A year ago, Meg Urry was teaching wave motion in her Physics 180 class. Now, months after being made the first female chair of Yale’s Physics Department, Urry is already making waves in Yale’s scientific community.
As chair, Urry will spearhead a new strategic plan this fall to evaluate which recent developments in physics merit the department’s attention and resources. She also intends to place further emphasis on promoting diversity among students and faculty and is taking steps to make the Physics Department more undergraduate-friendly, she said.
“The truth is, I have a hobby: trying to increase the number of women and minorities in science,” Urry said.
Urry said she is pleased to inherit a department that is “in very good shape” thanks to her “very effective” predecessor, Ramamurti Shankar, and said she does not intend to make any major changes.
Shankar expressed confidence in Urry’s ability to continue developing the Physics Department’s profile on campus.
“She is very well known and visible in her field,” Shankar, on sabbatical in Munich, wrote in an e-mail. “She will be a great role model.”
One of Urry’s first acts as chair was to create a study hall program called Go PhysCH for undergraduate students who are taking introductory physics courses. At Go PsyCH sessions, which run Sunday through Thursday nights, teaching assistants and other tutors are available to help students with questions related to problem sets. Urry said the program is also intended to foster a sense of collaboration among students.
“One of the things I’m hoping this study hall will do is to get students to work together — we know that is how they best learn physics,” Urry said.
“Go PhysCH” is also meant to temper an atmosphere of competitiveness among students in the department, and Urry said she hopes the program will help open up the department to more non-science majors.
“I want to create a much bigger community who find physics interesting, and who learn enough that they can figure things out, whatever sphere of life they go into,” Urry said.
Urry’s passion for making physics interesting is evident in her teaching, several of her students said.
Ross Kennedy-Shaffer ’08, a physics major who took Urry’s “Gravity, Astrophysics, and Cosmology” class in the spring of 2006, said Urry not only kept the class exciting through her own enthusiasm for the subject matter but also provided students with information about recent discoveries in physics. Urry would bring in expert speakers so students could learn about recent developments firsthand, Kennedy-Shaffer said.
With Urry’s support, the Physics Department has established a program called Girls’ Science Investigations that aims to promote interest in science in the local community. Four times a year, 60 middle-school girls are given a chance to learn about simple physics principles through hands-on activities. For example, organizers of the event gave the girls UV-light-sensitive beads to demonstrate the properties of UV waves.
The Girls’ Science Initiative also reflects one of Urry’s other main interests: drawing underrepresented groups into the sciences.
While the percentage of female undergraduate physics majors at Yale is twice the national average, Yale’s female physics majors are still outnumbered by their male counterparts by a ratio of 3 to 2, Urry said. She said she hopes to close this gap. Increasing diversity in the department could potentially lead to greater discoveries in science, she said.
“There’s strength in diversity,” Urry said. “The more varied the ideas you consider, the more robust the conclusion you come to and the better the end result. Take a group with very different backgrounds and you will get a better product.”
This principle not only applies to students, but faculty as well, Urry said. Keith Baker, one of the first African-American professors in the Physics Department, echoed her sentiment.
“To ignore that one needs a more diverse student population and faculty is done at one’s own peril,” Baker said.
Male faculty members associated with the Physics Department outnumber women by a ratio of nearly eight to one.
Meg Shea ’08, a physics major, said she has never had a physics class taught by a woman, except in a lab setting. The composition of the faculty should reflect that of students enrolled in physics courses, Urry said.
“As an institution, we — like every other top university — need to better match the student body and the world,” she said.
From a student perspective, Shea said, students can better stay interested in their fields when their educators are similar to themselves — female students may feel more comfortable with a female presence in their department.
“When you look at the numbers, people tend to gravitate toward fields where they have role models with whom they can identify,” Shea said.
Although the department still has room for improvement in closing the gender gap, Urry said, the University has already seen real progress.
“I’m delighted that we’re getting past this barrier of having ‘the first woman chair of the Physics Department’ at Yale,” Urry said. “It is part of the reason that I was happy to take the job.”
Praised by her colleagues for her ability to follow through on her educational goals and resolve to promote diversity, Urry said she hopes to work for the issues of greatest urgency as the new Physics Department chair.
“I don’t want it to seem like I’m on a crusade, but probably it’s true,” she said. “I care a lot about this, even if it doesn’t define who I am.”