Ask a (woman) physicist

  • Posted on: 11 May 2017

Christine Nattrass, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, talks about science, outreach, and women in physics.

Last April 25, the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), hosted a Facebook live event called “Ask a physicist: Women in Physics”. Assistant Professor Christine Nattrass, who is an ALICE collaboration member, was one of the three scientists invited to talk about their career and discuss about the presence of women in physics, which - although increased in the last few decades - is still small compared to men’s.

Why are there still less women studying physics than men? Why –in general- are there even lesser women reaching high profile positions? What are the biggest challenges they face and what can be done to change this situation? These and others are the questions that were addressed in the one-hour live event organized at UTK, in which the speakers brought their own experience of women in science, as well as of lecturers who interact directly with young students.

The live-stream of this event (available here, on the Facebook page of the UTK Department of Physics and Astronomy) received a large number of views, 3.7 thousand. Such success confirms the interest in this kind of informal talks about science, which allow the participation of followers who can post comments and questions on the event page or in private messages.

This is only the latest of a series of similar events organized within the outreach and education programme led by Kranti Gunthoti, which includes ‘Saturday Morning Physics’ lectures and social media activities, mainly oriented to high school students and general public.

Christine Nattrass participated in a number of these initiatives, in which she talked about the Quark Gluon Plasma and the ALICE experiment. “I think that outreach is very important for various reasons,” she comments, “first of all because it is part of our responsibilities towards society: we get money for our research from the taxes, thus we have to make people know why what we do is relevant; in addition, it can help to increase the common scientific literacy. In the second place, I find it useful for myself, because it forces me to look at things in a different way, to develop the adequate tools and metaphors to explain difficult concepts to people who don’t speak the language of physicists; in the end I believe that this effort makes me a better speaker, even for an expert audience”.

Besides being involved in education, Christine is also active in trying to attract more female students to study science in her University. “We have a peculiar situation here at UTK”, she explains, “since in my department there are 6 women out of 33 faculty members, which is not a bad fraction, while only 10-15% of our students are women, less than the average value (around 22%) in the rest of US”.

Scissors diagram showing the actual percentages of men and women at each level of physics and the expected percentages based on bachelor’s degree production in the past. [Font: AIP Publication Number R-430.02: 'Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2005', by R. Ivie and K.N. Ray, February 2005]


A report published by the American Institute of Physics in 2005 shows that the representation of women in physics and astronomy is still much lower than the men’s  and the divide significantly increases as we climb the academic ladder.

While almost half of high school physics students in US are girls, less that one-fourth of bachelor’s degrees and just 18% of PhD’s in physics are earned by women. At the faculty level, women’s participation is even smaller: just 10% of faculty members and only 5% of full professors of physics are women.

According to this report, the fact that most women studying physics at high school do not choose to continue in the field is most likely the result of exposure to a culture that still portrays science, especially physical science, as a primarily male pursuit.

“It is not trivial to understand why in our University we perform better in terms of faculty members than of students; nevertheless,” adds Christine, “we have to do the best we can to inspire more women to take undergraduate and graduate courses in physics”.