'WoPhyS' brings women scholars to campus

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Rhonda Stroud of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., addresses UNL’s fifth annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences on Oct. 24.
Greg Nathan | University Communications
Rhonda Stroud of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., addresses UNL’s fifth annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences on Oct. 24.

Jesbaniris Bas was seated inside a bustling Champions Club on the afternoon of Oct. 24, explaining her chemistry research that would be displayed in an upcoming poster session.

“My research is in the accumulations of emerging pollutants to algae and oysters in estuary waters,” she said.

A young woman at the next table turned and joined the conversation, advising Bas to get in touch with a faculty member at Louisiana State University who is also working with oysters for a possible collaboration or research opportunity.

Soon, the two were discussing their research areas and sharing contact information.

That exchange was one of many networks forming over three days during UNL’s fifth annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences — WoPhyS.

That’s exactly what Axel Enders, associate professor of physics and astronomy, had in mind when he worked to bring the first conference to UNL in 2009.

“The goal is to run a conference where research-active undergraduate women have a platform to present to their posters, to hear about other students’ research experiences and to get the experience of attending a national conference where they listen to talks and exchange ideas,” Enders said. “It serves as an introduction to the research world.

“Women are under-represented in the STEM fields, and this is one of our activities to do something about that.”

The conference started with about 90 attendees. It has steadily grown since then. This year’s registration was so overwhelming that registration had to close a month early. There are 105 registrants this year, with 85 coming from schools outside the continental United States — like Bas, who is attending the University of Puerto Rico.

“It’s really great that this conference accepts students from outside the United States,” she said. “Not a lot of conferences offer travel scholarships for students like us, who are outside the U.S. and I think it’s a really good opportunity for students like us who are in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada.”

Enders said that through funding from the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers, UNL’s Center for Nanohybrid Functional Materials and a handful of smaller sponsors, registrants’ conference fees, room and board are free. He said he’d like to continue to raise money because the number of attendees is tied to the funds available.

“Another sign that the conference is growing in popularity is it is getting easier to attract very good speakers,” he said.

Each year, the conference changes its theme and supplies a fresh round of speakers. This year’s theme is Nano Trek and includes research and talks about nanoscience and the quest for new materials.

That’s new to the nine attendees from Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind.

“Everything is nano here and we don’t have a nano department at Manchester,” attendee Kaitlyn Taylor, a junior, said. “It’s rather intimidating to me to see all of this research, but it’s interesting.”

For Taylor, who plans to attend grad school in a few years, the gathering has served as a springboard into new ideas.

“It’s an introduction to thinking about grad school and research,” she said. “You’re at one of the top schools for grad school in the sciences and it’s a big school. You’re getting an introduction to all this research and it’s free.

“You can’t beat that.”

The three-day program began Oct. 24 and included nationally known speakers from academia, national research centers and industry, as well as student presenters that are selected through a nomination and selection process.

Bas, as she was quickly racking up new contacts with shared research interests, said UNL should be proud of the conference.

“It’s really well organized,” she said. “I’ve been treated really well. It’s only the first day and I’ve already met many other students.”

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