Laura McCullough: Physics(?) Education(?) Research(!)

posted by Laura McCullough, University of Wisconsin-Stout on

Identity is always a strange beast. In various classes and workshops, when people ask me to define myself in one word, the best I can come up with is “Laura”. My husband says when he met me, when I was 16 years old, I already wanted to be a college physics professor. That goal guided me through 4 wonderful years of undergrad physics, and led me to physics grad school. And that, in turn, set me on the path of 20+ years of research on gender and physics.

On the first day of physics grad school, during TA training, I was the only female student in the room. This was newly uncomfortable, since my undergrad program had two other women and four or five men. (I found out later the people running the TA training were very concerned that I would drop out.) I went through my classes, failed my written exam, then again. I also realized I didn’t like my classes, and wasn’t having fun. And how is advanced quantum mechanics supposed to help me teach?!

After failing the written exam the third time, and having “helpful” male professors ask what I was going to do next, I got my M.S. in physics and switched to PER. At the University of Minnesota, the PER folks ran the TA training, so I had become aware of this subfield. I switched my program to Curriculum & Instruction, and LOVED it. This was what I needed to be a good teacher!

My first AAPT meeting was in the summer of 1996, as the huge first cohort of PER grad students was rolling through. I see that in the notes from the 1997 PERC I am listed as having no idea what my dissertation would be about, but I was interested in gender stuff. Yeah, that’s still it.

I have always been fascinated that PER is the physics sub-field that is the place where gender & physics research has lived. PER has welcomed my work, supported me, and given me great ideas for other directions to explore. I don’t do research specifically in physics, or education, or physics education. I do work at the intersection of physics, education, sociology, leadership, and diversity. Yet my home is PER and AAPT.

Three years ago I accepted a nomination to serve on the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. During my three years on CSWP, I have had the chance to discover new ways of talking about gender and physics, been introduced to many non-AAPT people also dedicated to supporting gender diversity, and helped promote gender diversity in ways I had never considered before. Expanding my work to the APS has given me perspective on PER and AAPT, and it has helped me learn new approaches to advance the field of physics by making it a more diverse and equitable place.

In the science-fiction and fantasy world (another home community for me and my author husband), there is a derogatory phrase “fake geek girl”, used to describe so called “casual fans” who present as female, and which is far more likely to be misapplied than to describe any actual human being. Some people who self-identify as the “true geeks” look down on these casual fans because they feel that these women haven’t paid their geek dues by being there since the beginning, or not knowing the series and episode number of every title in every series. What does this have to do with PER? Even though my research doesn’t fit neatly into any one PER niche, I have never been made to feel like an outsider. This is my home community for exactly that reason, and I hope PER will always try to make everyone feel like a true geek girl.

Tags: PER  identity  APS  AAPT  research  teaching  

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