Meet STEM Lady Tracy Chmiel!

Campus Profile: Tracy Chmiel

Name: Tracy Chmiel

Year: Junior

Majors: Physics and Math

Hometown: East Amherst, NY

Campus Activities: Member and Safety Officer for Kenyon College Ballroom Dance Club, Assistant to the Physics Lab Director, Mathematics Grader, Member of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Collaboration

 

Hi, Tracy! Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you choose your majors?

The math major was by accident. It just kind of came along because I wanted to be a physics major and I knew should have as much math as possible.

I decided to study physics in high school. I knew I wanted to be a science major, but I didn’t know which science I wanted to major in. My senior year, I took AP Physics, and I was like “yes, this is good” and I decided to major in physics. It was actually my worst class, but I liked that I didn’t understand everything. I really, really loved the labs. I loved that it was a different way of looking at stuff - it’s the type of looking at stuff that once you see it, it seems obvious, and after it’s been pointed out, you can never unsee it.

 

What is one of your favorite parts about your major?

I love the labs. I love the relationships that physics majors have with their professors. It’s close-knit and collaborative. It’s extremely supportive. You definitely feel like the professors care about you and want you to do well, which I’m sure is true for every major at Kenyon, but it certainly feels like a unified front within the physics department.

 

You’ve done the Kenyon College Summer Science Program before and you’re doing it again this year. What was your experience like?

It’s great. *laughter* Summer Science is fun because Kenyon has a totally different feel over the summer. Rather than being pulled in all sorts of directions during the semester, you focus your entire attention on one project. That’s not really possible over the course of the semester. It’s also really peaceful and I get to cook good food.

 

So you were in Utah last weekend for a physics conference. Tell us what that was like!

The entire Astrophysics and Particles class went to the April meeting of the American Physical Society in Salt Lake City. We spent three and a half days going to talks about astrophysics and particle physics. It was really exciting because there were a lot of LIGO speakers there, which, since I have been working with LIGO, it was really interesting to see the scale of the collaboration on a different level than when I’m at Kenyon and to see how big a deal gravitational waves are in the physics world right now. It’s one of the largest breakthroughs in physics recently. Since the Higgs-Boson, basically.   

 

Do you think it was a valuable experience? What were some of your favorite panels?

It was really valuable. To see physicists in a physics environment, to see professors giving lectures to other professors. There was a really good gender and sexual identity in physics panel that talked about why the physics community is lagging behind other scientific communities in terms of LGBTQIA+ rights and why there are so few out physicists and what aspects of the community might be causing that. It was a really interesting discussion to listen to and take part in.

What is it like to be a woman in STEM at Kenyon? Do you think the department and environment supports you or makes you feel like an outsider?

I think the department is amazing at supporting its female students. They have 100% made a dedicated effort - they know that the number of women in physics is lacking and every single professor I have talked to about it has known it’s a problem and committed themselves to fixing that problem. It’s something that I didn’t expect at Kenyon.

I definitely expected to feel more like an outsider, but that has not been the case at all. It hasn’t been a problem. There is always the sense of the Kenyon bubble, and when I graduate, that bubble is going to come crashing and I won’t know how to deal with those problems. But the physics community at Kenyon is so supportive and I couldn’t ask for any better.

 

You’ve also done research in Scotland in addition to Kenyon. After going to the conference, how does being a woman in STEM at Kenyon compare to your experiences outside Kenyon?

That’s a good question. When I was in Scotland, my experiences with otherization was less to do with I was a woman since I was a member of a small lab and there were several other female students, and it was much more that I was the only American. I definitely felt kind of outside since I was an American only there for six weeks as opposed to, say, an Irish student who will be there for the next three years. That sort of otherization overshadowed any otherization I might have felt because I’m not male, which is clearly not a problem at Kenyon.

I’m very aware that my experience at Kenyon is not the norm for women in physics across the country.

Beyond working in Hayes, you’re also in KCBDC. What got you interested in ballroom?

I followed a friend to the newbie nights second week of classes freshman year, and I thought it was a lot of fun. I didn’t have any dance experience before nor other dance experience now, but it’s a lot of fun. I don’t go as often as I like, but I never regret going.

 

Last but certainly not least: what brought you to Kenyon?

I knew I wanted a small college and I knew I wanted it in the middle of nowhere. My joke was that I wanted to be able to see cows, that’s how remote it would be. I didn’t realize it had as good a physics program as it does, so I got really lucky. I chose Kenyon because as I was walking around campus, I realized I could see myself living here.

 

This article is part of a new series of profiles about women in STEM fields at Kenyon. Stay tuned for future editions in this series! If you are a woman in STEM interested in being interviewed and/or wants to share your story, let us know at [email protected] or [email protected]!

Image credits: Tracy Chmiel, Drew Meeker, Morgan Harden