News for NMU Employees

Lucas Reports Spike in Female Physics Majors

Nearly 50 percent of the physics majors at Northern are women. That noticeably exceeds the department’s typical average and is well above the national rate of about 15 percent for baccalaureate programs. Dave Lucas (Physics) is stumped as to what accounted for the sudden spike this year. Historically, there are three or four female majors within the department, which he qualifies as very good for a relatively small program. Now nine out of 20 are women, with some interested in teaching the subject and the remainder pursuing a career as a physicist. 

“We’re hopeful that the proportion of women we have currently will help to continually attract other women to the program,” said Lucas. “The goal is to get more women interested in the field because they are under-represented. No one seems to know why physics struggles with the gender gap more than chemistry and biology. Some speculate it’s because of the strong math background required, but women can do math as well as men and in high schools, the same number of girls as boys take physics classes.”

Women also have been under-represented in the faculty ranks. While those with bachelor’s degrees in physics are often hired as adjuncts to teach labs in the department, Lucas can recall only one female in a tenure-earning faculty position in his 29 years at NMU. Part of that can be attributed to the impressive retention of faculty within the department, which limits the number of openings. He said another factor is that the search process is highly competitive because institutions are vying to attract a small number of women applicants, so “they get swooped up very quickly.” Lucas said the increased emphasis on the STEM fields has not translated to a noticeable increase in physics employment opportunities. 

“It’s still a great degree because it’s flexible,” he said. “The strengths required in math, problem-solving and computer programming, along with natural curiosity, can be adapted to a broad range of careers. You aren’t limited to being a physicist.”

Lucas said NMU physics majors gain excellent research experiences in theoretical and nuclear physics, as well as astronomy, within the department. Also, a goal of the physics program is that all majors participate in at least one off-campus research experience through other programs, often through the National Science Foundation funded REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program.

Four students have landed impressive summer internships, including one at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, where physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. CERN was depicted at the beginning of the movie Angels & Demons with Tom Hanks.

 Read more about these summer opportunities here