A student’s path through an undergraduate physics or engineering curriculum has many twists, turns and challenges on the way to a job in a STEM field. For young women, the path is too often extra tortuous.
Physicists at William & Mary have established the Mentoring for Careers in Physics (MCP) program, connecting each undergraduate woman with a female mentor working in the physics and engineering field.
MCP was originated by Ran Yang, a lecturer in the university’s Department of Physics who is part of William & Mary’s growing engineering physics and applied design (EPAD) track. She got the idea from an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who mentioned that she was a mentor to several young women at nearby Christopher Newport University.
“I asked her, you’re in NASA, so why are you a mentor of CNU students?” Yang recalled. The engineer told her about CNU’s mentoring program. “They have a joint department of physics, computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering. All those fields are dominated by males. So they wanted to encourage their undergraduate female students to apply to their department.”
Yang came back to William & Mary and made a presentation to physics faculty. Christopher Monahan, an assistant professor in the department, was in attendance and jumped on board.
“One of the things that we noticed in the department is that the number of female majors that we graduate was much smaller than the number of female students we enroll in Physics 101,” Monahan said.
Yang said they found that lack of a role model was one of the reasons for the female attrition in the physics department. She said she wished she had a female mentor in her undergrad years, the lack of which “probably caused me to do a lot of zig-zags, even U-turns.”
Another reason, Yang said, has to do with the blend of identity, representation and levels of confidence.
“When our students come into the physics department, they haven’t declared a major yet. And the girls think ‘I’m a physics student,’” she said. “‘But there’s all those boys over there. They’re so confident! Sometimes they just call themselves a physicist. Am I a physicist?’”
Monahan said he has a personal reason for getting involved.
“I was brought up in to be a feminist in my background, and that’s something I’ve felt very passionate about for a long time,” Monahan said. “For me, it’s really a conviction that as a white man in science, I use the power that I have to try to change physics for the better.”
Together, Monahan and Yang began to engineer a program that became the MCP, recruiting not only a cohort of students and mentors, but also considerable support from various areas of William & Mary.
MCP took off rapidly. The physics department was on board early. MCP received an IDEA Grant from the university’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion. Don Snyder, who heads up advising for STEAM careers at the university’s Cohen Career Center, proved to be a valuable conduit for recruiting eager mentors from among his contacts of women in science and engineering.
“Don Snyder connected us with quite a few companies based in Newport News, Northern Virginia, Richmond, the Shenandoah area,” Yang said. “All sorts of companies that are engineering- and physics-related. So that was wonderful.”
The embryonic mentoring program also received advice from Pamela Eddy, a professor in William & Mary’s School of Education. “One of her research concentrations is gender issues in higher education,” Yang said. “So we wanted to bring her expertise and resources to help us to evaluate this program, see why it’s needed, how well it’s doing — what direction we should be going.”
After just a few months, MCP matched more than 20 mentor-student pairs. Yang and Monahan made a point of concentrating on recruiting mentors from outside academia.
“As faculty, we’re all very used to a path that goes from undergrad to grad school to faculty,” Monahan said. “And many of our students are not interested in that, or would like to explore other career paths.”
They also made a point of maintaining a 1:1 mentor/mentee ratio. Yang explained that the mentors, all in various stages of their own careers, likely wouldn’t have the bandwidth to work with multiple students. She added that mentors and students fill out personal- and professional-interest surveys to optimize the matchups.
For example, MCP matched Julia Merti ’24 with Marisa Brown, a senior biomedical engineer at ivWatch, a biotech firm in Newport News. Merti is a transfer from James Madison University and said she has set her sights on becoming a physicist or an engineer since she was in middle school.
“When I transferred, I didn’t know about this program,” she said. “But I heard about it in my first semester here at William & Mary. I’m still wondering what field I want to go into right now and I thought some mentorship and guidance would be very helpful.”
Merti and Brown met at a launch party in December, 2021, as did the other participants in the first cohort of MCP mentor-mentee dyads. The event was sponsored by the Society of 1918, a group that includes the MCP program in its support and encouragement of women’s engagement and representation at William & Mary.
“They have their offices in the new Alumni House,” Yang said. “They provided a beautiful space to have this kickoff party, and also provided food.”
Merti said that her relationship with her mentor has been facilitated by Brown’s proximity to Williamsburg. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to meet in person, because she’s so close by,” Merti said. “We’ve either met in Newport News, or she comes up here to Williamsburg to meet me.”
A self-described introvert, Merti said Brown advises her to concentrate on networking: “Keep in contact with people; make sure to make those connections.” For her part, Brown says she is enjoying being a mentor and sometimes sees a younger version of herself in her protege.
“Yes, I do see myself in Julia. She is driven, organized, and excited to learn. She has already had many experiences that I did not get so early in my undergraduate career,” Brown writes in an email. “I’m happy to say she seems much more ready for the professional world than I was as a rising junior due to this mentoring program and her on-campus research.”
Brown says she urges all women STEM students to get involved in research as early as possible and apply for summer internships.
“It is one thing to participate in classroom labs for a few hours each week, but it is another to work with the same group of people day in and day out for something that isn’t graded,” she said. “From what I’ve experienced, the professional engineering world requires a high-level of communication and teamwork. Once those two are done well, results are achieved much easier.”
The Mentoring for Careers in Physics program is always looking for women working in physics and/or engineering fields outside of academia who are willing to mentor an undergraduate woman. Contact Ran Yang or Christopher Monahan to volunteer or to suggest a mentor.
Editor’s note: Careers is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.
Joseph McClain, Research Writer