the chance to experience CUWiP from the perspective of a graduate student speaker and organizer. I even got to connect with one of our speakers, Dr. Thushari Jayasekera (see photo), who mentored me for many years during my undergraduate, including sponsoring an SIU Women in Physics Group Grant I received from the American Physical Society (APS).

More than three years ago, however, I found myself on the other end of the check-in table, having spent a terrifying hour in the passenger seat as my mom sped along the frontage roads of Chicagoland interstates trying to avoid the traffic jams brought about by a blizzard and get me to the welcoming dinner at the University of Chicago on time.

CUWiP is special because of the unique opportunity this conference gives for peer networking. Being the youngest physicist at a national conference with attendees at various points in their career (like I will be this next week at the Las Vegas APS March Meeting) can be quite beneficial – so much absorb, so many connections to be made – but it is potentially overwhelming. There is no such thing as a stupid question, but even – or maybe, especially – as a graduate student it sometimes sure feels like that! CUWiP presents an alternative by making sure its attendees are surrounded by student researchers and learners similar to them, which creates a welcoming environment encouraging of questions and discussions.

An illustrative example of the CUWiP experience is the privilege I had of being on a Day in the Life panel with a few other graduate students. Although I knew each of the ladies there, I was able to learn more about them and their stories as we responded to questions like “How do I choose an adviser in graduate school?” and “Is having a pet a good thing in graduate school?”. The former question gave us a chance to elaborate on our own experiences – for my part, I think I have the best adviser – and the latter prompted mixed responses – I enjoy the ease that not having a pet gives me in structuring my days and travel, but the others quite enjoyed their cat, dog, and rabbit, respectively.

I was also so impressed with the poster session at our CUWiP! Both presenters and listeners were engaged in intense discussion about their research projects. In fact, there was so much participation that we found ourselves moving the coffee bar to accommodate more people near the posterboards. When I stopped to ask a few questions and admire the impressively designed posters, it became clear that the expertise of the student attendees greatly surpassed the one I had when I was in their shoes, getting to check out the poster of a friend during my CUWiP. I made sure to take notes for any future poster presentation of my own!

A formative experience like CUWiP truly benefits from the mentors that provide the formation in question. Our conference was blessed with a wonderful collection of speakers, panelists, and even sponsors graciously making their expertise available and whose infectious enthusiasm prompted discussions extending into coffee and meal breaks.

Back then, I was grateful for my mom, her car idling on a street corner as I traipsed through a snowbank in a pair of high-heeled boots. Today, I want to thank all those organizers who put time into planning several conferences over three years, only one of which ever took place. From Patrick Snyder, who sat next to me in January 2020 in the 3rd floor atrium of the University of Chicago’s Gordon Center for Integrative Biology, taking notes on how to improve the conference, to Elizabeth Goldschmidt, Rebecca Wiltfong, Irene Lira-Andsager, Jaki Noronha-Hostler, Kristen Schumacher, Danielle Woods, Vidushi Adlakha, Spoorthi Nibhanupudi, Vedha Muvva, Rachel Nguyen, and my co-author, Healey Kogan, who worked so hard on this year’s success.

About CUWiP:

The goal of CUWiP is to bring together undergraduates in order to equip them with information and opportunities to become successful researchers, presenters, thinkers, networkers, physicists. Each year, several CUWiP conferences take place around the country, roughly coinciding with the APS regional sections. Any undergraduate is eligible to apply for CUWiP - the cost of attendance is minimal, including only transportation to and from the conference (for which additional scholarships are made available if the home university is unable to provide them).

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