Finding Community in the Castagnola-Hunter Tower Room

Yi-Ting Hsu (Cornell University), Ingrid Mertig (University of Halle), Brittany Richmand (University of Maryland), Maria Vozmediano (Materials Science Institute of Madrid) participate in a Tower Room Lunch in October 2019. Photo by Mia Nie.

During her time as an organizer of the Intertwined Order and Fluctuations in Quantum Materials program in 2017, Cornell Professor of Physics Eun-Ah Kim initiated a series of regular lunches for women at KITP. Kim saw the lunches as an opportunity to cultivate a community of female theorists that was not available at their home institutions, and jumped at the chance to provide such a resource.

“KITP is a selective place,” She explains her reasoning behind the lunches, “Hence people who make it to KITP have a real shot at climbing the ladder and improving the stubbornly-stuck gender ratio at the senior level. Young female researchers coming to KITP often do not have senior women theorists who can be their mentor at their home institutions. Only at KITP will they have a chance to meet these senior women theorists.”

A historically male field, physics departments are often lonely places for female faculty. In 2018, only 16% of physics faculty members at PhD granting institutions in the US were women. “There are so few women theorists and hence we never have cohorts at home institutions,” Kim explains. To complicate matters, the field also has an enduring culture of rigorous discussion among peers. “The “louder person getting the stage” approach is often unnatural for women,” She notes. “We can mistakenly think our opinion and perspective matter less because our voice can be drowned out. Figuring out how to navigate the extremely male dominant arena of “discussions” is critical in setting off for a path for success in early career.”

The lunches in the second-floor Castagnola-Hunter Tower Room at Kohn Hall provide encouragement to younger theorists who learn that their struggles, ranging from imposter syndrome and the two-body problem to insensitive comments from colleagues, are shared by others. For more senior theorists, it is an opportunity to encourage each other as they navigate the next steps in their careers. The Castagnola-Hunter Tower Room is named after longtime Friend of KITP and local philanthropist Virginia Castagnola-Hunter in honor of her lifetime support.

Even after Kim’s departure, the lunches continue to be popular among program participants, 20% of whom are women. Although they formed out of a desire specifically for female theorists to build a community, the meetings do not exclude anyone from participating. With the help of Program Manager David Kaczorowski and Deputy Director Mark Bowick, KITP formally facilitates the gatherings, which are now known simply as “Tower Room Lunches.”

Armed with a directory of incoming participants of each program, Bowick and Kaczorowski maintain a list of female scientists who might be interested in the lunches, identify a discussion leader, and reserve the Castagnola-Hunter Tower Room space for however they would like to use it. “We provide the resources,” Kaczorowski explains, “But the participants decide what it becomes.

A recent Tower Room Lunch coordinator was Tamara Bogdanovic, an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech who was at KITP to participate in the New Era of Gravitational-Wave Physics program in Spring of 2019. “If there was an interest, I saw organizing these meetings and lunches as a worthwhile thing – building a little bit of a community,” She spoke about her decision to coordinate the meetings. “In retrospect, it was definitely worth doing, because when we actually gathered, it was quite positive and inspirational… We had some very interesting conversations over lunch. They were about science – but not all. Some were about the anthropology of science.”

When asked if she found the lunches to be useful overall, she replied, “How do we define useful?” But continued on to say, “It’s, in a sense, finding a community. It’s a positive outcome, and the most important one.”

She acknowledges that a weekly lunch with visiting female theorists may not change much “in the big picture of things,” as physics still persistently trails behind many fields in diversity. “Events like this are needed, but we probably have more work to do,” she concludes.

For Eun-Ah Kim, she is happy to know the lunches have become a regular occurrence at Kohn Hall. Although she does not often have the chance to interact in person with many of the women who were a part of that first series of Tower Room Lunches, she says, “seeing publications of their papers gives me new energy to charge on with my day and be bold with my ideas and make a push.”



- Megan Turley, Development Coordinator, KITP
KITP Newsletter, Spring 2020