“Back then, I was in middle school,” Heranval shares. “When I got here, I asked, ‘What are the options of people that I could work with?’ I contacted [Cadonati], and that was really cool.”
Now, as a third-year physics student at Georgia Tech, Heranval works closely with Cadonati to continue her astrophysics research. Recently, she proudly stood by her poster at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP), presenting her research on the time frequency of gravitational waves.
“The goal of CUWiP,” says Flavio Fenton, professor in the School of Physics and one of the conference organizers, “is to provide a professional conference for undergraduate women and students of non-traditional genders to explore opportunities in graduate schools, careers, research, and community-building.”
Georgia Tech is one of 14 universities to hold regional CUWiP meetings in 2024, giving student researchers like Heranval an opportunity to present their research to other undergraduates on a regional and national scale. The nationwide effort is organized by American Physical Society, employing local organizing committees to host three-day regional conferences.
“Being a part of the organizing committee for CUWiP has been such an amazing and fulfilling experience,” shared Krishma Singal, a physics Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech. “I attended two CUWiPs in the past, including the 2016 one held at Georgia Tech, and it’s been surreal getting to be on the other side and help organize this for so many future physicists.”
This year’s iteration of CUWiP was held from January 19-21, and saw nearly 200 students and faculty. In addition to Singal and Fenton, organizers included School of Physics faculty member Emily Alicea-Muñoz, as well as chemistry Ph.D. student Ravyn Malatesta and physics Ph.D. students Megan Arogeti, Sarah Gonzalez, Elisa Rheaume, Evan Rheaume, and Snigdaa Sethuram. Oregon State University’s Danielle Skinner and Oglethorpe University’s Kelimar Diaz Cruz also served on the committee.
“I learned so much from these past several months planning this conference, and seeing it all come together with so many happy attendees has been incredibly rewarding,” added Singal. “I am grateful to be a part of this and am excited to see these future physicists thrive and accomplish great things in the future!”
Connecting through research
This year’s CUWiP attendees witnessed student and faculty posters, presentations, and keynote addresses. One such speaker was Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a visiting professor from the University of Oxford. Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, which consequently led to a new branch of astrophysics, has solidified her place as not only a celebrated figure in physics, but also as a symbol of perseverance for women in science.
“It really motivates me, the people that I meet [at conferences],” said Hernaval. “Dr. Burnell’s talk that we witnessed was just incredible — anytime I see somebody who’s a model for me, I just want to continue.”
Being surrounded by other women passionate about research and physics has also helped Shamita Hanumasagar, fourth-year physics and economics student at Georgia Tech, find her community.
Hanumasagar’s project, “Gamma Ray Bursts: Exploring the Universe’s Most Violent Explosions,” offers a deeper look into black hole formation and early-universe activity through gamma-ray radiation. She currently works at Georgia Tech’s LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) group in multi-messenger astronomy. Multi-messenger astronomy covers the study of cosmic rays, gravitational waves, neutrinos, and gamma rays, all of which she studies at LIGO — except for gamma rays.
In pursuit of being a completionist and wanting to “collect them all,” Hanumasagar said, she started applying to university research opportunities for the summer. She found the University of Utah’s Tanmoy Laskar, who specializes in astrological phenomena like gamma ray bursts. “Together, we found more information about gamma ray bursts than had ever been done before.”
“I appreciate that CUWiP offers a safe space for women in particular,” Hanumasagar added. “It can often be really hard to breach into learning about physics or even the technical aspect of it without feeling out of place, particularly as a minority.”
Delaney Murray, a student from the University of Georgia, notes that despite women making up the minority in physics, there is still diversity within these women that is to be celebrated.
“My favorite thing about this is that you’re seeing so many different people, so many different backgrounds,” Murray said. “I’m seeing a bunch of different women. It’s really inspiring. I want to be like them — I want to put in the same amount of effort.”
Murray, who conducted her research on developing a radio satellite, uses the inspiration and motivation from her peers to fuel her passion for research and discovery. “To be at that spearhead of new astronomical discoveries is one of the biggest honors that I can ever think of. I’m still out there — a little part of that sphere — in progressing humanity.”
University of Florida astrophysics student Artemis Theodoridis also says attending CUWiP gave her motivation to continue her research. Her poster, “Utilizing the Accuracy of TESS Asteroseismology for the Advancement of Stellar Archeology,” recaps her work with the University of Florida’s Jamie Tayar on stellar evolution models that catalog the ages of stars.
“Many panelists say there’s a lot of imposter syndrome, and sometimes, you feel isolated,” says Theodoridis. “Attending CUWiP and being surrounded by women who study physics motivates me to keep going at what I’m doing.”
CUWiP connects students to more research opportunities in the future, according to Theodoridis. “When you present your poster, people remember you by name. In my experiences, it makes me more confident as a scientist and in my capabilities.”
“The CUWiP conference, at least when held at Georgia Tech, has life-changing outcomes for many of the students who attend,” says Jennifer Curtis, professor in the School of Physics and ADVANCE Professor for the College. “I can think of nearly a dozen individuals from this recent event, for whom I know this is 100% true.”
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