Orange Alert

Letter from the Chair: Part 4-Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Updates Summer 2021

Posted on: July 14, 2021

Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Updates: This year, the equity, inclusion, and diversity (EID) committee, led by faculty member Jen Schwarz, did some major work this year. They were accepted to participate in the American Physical Society Inclusion Diversity and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA APS-IDEAS trains groups in methods to change departmental culture around equity for all identities. The Syracuse EID committee includes faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and staff.

This committee ran a successful survey of the climate in the physics department. Of the ~240 people in the department, ~100 of them filled out the climate survey to give feedback about how they are feeling. The questions were relevant and exposed important problems that community members are facing around discrimination and microaggressions. The EID committee discussed the survey, and Prof. Schwarz presented it to both the Leadership team and the faculty in Spring 2021 semester. The survey was the basis for a conversation the department had as part of the colloquium series.

The committee also led reading group discussions based on peer-reviewed papers every two week. One of the reading assignments was Whistling Vivaldi, a book that documents and discusses stereotype threat and interventions we can employ in the classroom. This book will be the basis for new discussions around pedagogy for new graduate students at their orientation in August.

A major place where we had a big impact on our inclusion work was in the departmental colloquium. Our colloquium speakers were much more diverse than in prior years. The colloquium committee was composed of Alison Patteson, Denver Whittington, and Eric Coughlin (fall 2020 semester only), as well as Yudaisy Salomon Sargenton and myself. I charged this committee with increasing the diversity of our speakers. In Fall 2020, we had 3 women and 3 Black or Latinx physicists. Also, 4 of these speakers were pre-faculty level. The fall series had 11 speakers total, and of those, 8 were external. In Spring 2021, we had 7 women, 5 Black or Latinx, & 2 Asian physicists. Also, 5 of the speakers were pre-faculty level. The spring series had 12 speakers total, and of those, 11 were external. I met individually with almost every single colloquium speaker prior to their talk. Further, the EID committee and the graduate student organization (PHY-Go) hosted a colloquium in January which was a remote viewing of the movie, “Picture a Scientist.” These groups hosted a departmental conversation he next day about the movie, which focused on systemic sexism and racism in science and engineering. For almost all colloquium speakers, the graduate students (PHY-Go) met with them for lunch, organized by 5th year Nick Didio and 1st year Elenna Capote.

On May 6, 2021, I gave the colloquium as the department chair, but I did not speak about my research. Instead, I used the data from the climate survey to have a community-wide conversation about discrimination and micro-aggressions. This colloquium had a high turn-out and good discussions throughout the colloquium, both on chat and using voice. I would like to use one colloquium slot each semester to hold these “Community Conversations” to continue to practice having difficult conversations as a group. A major complaint from minoritized groups in physics is that the problems they face are not discussed, which can have a compounding effect. These conversations will serve to expose these issues and help the community commit to working on the underlying issues of racism and sexism that are pervasive in our society. It is true that most of the people in the department do not seek to perpetuate negative stereotypes, but we must commit to doing more than nothing, we must commit to combating these stereotypes in our classrooms and in our research groups.

In some ways, the Community Conversations started in June of 2020 when we had a departmental listening session where we invited Black physics professors to visit us virtually and tell us their impressions of the roadblocks to their career path. We were joined by Dr. Taviare Hawkins, Professor and Chair of Physics at University of Wisconsin LaCrosse (now division head at Saint Katherine’s College in St. Paul, MN), Dr. Vincent Rogers (Professor of Physics at the University of Iowa), Dr. Michael Murrell (Associate Professor of Physics at Yale University), and Mr. Joel Sims (Quantitative Analyst as M&T Bank). Of these speakers, three are Syracuse University physics alumni, Hawkins, PhD 2009, Rogers, PhD 1985, and Sims, BA 2016. All the people who spoke at the listening session were given honoraria for their time with us. I would like to continue this work, especially connecting with our Black and Latino alumni over the next several years.

To honor the members of our community who have been working so hard to combat racism, sexism, and other biases of our society to create a better community in the Physics department and the broader community, I created a set of Social Justice Awards. The inaugural winners were Professor Jen Schwarz, physics graduate student Elizabeth Lawson-Keister, and undergraduate student Ruell Branch. Each of these people has worked hard to make our community a more welcoming place to live and learn physics this year.

  • Jen Schwarz is the chair of the Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity committee. Her leadership was crucial to making the EID committee effective to run their survey, hold regular reading group meetings, and lead the local APS-IDEA team.
  • Elizabeth Lawson-Keister is a member of the EID committee and the leader of the graduate student group called PHY-GO (Physics Graduate Organization). Please read the article in this newsletter about PHY-Go for more details on this amazing community of graduate students. Liz was instrumental in bringing the movie “Picture a Scientist” to the colloquium series and having the follow-up conversation about it. She was nominated by her peer graduate students who cited her constant commitment to working on equity and inclusion among the graduate students.

Ruell Branch walking towards the Physics Building.

There was much more going on in Physics, but this report is getting a bit long. If you are interested to hear more, please reach out to us! Thank you for your support for Syracuse Physics.

Go Orange!
Jenny Ross
Chair of Physics Department
Syracuse University