In Einstein’s footsteps, women follow

Author: Wayne Falda


When Albert Einstein published the three papers that established his career and revolutionized science, he was a mere patent clerk. So it may stand to reason that, 100 years later, clichés about who can succeed in science do not thrive.

We are the only physics department in the country with an all-female administration,says department chair Ani Aprahamian, professor of physics, in a tone that conveys pride.

Aprahamians administration is supported by Margaret Dobrowolska-Furdyna, associate chair and director of undergraduate studies, and by Kathie Newman, director of graduate studies. Both are full professors.

Thirteen percent of the departments tenure-track and research faculty are women, compared to a 6 percent average for doctoral-granting institutions, according to the American Physical Societys Committee for the Status of Women in Physics. The 1998 study showed Notre Dame among only 17 universities with four or more female faculty members.

Nationally, about 13 percent of physics graduate students are female; at Notre Dame, its about 22 percent.Gender balance is one of the reasons why some chose to come to Notre Dame,says Aprahamian.

It certainly affected Sarah Schlobohm, who is specializing in high-energy particle physics.I met more female faculty here than the three other grad schools that I visited combined,she says.To me that seemed really progressive.

Also of note, Newman says, is that the physics faculty has three husband-and-wife teams and a fourth member whose spouse is a scientist in another department.

No doubt this made a difference to Lisa DeBeer Schmitt and her fiancé, also a physics doctoral candidate, who were undergraduates at Georgia Southern University. Schmitt says she found Notre Dame had an emotional warmth that she liked.When we visited we just loved that atmosphere. This is a bigger university, but it still has that family feel to it.

Aprahamian joined the physics faculty in 1989 as the second female member. After she was named chair in July 2003 she attended her first regional meeting of physics chairs, inChicago.We met in a large ballroom of a hotel. I was the only woman there. Some of the men thought I was part of the hotel staff, until I sat down among them,she remembers.

Male colleagues have served the women well, says Newman. Former dean Frank Castellino pushed for female representation,and the department has generally been supportive over the years.When the time came to turn the administrative reins to an all-female staff,Almost everyone took up the challenge of diversity,she says.

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