In 2015, women received under 20 percent of physics bachelors degrees.
In the spring of 2017, Emily Smith will be one woman to graduate from college with a degree in physics and interdisciplinary computing. Smith maintains a high GPA and has been involved in undergraduate research since before she even attended KU. She also received an opportunity as a freshman to participate in research at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and last year won an $18,000 scholarship that only two students in the physics department received. She also served on the undergraduate committee to advise the department on how to incorporate the KU CORE into the physics program.
Smith said her interest in physics began in her first physics class as a junior in high school. She knew no other field excited her more and set out on a path to learn as much as she could before she set foot in a college class. She said the KU honors program provided the connections she needed to start research the summer before her freshman year of college. The program, “Quark Net,” allowed her to work with real data with the KU high-energy group.
As a freshmen honors program student, Smith took honors physics classes and said she was almost always the only girl in them because of how small the classes were. Smith said her classes now contain about 20 percent women, but her liberal arts classes were closer to 50 percent female. Smith said she knows how few women graduate with degrees in STEM fields and said she attributes her success to a supportive family and supportive teachers.
Currently, Smith works with only one other woman in the physics department. But she said a group of female students in the physics program meet occasionally with one another, which is nice for her.
Smith believes KU’s physics program was a good fit for her because of the small teacher to student ratio and attributes her to being involved in a smaller program. “And the level of research I got involved in. I’d say I’m doing not quite as much as a grad student, but almost what an entry level grad student would be doing. It’s just nice to have that experience already,” Smith said.
Smith gave a word of advice to women who may think they aren’t smart enough to learn physics or worry about lowering their GPA.
“No one knows what they’re doing when they start out, it’s not just you, and you can always find ways to feel more secure in your knowledge… You don’t even realize it when you learn things. Like, wow, I can do all this stuff and I didn’t even realize a year ago,” Smith said.