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Harvard Physics, Women+ of Color Project Collaborate on Graduate School Workshop

A Harvard Extension School Physics class meetings in the Science Center in September.
A Harvard Extension School Physics class meetings in the Science Center in September. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Physics department, in collaboration with the Women+ of Color Project, hosted a Graduate School 101 Workshop Weekend from Friday to Sunday for women who come from backgrounds underrepresented in physics.

The conference — which drew 150 applicants — presented 20 invitees with the opportunity to receive feedback on their graduate school applications and network with Harvard Physics faculty.

The conference was the brainchild of Physics graduate student LaNell A. Williams, who founded the WOCP in July to increase representation of black, indigenous, and Latinx women in STEM graduate programs.

“The WOCP hopes to address this issue by providing an open platform for WOC to communicate about best practices for applying to graduate [school], surviving graduate school, maintaining research productivity, and growing your academic careers,” Williams wrote in an email.

Williams said that she conceived of the three-day conference as an in-person extension of the WOCP’s mission.

“We want [participants] to see that we exist here, we all applied here, and a lot of us got in here, and we are here to support them and encourage them to also apply so we can improve the numbers,” she said.

“I don't think I've ever met a woman of color, especially one at an Ivy, that hasn’t been told — despite them being excellent on paper — that for some reason, they're not good enough to apply to places like Harvard, because there's always this imaginary white man and/or Asian man who is going to be most likely more qualified than you,” she added.

Williams said Physics department faculty have supported her in planning the conference. Physics professor Jenny Hoffman helped secure conference funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation, which covered travel, lodging, and meals for participants, according to Williams.

Participants said that they found the conference “uplifting” and “empowering.”

Attendee Bria Collier, a physics graduate student in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, said the conference dispelled the idea that “you have to be perfect on paper.”

“LaNell and the other volunteers explained to us ways we can highlight our accomplishments and move around little insecurities we have,” she said.

Attendee Elizabeth Gutierrez — an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin studying physics and astronomy — said that her status as a first-generation college student made graduate school admissions daunting.

“No one in my family has a Ph.D. and I don't really know what the process is like,” she said. “But we had a panel: ‘What do graduate schools look for?’”

“What I really liked about the conference was that all the participants there share the same experiences that I had,” she added. “We actually started a GroupMe, or a group chat, to keep in contact with each other.”

Williams said she is currently collaborating with other women of color who have created resources for prospective graduate students. She said she is specifically working with John Hopkins graduate student Lavontria M. Aaron, who created a resource database for people of color, and Emory University graduate student Ayanna Jones, who founded STEM in Color.

Attendee Ashley Walker, an undergraduate at Chicago State University studying astro-chemistry, said she is grateful for the personal connections she built during the conference.

“In the words of LaNell, we aren’t each other's competitors. We are each other's future collaborators,” Walker said.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

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